First name:
Werner Robert
19th century
20th century
Field of expertise:
History of medicine
Place of birth:
* 23.01.1896
† 11.06.1974
Biography print


German psychiatrist, medical historian, and cultural scientist


Werner Robert Leibbrand (1896–1974) was born on 23 January 1896 in Berlin as the son of Robert and Emilie Leibbrand (née Steinam), a wealthy business couple with roots in southern Germany. In addition to his comprehensive school education, he also received pianistic training. Despite his desire for an artistic career, he gave in to the urging of his father in particular and began studying medicine and philosophy at Berlin’s Friedrich-Wilhelm University in 1914. During World War I, he served as a junior army doctor in different units. Leibbrand obtained his doctorate in 1920, his supervisor was Ferdinand Blumenthal (1870–1941). He worked as a junior physician at the sanatorium Westend in Berlin-Charlottenburg, where he trained as a neurologist, and then set up his own private practice. His teacher in psychotherapy was Arthur Kronfeld (1886–1941), who made a lasting impression on him with his almost encyclopedic knowledge and his social commitment. Leibbrand married the singer Claire Streich in 1925, but the couple divorced in 1930. In 1932, he married Margarethe Bergius, née Sachs (1885–1962).


Welfare doctor in Berlin and persecution during the Nazi era

During the 1920s, Leibbrand and his colleague Otto Juliusberger (1867–1952) established a psychiatric care facility for alcohol and drug addicts from the Berlin districts of Tiergarten and Wedding. He founded an association for medical psychology together with Juliusburger and Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) and was actively involved in political and humanitarian work with the Association of Socialist Doctors and the International League for Human Rights (Burgmair 2005:20; Kudlien 1986: 338). Around this time, he also developed a growing interest in medical history. Leibbrand worked as a welfare doctor for the local health office in Berlin-Tiergarten until the early days of the Nazi regime, but in 1933, he lost his license to treat patients within the statutory health insurance system as well as his functions in the public health system due to “political unreliability”. He also declared his resignation from the medical association in Berlin-Wilmersdorf when the organization expelled its Jewish members (Schumacher 1967, preface).


In the following years, Leibbrand repeatedly considered emigrating to the UK or Switzerland but did not carry out his plans. He increasingly turned to the study of medical history, probably his form of “inner emigration” (Weber 2009: 408). During this time (until 1938), so-called “catacomb circles” got together in his flat to discuss literature and philosophy, “frequently interrupted by actions of the Gestapo” (Leibbrand 1965: 858; translated from German). These meetings were joined by Romano Guardini (1885–1968), Ernesto Grassi (1902–1991), Richard Kroner (1884–1974), Walter Kranz (1884–1960), Kurt Riezler (1882–1855), Mathias Wieman (1902–1969), Konrad Ziegler (1884–1974), and others.


In the early 1940s, Leibbrand gave up his private practice to work as a senior physician at the Catholic hospital St. Hildegard in Berlin-Frohnau. But in 1943, he was conscripted to Nuremberg mental hospital in the function of a junior doctor because of his Jewish wife. After increasing conflicts, especially with Nazi-minded colleagues, he chose to disappear into illegality together with his wife. The couple lived in various hiding places until the end of the war; they were supported during this time by Annemarie Wettley (1913–1996), a clinician from Erlangen, who not only helped them to find new hideouts and acted as their postal address but probably also diverted food for them from the hospital supplies (Mildenberger 2005: 123; Wiesinger 2014: 60 ff.).


Post-war period and professorship in medical history

As someone who was undoubtedly “politically unencumbered”, Leibbrand was appointed the new director of the psychiatric hospital in Erlangen immediately after the war. In addition, he taught medical history as an honorary professor at Erlangen University. He soon became one of the most important confidants of the Allies on denazification issues and was the only German doctor to be admitted as an expert witness for the prosecution during the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial (Schmuhl 1987: 13).


After having reestablished the chair of medical history in Erlangen, Leibbrand followed a call to Munich in 1953 as an associate professor for the history of medicine (as successor to Martin Müller (1878–1960)). He was accompanied to Munich by Annemarie Wettley, who increasingly took on the role of his life partner and became his wife and most important scholarly companion after the death of Margarethe Bergius Leibbrand in 1962 (Weber 2009: 409). Between 1955 and 1973, Leibbrand and Wettley regularly taught joint summer classes at Sorbonne University in Paris (Mildenberger 2006: 99). He was promoted to ordinary professor in Munich in 1958 and, despite having become emeritus in 1964, remained the provisional director and representative of his institute until the end of 1966. Due to the unexpected and untimely death of his successor, Gernot Rath (1919–1967), Leibbrand had to step in again and was only able to retire from these functions when Heinz Goerke (1917–2014) finally took over his post in 1969. He however continued supervising his doctoral students and still held classes, such as those at Sorbonne where he regularly taught until 1973. Werner Robert Leibbrand died on 11 June 1974 in Munich.


Social commitment and scholarly work

Leibbrand was in many respects an atypical representative of the German medical profession. During the Weimar Republic, he was a member of the Association of Socialist Doctors and the International League for Human Rights, both left-leaning, pacifist organizations. Faced with the dilemma of an increasing reorientation from the welfare of the sick individual towards collective welfare, Leibbrand consistently rejected the Nazi ideology; this attitude clearly differed from that prevailing among the larger part of his colleagues at the time. Moreover, he tried to save his patients from forced sterilization by changing their diagnoses (Seidel 2013: 1044).


