Philippe Pinel Biography (1745-1826)


Pinel was one of the founders of modern psychiatry, as well as a distinguished teacher of internal medicine. His innovations in treating mentally ill patients were so stirring and profound that his ideas are still followed today.

Pinel was born on April 20, 1745 at Saint André, in southern France. His relatives on both sides of his family were physicians and surgeons. In college, he first studied literature before changing to religion. In April, 1770, he abandoned his religion classes at the University of Toulouse and enrolled in the college of medicine. He received his M.D. degree on December 21, 1773. In 1774, Pinel went to Montpellier, where he taught mathematics and anatomy, wrote theses for the lazy, rich students, and observed the practice of medicine. In 1778, he moved to Paris, where he edited a health journal, wrote articles for several publications, and translated English medical and scientific works into French.

A turning point in his life occurred in 1783, when a friend asked Pinel for help with his manic-depressive behavior. His friend was a law student in Paris, and his behavior alternated between depression and excitability. Finally, Pinel's friend ran away one night into the forest wearing only his shirt. He got lost and was discovered by a pack of wolves, killing him. Pinel was shocked by this incident and wondered what he could do to help such people. His interest in treating mentally ill people increased, and he began to publish articles on mental illness.

Powerful people noted Pinel's work on mental illness, and in 1793, with Pariscontrolled by the revolutionary government that had deposed King Louis XVI,he was appointed the director of the Bicêtre Insane Asylum, one of themost famous asylums in France. At Bicêtre, inmates were locked in darkcells, chained to walls, dunked in water, given drugs to make them vomit, andbled. The ruling theories of the time said that insane people were possessedby demons. Pinel thought that social and mental stress, heredity, and physical ailments caused insanity. He threw out the old treatments and recommendedsunlight, friendly conversations with the doctor, discussing personal problems, exercise, cleanliness, and meaningful work. He especially wanted to unchain his patients.

Pinel's approach was revolutionary, but he did not implement it immediately.To unchain patients, he had to get permission from the revolutionary councilcontrolling Paris. The council's president left the decision to Pinel and warned him that he could get killed by one of his patients. But Pinel had alwaysbeen a careful observer and he knew his patients. Pinel quietly told one patient, an officer with a history of violence who had been at Bicêtre for40 years, that he would like to take his chains off. Pinel asked the officerif he would be nonviolent. The officer promised, Pinel unchained him, and the officer went out into the sunlight for the first time in many years. He exclaimed how beautiful the light was. The officer remained calm, helped other inmates, and was released two years later. Pinel's methods also saved lives. Before Pinel, over half the people admitted to Bicêtre died in their first year of confinement. After Pinel began, only one person in eight died in the first year.

In 1795, Pinel became director of the Salpêtrière asylum for women, where he enforced the same changes with the same results. His assistantsat the two asylums went on to administrative directorships of their own and spread his ideas around Europe.

Pinel married Jeanne Vincent in 1792. They had three sons, one of whom becamea specialist in mental illnesses. In 1798, Pinel published a book on the classification of diseases, Nosographie philosophique, and in 1801, he published another book about mental illness, Traité médico-philosophique sur l'aliénation mentale ou la manie. His first wife died in 1811, and in 1815 he married Marie-Madeline Jacquelin-Lavallée.

Pinel died, much-loved and greatly honored, on October 25, 1826, in Paris. His funeral was attended by important state dignitaries, scientists, doctors, students, and former inhabitants of Bicêtre and Salpêtrière, the very patients whom Pinel had unchained and unleashed into the light.

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