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An (in)famous developmental psychologist, quite influential in his time, but largely discredited since his death by his own hand in 1990.

Bruno Bettelheim was born in Vienna, Austria in August 1903. Bettelheim often claimed that Sigmund Freud himself encouraged his studies at the University of Vienna, but recent biographies suggest that he and Freud never met. Bettelheim's doctorate was in "aesthetics of nature," not psychology as he sometimes pretended.

After matriculation, Bettelheim worked in his family's lumber business until the Anschlu├č, Nazi Germany's occupation of Austria, in 1938. He spent time in both Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps but was released (or escaped) in 1939 and fled to the United States.

In the U.S., he taught psychology at the University of Chicago from 1944 until 1973 and directed Chicago's Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for children with emotional problems from 1944 to 1978. During this period he became a respected expert on childhood pathology, particularly on the causes and treatment of autism.

Bettelheim claimed a remarkable 85% recovery rate for autistic children in his care. The fact that Bettelheim diagnosed all autism cases and declared the children "cured" raises doubts about his objectivity, however.

Bettelheim believed that autism resulted from a lack of stimulation in the child's environment during the first years of life, when language and motor skills develop. Bettelheim also stated that autism was caused by parental neglect, and by unconscious hatred of children by their mothers. "All my life," he wrote, "I have been working with children whose lives have been destroyed because their mothers hated them."1 These ideas are now thoroughly discredited, but sadly many mothers of autistic children were emotionally scarred by Bettelheim's authoritative accusations of blame.

His two most well-known books are:

Some of his other works include:

  1. Cited in numerous sources including http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ridge/7803/112100_4.htm

Postscript: I've been asked why Bettelheim killed himself (a combination of sleeping pills and self-asphyxiation, for the morbid). He didn't leave a note, so we can't be sure. Some have speculated about survivor guilt from the concentration camps, which has caused other prominent camp survivors to kill themselves.

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