Leibbrand published his first works on the history of medicine while still working as a psychiatrist in Berlin, initially addressing issues of pathography and the history of psychiatry. His studies traced the origins and the reception of the concept of Eros in an extraordinarily comprehensive manner, going all the way right up to the emergence of sexology. For his 1937 book Romantische Medizin [Romantic Medicine], he used various philosophical sources to present an history-of-ideas account of the concept of illness developed in the 19th century under the influence of Romanticism. He called for “a holistic view on the art of medicine” (1937: 193; translated from German) with the aim of overcoming a purely positivist approach to the diseases of individual organs. 

In 1960, Leibbrand and Wettley published Der Wahnsinn. Geschichte der abendländischen Psychopathologie[Madness. A History of Occidental Psychopathology], a comprehensive standard work on the history of psychiatry. In its preface, they countered an anticipated reproach of subjectivity with reference to Lessing, stating that only an approximation to truth [was] ever possible (cf. Leibbrand & Wettley 1960, preface). The French psychiatrist Henri Baruk (1897–1999) wrote about this extensive work: “This work shows … that it is possible to bring together in a powerful synthesis the perfect and detailed knowledge of psychiatry, history and, in particular, the history of science” (Baruk 1963: 284; translated from French). In 1964, Leibbrand was the first German medical historian to introduce the German-speaking expert community to Michel Foucault’s works Histoire de la folie (1961; published in English in 1964 under the title Madness and Civilization) and La naissance de la clinique (1963; published in English in 1973 under the title The Birth of the Clinic] and to pay tribute to the author’s archival studies and philosophical reflections.


Leibbrand always sought to overcome the disciplinary boundaries between the history of medicine and the history of culture and ideas and thus base medical science on comprehensive philosophical foundations (Leibbrand 1939; 1953; Wallrath-Janssen 2007: 87). His later historical research is hardly conceivable without the structuring and source-based collaboration with Annemarie Wettley (Weber 2009: 411). Leibbrand was well networked and recognized as a scholar internationally but remained isolated in post-war (West) Germany not only because of his clear political commitment (ibid.: 409). His work was received rather cautiously by the German-speaking audiences.


Positions on medical ethics

As an expert witness on questions of medical ethics at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial, Leibbrand spoke out for the rights of psychiatric patients. When cross-questioned, he referred to individual passages of the Hippocratic Oath, particularly addressing the question of why the doctor as a scientist needs to meet the same ethical standards as the practicing doctor. He had been one of the first to take a firm stand on the killing of patients during the Nazi era: according to his 1946 essay Naturrecht und Fürsorge [Natural Law and Welfare], the basis of psychiatric action was not to establish or maintain social order but, first and foremost, to protect human freedom (Seidel 2014: 15).

Leibbrand took a restrictive stance towards any human experiments and categorically rejected them if they did not directly serve the test person’s health (Tröhler 1997: 20; Seidel 2013: 1044). He emphasized this uncompromising position during the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial to the defense lawyer of the main defendant, Karl Brandt (1904–1948), Hitler’s former escort doctor: “There is something very essential standing between a collective idea and a state-issued order, on the one hand, and the individual physician, on the other (…): the human conscience” (Leibbrand 1946/47, quoted after Seidel 2013: 1046; translated from German).


As early as 1946, Leibbrand published the volume Um die Menschenrechte der Geisteskranken [On the Human Rights of the Mentally Ill] with several articles discussing the prerequisites and consequences of patient killings in Nazi psychiatry. His statements and publications made him a target for hostility. He was heavily criticized by colleagues for his commitment to investigating the crimes of Nazi medicine (Wiesinger & Frewer 2014: 56). To Werner Leibbrand, “going mentally astray”, being mad, was an expression of the freedom endowed to us – a position that he repeatedly defended against much resistance, not only as an expert witness at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial. He thus saw mental disorder not simply as a deviation in a person’s biopsychosocial functioning in the social context but as a human possibility that, at the same time, represents a basis of human dignity. In this way, Leibbrand countered a largely utilitarian understanding of the profession, geared towards the expected benefits, with the concept of a medicine based on anthropological foundations (Seidel 2014: 15 f.).



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Leibbrand, W. (1964): Das Geschichtswerk Michel Foucaults. In: Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften 48 (4), pp. 353–359.

Leibbrand, W. (1965): Encuentro con Romano Guardini en las catacumbas de Berlin. In: Folia Humanistica 3 (34),special issue on the occasion of Romano Guardini’s 80th birthday, p. 857.

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Wiesinger, C., A. Frewer (2014): Werner Leibbrand, Annemarie Wettley und Kontroversen um ‘Euthanasie’. Die Hintergründe medizinhistorisch-ethischer Debatten der Nachkriegszeit. In: Medizinhistorisches Journal 49 (1/2), pp. 45–76.

Wittern-Sterzel, R. (2002): Werner Leibbrand und die Gründung des Erlanger medizinhistorischen Instituts. In: M. M. Ruisinger (ed.): 50 Jahre jung! Das Erlanger Institut für Geschichte der Medizin (1948–1998), Festschrift. Erlangen: Specht, pp. 4–11.


Ralf Seidel, Felicitas Söhner


Referencing format
Ralf Seidel, Felicitas Söhner (2016): Leibbrand, Werner Robert.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
(retrieved on:21.06.2024)