Forel, Auguste Henri
First name:
Auguste Henri
Place of birth:
Morges (CHE)
* 01.09.1848
† 27.07.1931
Biography print

Swiss psychiatrist and neurologist, entomologist, and eugenicist


Auguste Forel (1848–1931) was born in Morges in the Swiss canton of Vaud and grew up in a wealthy family. He was long considered a leading figure of Swiss psychiatry and neurology but has come under increasing criticism since the 1990s for his partly racist and eugenicist positions (cf. Dubach 2013; Küchenhoff 2008). Apart from his scholarly work, Forel was also known as a socialist, pacifist, promoter of women’s rights, and as a member of the Bahá’i Faith. 


Forel completed his school education in Lausanne and studied medicine in Zurich from 1866 to 1871. Having been devoted to the study of ants since the age of six, he was awarded a prize by the Swiss Academy of Science for his essay Les Fourmis de la Suisse [The Ants of Switzerland] in 1872. Forel developed into a distinguished entomologist and published over 270 scientific contributions to this field, including his five-volume main work Le monde social des fourmis (1923 [The Social World of Ants]).


Early work in neurology

After initially failing his final exam at medical school, Forel used the time until the retake to write his doctoral thesis on the anatomy of the thalamus opticus. He then worked as an assistant at the Munich regional asylum under Bernhard von Gudden from 1873. Forel gained the formal qualification for a professorship (habilitation) with his 1876 thesis on the tegmental area of the midbrain. During his Munich time, he improved the design of the microtome for brain sections and, in 1874, was able to produce the first complete sectional preparation of the human brain (Forel 1877). In 1879, he transferred to the psychiatric university clinic Burghölzli in Zurich, where he was first appointed senior physician and, soon thereafter, director and professor of psychiatry. He married his wife, Emma (née Steinheil), in 1883. The couple had six children; one of their sons, Oscar Louis Forel, also became a prominent psychiatrist. Forel discovered the cerebral basis of the auditory nerves in 1885; one year later he realized that neurons form the basic structural units of the nervous system (cf. Akert 1993).



In the mid-1880s, Forel became interested in hypnosis, an approach widely discussed at that time (e.g., by J.-M. Charcot, J. Braid, A. A. Liébeault). To learn the method, he visited Hippolyte Bernheim in Nancy in 1887. Two years later, he published a book on hypnotism in which he developed a monistic identity theory of consciousness: “In consideration of their nature, subjectivism, energy, and matter are identical, and are revealed to us in their most complicated and most complete form as cerebrum and mind” (Forel 1889/1895: 5; quoted from the English edition, see, Forel 1907: 19; cf. Breidbach 1998). Forel maintained that hypnotic phenomena, like suggestion or somnambulism, but also dreams and hallucinations, were “subconscious” operations of the psyche in association with “subcerebral” and instinct-based processes. He rejected the older theories of Mesmerism (“animal magnetism”) or of act psychology and discussed hypnosis as a phenomenon to be used for scientific and therapeutic purposes.


Sexology and the prevention of alcohol abuse

In 1898, at age fifty, Forel withdrew from his functions at Zurich University and the Burghölzli clinic to expand his public activities in promoting social hygiene (Küchenhoff 2008: 218). He campaigned against alcohol abuse and founded an inebriates’ home in Ellikon an der Thur (today “Forel Klinik”, Switzerland’s leading clinic for treating alcohol and substance abuse). Forel promoted complete abstinence as a means of prevention since he believed that heavy drinking lead to a degeneration of the germ cells (“blastophtoria”; cf. Germann 1997). He also lobbied for psychiatry to become a regular examination subject in medical schools. His 1905 book Die sexuelle Frage [The Sexual Question] appeared in 17 editions and was translated into eleven languages, including an English version in 1908. With this book, Forel not only sought to provide comprehensible sexual education but also spoke out against the oppression of women and advocated women’s suffrage. The book was later banned by the Nazis, especially as Forel also held internationalist views. But on the other hand, he was full of praise for the eugenicist writings of Wilhelm Schallmeyer and considered both homosexuality and prostitution as “pathological” (Forel 1905: 384, 250, 301).


