Westphal, Carl Friedrich Otto
First name:
Carl Friedrich Otto
19th century
Field of expertise:
Place of birth:
Berlin (DEU)
* 23.03.1833
† 27.01.1890
Biography print

German neuropsychiatrist with a clinical-empirical orientation. 

Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal (1833–1890) was born in Berlin as the son of a physician. Having studied medicine in Berlin, Heidelberg and Zurich from 1851, he returned to Berlin where, in 1855, he received his license to practice medicine as well as his doctorate. He initially worked as an assistant physician at the smallpox department of Charité Berlin but then transferred to the department for “mental diseases” at the same hospital. Westphal gained the formal qualification for a professorship in 1861 with a study on body temperature in different forms of mental disorder [Untersuchungen ueber die Körperwärme bei verschiedenen Formen der Geistesstörung] and held lectures in psychiatry. In the following year, he married Clara Mendelssohn (1840–1927). The couple had four children; their son Alexander also became a neurologist and psychiatrist. The renowned psychiatrist and anthropological psychologist Dieter Wyss (1923 - 1997) was their great-grandson. In 1869, Westphal succeeded Wilhelm Griesinger as holder of the first chair of mental and nervous diseases at Charité Berlin. Carl Westphal died in 1890 at a sanatorium in Kreuzlingen (Switzerland) after a prolonged chronic condition.


Scientific work, sexology

Westphal’s scientific focus was on clinical-empirical medicine and experimental physiology. His most important contributions include studies on progressive paralysis, obsessions and agoraphobia. In the field of sexology, his 1869 essay on “contrary sexual instinct” is exemplary of the paradigm shift towards organic and physiological concepts that marked German psychiatry around the mid-nineteenth century. With his first descriptions of cases of female homosexuality and male transsexuality, Westphal (1869: 94) conceptualises the “contrary sexual instinct” as an initially changing and then persisting condition wherein a man feels himself to be a woman and a woman feels herself o be a man. Contrary to earlier conceptions grounded in moral theology, these phenomena were now seen from a scientific perspective as part of the nosological spectrum of “perversions”.



Westphal’s primary concern was to delineate so-called “insanity” as a nosologically independent “primary mental disorder” and no longer as a secondary disorder resulting from previously existing “intellectual weakness” or melancholia, as proposed within the traditional framework of “unitary psychosis” (Zeller, Griesinger). According to him, “insanity” did not first and foremost entail affective aspects but was a matter of “abnormal imagination”: “[t]he process takes place in the sphere of imagination (with or without corresponding sensory delirium), and the general content of these imaginations always remains the same” (Westphal 1877: 253; translated from German). This conceptualisation of “insanity” largely described the clinical picture of schizophreniform development, while the explanation of “abnormal processes of imagination” (thought disorder) and the assumption of consistency in the content of these imaginations went in the direction of more recent conceptions of delusion or paranoia. With this understanding, Westphal finally overcame the theory of unitary psychosis.



Binswanger, O. (1890): Zum Andenken an Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal. In: Deutsche Medicinische Wochenschrift 16, pp. 205–207 & 227–231.

Brückner, B. (2007): Delirium und Wahn. Geschichte, Selbstzeugnisse und Theorien von der Antike bis 1900. Vol. 2. 19. Jahrhundert – Deutschland. Hürtgenwald: Guido Pressler Verlag, pp. 107–108.

Herzer, M.(2009): Carl Westphal (1833-1890). In: V. Sigusch, G. Grau (eds.): Personenlexikon der Sexualforschung. Frankfurt/Main: Campus, pp. 758–761.

Kohl, F., B. Holdorff (2006): Carl Westphal. In: H. Hippius, B. Holdorff, H. Schlick (eds.): Nervenärzte 2. Biographien. Stuttgart: Thieme, pp. 197–212.

Köllner, E. (2001): Homosexualität als anthropologische Herausforderung. Konzeption einer Homosexuellen Anthropologie. Bad Heilbrunn, Klinkhardt, pp. 74–77.

Kreuter, A. (1996): Westphal, Carl Friedrich Otto. In: Deutschsprachige Neurologen und Psychiater. Ein biographisch-bibliographisches Lexikon von den Vorläufern bis zur Mitte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Vol. 3. Munich, New Providence, London, Paris: Saur, pp. 1565–1569.

Korn, G. (1897): Westphal, Karl. In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie. Vol. 42. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 204–205.

Westphal, C. (1869): Die conträre Sexualempfindung. Symptom eines neuropathischen (psychopathischen) Zustandes. In: Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten 2, pp. 73–108. [English translation (2006): Contrary Sexual Instinct. Symptom of a Neuropathic (Psychopathic) Condition. Jacksonville, FL: Urania Manuscripts].

Westphal, C. (1872): Die Agoraphobie, eine neuropathische Erscheinung. In: Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten 3, pp. 138–161.

Westphal, C. (1877): Ueber Zwangsvorstellung. In: Berliner klinische Wochenschrift 14, pp. 669–672.

Westphal, C. (1877): Ueber die Verrücktheit (Lecture). In: Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Psychiatrie und psychisch-gerichtliche Medicin 34, pp. 252–267.

Westphal, A. (1892, ed.): Carl Westphal’s Gesammelte Abhandlungen. 2 vols. Berlin: Hirschwald.


Julian Schwarz


Photograph: G. Engelbach (Lithograph) / Source: Wikimedia / public domain.


Referencing format
Julian Schwarz (2015): Westphal, Carl Friedrich Otto.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
URL: www.biapsy.de/index.php/en/9-biographien-a-z/304-e-westphal-carl-friedrich-otto
(retrieved on:17.04.2024)