Morel, Bénédict Augustin
First name:
Bénédict Augustin
19th century
Field of expertise:
Place of birth:
Wien (AUT)
* 22.11.1809
† 30.03.1873
Biography print

French psychiatrist and medical jurist, founder of degeneration theory.


Bénédict Augustin Morel (1809-1873) was born to French parents in Vienna. After the premature death of his father, who had worked for the army of Napoleon Bonaparte, Morel was raised by the Luxembourgish Abbé Dupont. While a student in Paris, he worked as a private language tutor. He earned his doctorate in medicine in 1839 and became an assistant to Jean-Pierre Falret at l’Hôpital de la Salpêtrière in Paris. In 1848, he assumed a post at Maréville asylum near Nancy (Lorraine). There he published his 1852 book Études cliniques sur les maladies mentales (Clinical Studies on Mental Illnesses) in which he also introduced the term “démence précoce” (dementia praecox) to capture and describe some unusual psychopathological phenomena in young patients (cf. Morel 1852: 235, 282, 361; 1860: 516, 566). A systematic link between Morel’s rather descriptive term and Emil Kraepelin’s concept of “dementia praecox” – developed almost 50 years later and renamed “schizophrenia” by Eugen Bleuler in 1911 – seems somewhat logical, yet there is no historical evidence to support this assumption (Berrios, Luque, Villagrán 2003: 117). In 1856, Morel was appointed director of the mental asylum at Saint-Yon in Normandy.


Degeneration theory

The mid 19th century saw an increase in the numbers of hospitalised mental patients. However, there was no pathological-anatomical correlate to explain the most frequent “functional” disorders (psychoses, “nervous disturbances”). Such phenomena had been attributed to hereditary causes already prior to Morel. Based on religious-anthropological considerations and drawing on the French anthropologist Philippe-Joseph-Benjamin Buchez, Morel now developed a theory of “degeneration” as the cause of mental disorder. He explained his understanding of “degeneration” in his 1857 book, Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales (Treatise on Physical, Intellectual and Moral Degeneration), which included pictures of 12 patients to exemplify the “fixed and invariable” (1857: 5) physical, mental and moral characteristics that indicate degeneration.


In his 1860 work Traité des maladies mentales (A Treatise on Mental Illness), Morel presented a classification of mental disorders based on aetiology and argued that there was a relationship between increasing levels of degeneration and the frequency of madness in modern societies. According to him, “degeneration” was a “pathological deviation” from the ideal type of human being (“type primitif”) as created by God, a process that had started with the original sin of Adam and Eve. While part of humankind was adaptive and thus remained healthy, “degenerate” individuals were increasingly unable to perform their tasks in society and passed on their degenerate traits to their offspring (1860: II ff.). Morel believed that the degenerative process becomes manifest in the form of (mental) diseases and visible physical “stigmata” such as malformations, skull shape, etc. (1860: IIII), but that this process can still be contained with eugenic measures. He attributed the progressive degradation of the human genome to social causes (with regard to the proletarian class), intoxication (mainly alcohol abuse), or “congenital” and “acquired” defects, all of which lead to damages to the offspring that can be observed in the phenotype of the next generation.


Morel also acted as a medical jurist and invoked an insanity defence for a number of mentally disturbed offenders. According to Garrabé (2008: 174), Morel was called to Munich to King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1868, where he spoke as an expert witness for the defence of a mentally disturbed murderer who was subsequently exculpated.