Politics and eugenics

Forel suffered two strokes in 1912 (said to have been anticipated by Oskar Kokoschka in his 1910 portait of Forel), after which he learned to work with his left hand (Huf & O’Neill 2005). In 1916, he joined the Swiss Social Democrats (Volkart 1948: 305): his idea of an “ethical socialism” aimed at taming the “predatory” human nature by culture. In his 1914 essay Die vereinigten Staaten der Erde [The United States of the World] he argued in favor of adopting Esperanto as a global language, disseminating the cooperative principle, and creating a pacifist League of Nations. At the same time, however, he was convinced that the “black races” were intellectually, ethically, and socially “inferior” (Forel 1914: 15). Moreover, he claimed to have suggested artificial negative selection as early as 1885 and even to have applied this principle in some cases “under medical pretexts” but in reality to prevent “hideous degenerates” from procreating (ibid: 60).


Indeed, from 1885, Forel was the first physician to arrange castrations on eugenic grounds – for which there was no legal basis – and had numerous forced sterilizations carried out at Burghölzli (Küchenhoff 2008; Huonker 2003: 81 f.). In his 1910 speech Mathusianismus oder Eugenik? [Malthusianism or Eugenics?], he drew on racial theory to differentiate between “fully human” and “inferior” individuals while also arguing in favor of progressive education. He concluded: “The sterilization of the wretched, the lazy, and the bad in such a society will be the natural codex of social duty. Insightful sick or abnormal people will seek sterilization voluntarily and adopt orphans as a way of consolation. For the insane and for criminals there will be a law to enforce such sterilization, even against one’s will. Furthermore, it will be possible to separate love and the need for sexual satisfaction from reproduction because it will be seen that the highest of mankind’s duties lies in proper eugenic procreation. … Then a stupid, ignorant, degenerate mental and physical proletariat, which in its unconscious simplicity reproduces like rabbits and thus fouls our society, will no longer exist” (Forel 1911: 27, translated in Küchenhoff 2008: 221 f.).


Forel pushed for the passing of the 1928 sterilization law in the canton of Vaud (the first law of this kind in Europe, which remained in effect until 1985) and supported Gustav Boeters, a district physician in Saxony, in his 1925 campaign for the adoption of a bill on “the prevention of unworthy lives through surgical measures”.


Auguste Forel’s autobiographical text Rückblick auf mein Leben [Review of my Life] was read by his son at the funeral service in Lausanne after his death in 1931 and published in 1935 (Tanner 2010). While Forel’s achievements as a neurologist and entomologist are undisputed, his vocal advocacy of eugenics show that, from around 1900, population policy in Europe came under pressure by a form of Social Darwinism – scientifically and medically legitimized through degeneration theory – that was blooming even among Social Democrats. His position as a key figure in these debates has come under scrutiny since the 1990s; a bust of Forel was removed from Zurich University in 2006 as a result of public discussion.



1872: Schläfli Prize.



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Bugmann, M. (2008): Auguste Forels Hypnotismus im Vorlesungssaal und in der Klinik. In: Schweizerische Ärztezeitung 89 (17), pp. 774–775.

Bugmann, M., P. Sarasin, (2003): Forel mit Foucault. Rassismus als “Zäsur” im Diskurs von Auguste Forel. In: Studien und Quellen 29, pp. 43–69.

Dubach, R. (2013): Verhütungspolitik. Sterilisationen im Spannungsfeld von Psychiatrie, Gesellschaft und individuellen Interessen in Zürich (1890–1970). Zürich: Chronos.

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Forel, A. (1872) Beiträge zur Kenntnis des Thalamus opticus und die ihn umgebenden Gebilde bei den Säugethieren. [Doctoral thesis]. In: A. Forel: Gesammelte hirnanatomische Abhandlungen. Munich: Reinhardt 1907, pp. 18–43.

Forel, A. (1874): Les fourmis de la Suisse. Systématique, notices anatomiques et physiologiques, architecture, distribution géographique, nouvelles expériences et observations de moeurs. Zürich: Zurcher & Furrer.

Forel, A. (1877): Untersuchungen über die Haubenregion und ihre oberen Verknüpfungen im Gehirne des Menschen und einiger Säugethiere, mit Beiträgen zu den Methoden der Gehirnuntersuchung. In: Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten 7 (3), pp. 393–495.

Forel, A. (1887): Einige hirnanatomische Betrachtungen und Ergebnisse. In: Archiv für Psychiatrie 18, pp. 162–198.

Forel, A., G. C. Lund (1896): Formicides néotropiques. Bulletin de la Société entomologique suisse 9 (9), pp. 179–209.

