First name:
20th century
Field of expertise:
Place of birth:
Schweidnitz (POL)
* 20.08.1878
† 31.03.1950
Biography print

German-American psychiatrist, neurologist and criminal psychopathologist; introduced structural analysis in psychiatry.


Karl Birnbaum (1878-1950) was born in Schweidnitz/Silesia (today Świdnica, Poland). He received his doctorate in medicine from the University of Freiburg in 1902. He worked as an assistant physician at the municipal asylum Herzberge in Berlin before becoming an assistant toKarl Bonhoeffer, the then holder of the Chair of Psychiatry at Charité Berlin. Under Bonhoeffer’s supervision, Birnbaum gained the formal qualification for a professorship (Habilitation) in 1923. He became an associate professor of psychiatry at Charité Berlin in 1927. In 1930, Birnbaum was appointed medical director of the psychiatric hospital in Berlin-Buch. He also held the Chair of Forensic Psychopathology at the Berlin University’s School of Law. After the Nazis had risen to power in Germany, Birnbaum – who was a Jew – was dismissed from his position on 11 September 1933. In 1939, he fled via Denmark to the United States, where he initially worked as a lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York City. From 1940 onward, he was employed at the municipal medical department of Philadelphia, PA, where he also served as an expert witness for the local court (cf. Birnbaum 1949). His younger sister, Paula Behrens, was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and killed there. Karl Birnbaum died in Philadelphia on March 31, 1950.



Exploring the borderland between psychiatry and criminology was one of the focal points of Birnbaum’s work. Although his writings on criminal psychology and psychopathology clearly reveal positions rooted in social Darwinism and degeneration theory, even in racial hygiene (cf. Stevens 1915), he also claimed that “what constitutes inferiority, degeneration, and decline in a biological sense [...] is often closely connected with superiority, elevation, and cultural enhancement [...] in real life” (Birnbaum 1909: 88; our translation). In his later book on forensic psychopathology Birnbaum (1931: 190) advocated the sterilization of "psychopaths".


Birnbaum’s concept of structural analysis made a significant contribution to theory development in psychiatry. Through integrating elements from structural psychology (Wilhelm Dilthey), Birnbaum systematically challenged monocausal concepts of illness based on heredity alone. Instead, he established a pluridimensional and multifactorial model for explaining “endogenous” psychosis that was capable of accounting for the structural interplay between “pathogenic” and “pathoplastic factors” (culture, personality, etc.; cf. Kronfeld 1920).


Psychopathological Documents

Birnbaum’s 1920 book Psychopathologische Dokumente (Psychopathological Documents) represents a special contribution to both cultural history and the history of psychiatry. Assorted into seventeen psychopathological categories, it comprises an annotated collection of passages from around 150 autobiographical personal accounts written by sometimes prominent figures. From Johannes Müller’s “visual apparitions,” Rousseau’s “testimonies of delusion,” and the “opium- and alcohol-induced writings of E. A. Poe” to Flaubert’s “experiences of nervousness,” Davy’s “nitrous oxide inebriation,” or “the acts of governance of Ludwig II of Bavaria that were influenced by psychosis,” Birnbaum attempts to present the widest possible range of subjective descriptions of psychopathological experience and of “mental phenomena going beyond the ordinary” (Birnbaum 1920: 4 ff.; our translation).


Conceptualizing the “pathological” as an ever-possible mode of experience, even in healthy individuals, was a characteristic feature of Birnbaum’s thinking. The closing sentences of Psychopathologische Dokumente clearly illustrate this attitude: “It cannot be denied: if life were liberated from much of its severity and gloom, from depression and chagrin, from aberrations and derailments, from constraints and devastations, the pathological could be kept at bay. But sure enough, it would then also lose many of its forms and nuances, colours and lights, and much of the richness and plenitude of the mental world. Life would be less worth living.” (Birnbaum 1920: 303; our translation).



Birnbaum, K. (1909): Über psychopathische Persönlichkeiten. Eine psychopathologische Studie. Wiesbaden: J. F. Bergmann.

Birnbaum, K. (1914): Die psychopathischen Verbrecher. Die Grenzzustände zwischen geistiger Gesundheit und Krankheit in ihren Beziehungen zu Verbrechen und Strafwesen. Handbuch für Ärzte, Juristen und Strafanstaltsbeamte. Berlin: Langenscheidt.

Birnbaum, K. (1918): Psychische Verursachung seelischer Störungen und die psychisch bedingten abnormen Seelenvorgänge. Wiesbaden: J. F. Bergmann.

Birnbaum, K. (1920): Psychopathologische Dokumente. Selbstbekenntnisse und Fremdzeugnisse aus dem seelischen Grenzlande. Berlin: Springer.

Birnbaum, K. (1923): Der Aufbau der Psychose. Grundzüge der Psychiatrischen Strukturanalyse. Berlin: Springer.

Birnbaum, K. (1924): Grundzüge der Kulturpsychopathologie. München: Bergmann.

Birnbaum, K. (1926): Die psychopathischen Verbrecher. Leipzig: Thieme.

Birnbaum, K. (1931): Kriminalpsychopathologie und psychobiologische Verbrecherkunde. 2nd ed. Berlin: Springer.

Birnbaum, K. (1930, Ed.): Handwörterbuch der medizinischen Psychologie. Leipzig: Thieme.

Birnbaum, K. (1932): Methodologische Prinzipien der Pathographie. In: Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie 143, (1/2), pp. 69-83.

Birnbaum, K. (1933): Soziologie der Neurosen. Die nervösen Störungen in ihren Beziehungen zum Gemeinschafts- und Kulturleben. Heidelberg, Berlin: Springer.

Birnbaum, K. (1949): A Court Psychiatrist's View of Juvenile Delinquents. In: The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 260, pp. 55-63.

Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, S. 149-153.

Helmchen, H. (2008): Zu den Wechselwirkungen zwischen Psychiater und Zeitgeist. In: H. Helmchen: Zur Geschichte der Psychiatrie in Berlin. Lengerich: Pabst, pp. 13-22.

Irro, F., P. Hagemann, K. Birnbaum (1973): Versuch einer Würdigung der Lebensarbeit eines bedeutenden Psychiaters und zugleich ein verspäteter Nachruf. In: Psychiatrie, Neurologie und medizinische Psychologie 25, S. 117-123.

Kronfeld, A. (1920): Bemerkungen zu den Ausführungen von Karl Birnbaum über die Strukturanalyse als klinisches Forschungsprinzip. In: Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie 53, (1), pp. 317-324.

Pfeiffer, J. (1998): Die Vertreibung deutscher Neuropathologen. 1933-1939. In: Der Nervenarzt 69, (2), pp. 99-109.

Stevens, H.C. (1915): Book Review, K. Birnbaum: Die psychopathischen Verbrecher. In: International Journal of Ethics 25, (2), pp. 255-259.

Tress W. (2002, Ed.): Persönlichkeitsstörungen. Leitlinie und Quellentext. Stuttgart: Schattauer.

Wetzell, R. F. (2000): Inventing the criminal. A history of German Criminology 1880-1945.


Julian Schwarz, Burkhart Brückner


Referencing format
Julian Schwarz, Burkhart Brückner (2015): Birnbaum, Karl.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
(retrieved on:22.02.2024)