History of reception: Constitutional pathology and eugenics

Morel’s writings had a significant influence on theory formation in late 19th- and 20th-century psychiatry. His degeneration theory can be seen as an attempt to “reinterpret processes of transformation in society as problems of nature and race” (Brückner 2007: 95). Numerous physicians and psychiatrists adopted Morel’s concept in explaining “nervous disorders”, delinquency, personality disorders and psychoses. Wilhelm Griesinger (1861: 157-164) introduced it to the German-speaking countries, Valentin Magnan (1896) to France and Cesare Lombroso (1876) to Italy. In Germany, the concept was further elaborated in the works of Heinrich Schüle, Paul Julius Möbius and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and also partly adopted by Emil Kraepelin (Hoff 2008). Morel’s theory allowed a seemingly natural, heredity-based and individualised interpretation of disorders with unknown aetiology at a time when scientific genetics – as established around 1900 – was not yet available. Other theorists, like Sigmund Freud, Karl Jaspers, Adolf Meyer and Oswald Bumke (1912), were more critical or even rejected his ideas. On the other hand, Morel’s concept still played a major role in post-1900 theories on body typology and dispositions as well as in developing eugenic strategies in population policy. Heavily charged with ideology, it also provided a rationale for legitimising racial hygiene policies and patient killings in Nazi Germany.



Berrios, G. E., R. Luque, J. Villagrán (2003): Schizophrenia: A conceptual history. In: International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy 3, (2), pp. 111-140.

Brückner, B. (2007): Delirium und Wahn. Geschichte, Selbstzeugnisse und Theorien von der Antike bis 1900. Vol. 2. 19. Jahrhundert – Deutschland. Hürtgenwald: Pressler, pp. 95-98.

Bumke, O. (1912): Über nervöse Entartung. Berlin: Springer.

Constant, F. (1970): Introduction à la vie et à l'œuvre de Bénédict-Augustin Morel. Thèse de Médecine, Paris-Cochin.

Dowbiggin, I. (1991): Inheriting madness. Professionalization and psychiatric knowledge in nineteenth-century France. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press.

Dowbiggin, I. (1985): Degeneration and hereditarianism in French mental medicine 1840-90: Psychiatric theory as ideological adaption. In: R. Porter, W. F. Bynum and M. Sheperd: The anatomy of madness. Essays in the history of psychiatry. Vol. I. London, New York: Tavistock Publications, pp. 188-232.

Garrabé, J. (2008): Bénédict Augustin Morel (1809-1873). In: Cousin, Fr., J. Garrabé, D. Morozov (eds.): Anthology of French-language psychiatric texts. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 173-175.

Griesinger, W. (1861): Die Pathologie und Therapie der psychischen Krankheiten. 2nd edition. Stuttgart: Krabbe.

Hoff, P. (2008): Kraepelin and degeneration theory. In: European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 258, (2), pp. 12-17.

Huertas, R. (1992): Madness and degeneration: I. From" fallen angel" to mentally ill. In: History of Psychiatry 3, pp. 391-411.

Lombroso, C. (1876): Der Verbrecher in anthropologischer, ärztlicher, und juristischer Beziehung. Hamburg: Richter 1887.

Magnan, V. (1896): Les dégenerés. Paris: Masson.

Morel, B. A. (1851/1852): Études cliniques sur les maladies mentales considérées dans leur rapport avec la médecine légale des aliénés, 2 vols. Paris/Nancy: Grimblot.

Morel, B. A. (1857): Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l’espèce humaine et des causes qui produisent ces variétés maladives. Paris: Baillière.

Morel, B. A. (1860): Traité des maladies mentales. Paris: Masson.

Pick, D. P. (1989): Faces of degeneration. A European disorder ca. 1848-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schulze, T. G., H. Fangerau, P. Propping (2004): From degeneration to genetic susceptibility, from eugenics to genethics, from Bezugsziffer to LOD score: the history of psychiatric genetics. In: International Review of Psychiatry 16, (4), pp. 246-259.

Schuster, J.-P., Y. Le Strat, V. Krichevski, N. Bardikoff, F. Limosin (2011): Bénédict Augustin Morel (1809-1873). In: Acta Neuropsychiatrica 23, (1), pp. 35-36.


Julian Schwarz, Burkhart Brückner


Photo: unknown / Source: Wikimedia / [public domain].


Referencing format
Julian Schwarz, Burkhart Brückner (2016): Morel, Bénédict Augustin.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
(retrieved on:16.07.2024)