Forel, A. (1889): Der Hypnotismus. Seine Psycho-physiologische, medicinische, strafrechtliche Bedeutung und seine Handhabung. 3rd, revised edition, Stuttgart: Enke 1895.

Forel, A. (1905): Die sexuelle Frage, eine naturwissenschaftliche, psychologische, hygienische und soziologische Studie für Gebildete. Munich: Reinhardt.

Forel, A. (1907): Gesammelte hirnanatomische Abhandlungen. Mit einem Aufsatz über die Aufgaben der Neurobiologie. Munich: Reinhardt.

Forel, A. (1907): Hypnotism. On Suggestion and Psychotherapy. New York: Rebman Company.

Forel, A. (1910): Das Sinnesleben der Insekten. Munich: Reinhardt.

Forel, A. (1911): Malthusianismus oder Eugenik? Vortrag gehalten im neomalthusianischen Kongress zu Haag (Holland) am 29 Juli 1910. Munich: Reinhardt.

Forel, A. (1914): Die Vereinigten Staaten der Erde. Ein Kulturprogramm. Lausanne: Ruedi.

Forel, A. (1921): Der Hypnotismus oder die Suggestion und die Psychotherapie. Stuttgart: Enke.

Forel, A. (1935): Rückblick auf mein Leben. Zürich: Büchergilde Gutenberg.

Forel, A. (1968) Briefe = Correspondance, 1864–1927. Edited by Hans H. Walser. Bern: Huber.

Fromm, E. (1935): Rezension A. Forel: Rückblick auf mein Leben. In: Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 4, pp. 112–114.

Graf-Nold, A. (2005): Auguste Forel am Burghölzli. Hirnforschung, Hypnotismus, Anti‐Alkoholismus und Sexualreform. In: H. E. Lück, R. Miller (eds.): Illustrierte Geschichte der Psychologie München. Quintessenz 1993. Weinheim: Beltz Verlag, pp. 250–253.

Huf, V., D. O’Neill (2005): Oskar Kokoschka and Auguste Forel. Life Imitating Art or a Stroke of Genius? In: Stroke 36 (9), pp. 2037–2040.

Iso, I. M., B. C. Schär (2009): Kolonialer Rassismus, eugenisches Denken und Geschlecht – Auguste Forel und Otto Stoll in der Debatte um die “allgemeine Natur des Menschen” um 1900. In: C. Binswanger (ed.): Gender Scripts: Widerspenstige Aneignungen von Geschlechternormen, Frankfurt/Main: Campus.

Küchenhoff, B. (2008): The Psychiatrist Auguste Forel and his Attitude to Eugenics. In: History of Psychiatry 19 (2), pp. 215–223.

Leist, A. (2006, ed.): Auguste Forel. Eugenik und Erinnerungskultur. Zürich: Hochschulverlag.

Parent, A. (2003): Auguste Forel on Ants and Neurology. In: The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences 30 (3), pp. 284–291.

Ritter, H. J. (2009): Psychiatrie und Eugenik. Zur Ausprägung eugenischer Denk- und Handlungsmuster in der schweizerischen Psychiatrie, 1850–1950. Zürich: Chronos.

Tanner, J. (2006): Auguste Forel als Ikone der Wissenschaft. Ein Plädoyer für historische Forschung. In: A. Leist (ed.): Auguste Forel. Eugenik und Erinnerungskultur. Zürich: Hochschulverlag, pp. 81–106.

Tanner, J. (2010): Auguste Forels “Rückblick auf mein Leben” neu ediert. Eugenik, soziale Wohlfahrt, Frieden. In: Schweizerische Ärztezeitung 91 (38), pp. 1498–1499.

Volkart, O. (1948): August Forel. Zum 100. Geburtstag – 1. September 1948. In: Rote Revue – sozialistische Monatsschrift 27 (8), pp. 303–308.

Wettley, A. (1953): Auguste Forel. Ein Arztleben im Zwiespalt seiner Zeit. Salzburg: Müller.

Wottreng, W. (1999): Hirnriss. Wie die Irrenärzte August Forel und Eugen Bleuler das Menschengeschlecht retten wollten. Zürich: Weltwoche.


Burkhart Brückner, Ansgar Fabri


Photo: Adrian Michael (Ortsmuseum Zollikon) / Source: Wikimedia / public domain.


Referencing format
Burkhart Brückner, Ansgar Fabri (2015): Forel, Auguste Henri.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
(retrieved on:21.06.2024)