Mahler, Margaret S.

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Margaret Schoenberger Mahler was born in Sopron, Hungary on May 10, 1897. She was educated in Hungary and Germany and received her medical degree from the University of Jena in 1922. In 1938 she emigrated to the United States, settling in New York City. Mahler's clinical research included studies of children with tic syndrome (Gilles de la Tourette's disease), studies of symbiotic child psychosis, and studies of normal separation-individuation of child development. Mahler died in October 1985.

Margaret Schoenberger Mahler, child psychoanalyst and originator of the separation-individuation theory of child development, was born in Sopron, Hungary on May 11, 1897. The first daughter of Dr. Gusztav Schoenberger, a physician and public health official, and Eugenia Wiener Schoenberger, Margaret S. Mahler benefitted from the social and political position of her father's community standing. She received her elementary education in Sopron and Budapest and was encouraged by her father to pursue an academic career.

In Budapest in 1913 she met the parents of her classmate Alice Szekely-Kovacs and was first introduced to psychoanalysis. The Kovacs family, prominent in Budapest, often entertained members of the Hungarian psychoanalytic and academic communities. It was in the Kovacs household that Mahler met the psychoanalysts Sandor Ferenczi and Micheal Balint, and anthropologist Geza Roheim, among others.

After her graduation in 1916 Mahler left Budapest to pursue a medical education. Struggling with a desire to pursue a medical career but fearful of her father's disapproval, Mahler began studies in art history upon matriculation at the University of Budapest. She concedes in her memoirs that art history was "an acceptable feminine field," which she felt compelled to enter. "I seemed intent on making it as difficult for myself as possible to pursue my 'male' career goal." After one semester of art history Mahler applied to medical school and was accepted in January of 1917. Mahler and several classmates transferred to the University of Munich in 1919 to begin clinical training in pediatrics. Mahler was a stellar student and received co-assistantships to work with two prominent pediatricians at the university: Professor Pfaundler, Chairman of the pediatrics department and Dr. Rudolf von Degwitz, who experimented with measles vaccine. The von Degwitz experience cemented Mahler's interest in experimental/clinical work, which was to guide her future career. Anti-Semitic activity, coupled with economic conditions, influenced Mahler's decision to leave the University of Munich in 1920 and matriculate at the State University of Turingen at Jena. Here she continued her clinical training under Jussef Ibrahim at the Jena Child Clinic. At the Clinic, Mahler served as a co-assistant treating ruminating and pylorospastic infants. She observed Ibrahim's methods and learned the importance of play and child contact within a clinic setting. Mahler continued to distinguish herself academically and clinically. Upon completion of additional work at the University of Heidelberg, Mahler graduated magna cum laude in 1921. In 1922 she received her medical degree. Mahler elected to obtain her medical license in Vienna, because she was not a German citizen and could not practice medicine in Germany.

Upon receiving her medical license in 1923, Mahler worked for Clemens von Pirquet as a research and statistical assistant at the Pirquet Children's Clinic in Vienna. She supplemented her income by establishing a pediatrics practice. In addition, Mahler worked for the Leopold Moll Institute for Mother and Child Care where she accompanied groups of tubercular children on trips across the Adriatic to Italian spas during the summers of 1923-1926. These individual experiences provided Mahler with the opportunity to observe two different philosophies concerning the treatment of diseased children. At von Pirquet's clinic, the atmosphere was sterile, the children were left in cribs without the benefit of individualized contact from the nurses. At the Moll Institute, the emphasis was placed on bodily contact with the ill children. Moll trained his own nurses and assigned them to individual children with instructions to provide maternal care. Mahler observed that the children at Moll's institute benefitted from the contact and the mortality rate at Moll's institute was well below that at von Pirquet's. Mahler hypothesized that both physical and mental factors determined the healthiness of children.

At the time of her Vienna work Mahler was approached by Willi Hoffer to contribute to his new interdisciplinary journal, Journal for Psychoanalytic Pedagogy ( Zeitschrift fur psychoanalytische Padaqogik ). Hoffer introduced Mahler to August Aichorn, best known for his work with delinquents in Vienna. Aichorn managed a network of child clinics which provided therapeutic counseling for "delinquent" or abused and misunderstood children. Aichorn's technique was considered revolutionary for its focus. Mahler joined Aichorn on his visits to the clinics and with the children. This contact with Aichorn proved pivotal to Mahler's developing child psychoanalytic career.

In 1926 Mahler applied to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. She was interviewed by Paul Federn and Grete Bibring, who supported Mahler's training for membership. Mahler began her analysis with Helen Deutsch, a prominent member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, and a friend of Sandor Ferenczi, whom Mahler was acquainted with from the Szekely-Kovacs family circle. This analyst/analysand relationship did not last long and Mahler turned to Aichorn to aid her in completing her analysis. Aichorn secured her readmittance into the training program, analyzed her for three years, turning to Willi Hoffer to complete her analysis. In 1933 she became a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute.

During the 1930s Mahler conducted Rorschach training for many American analysts who came to Vienna to study. Americans Margaret Ribble, Margaret Hawkins O'Neil and Helen Ross, all specialists in child delinquency, came to Vienna to train with Aichorn. In addition, Mahler lectured on and conducted Rorschach testing at the state university in Vienna. She collaborated with Judith Silberpfennig on a study of the Rorschach in diagnosing organic brain damage. Many of Mahler's early publications resulted from this project. Mahler organized the first psychoanalytic child guidance clinic (Ambulatorium Rauscher-Strasse) in Vienna and was the head from 1933-1938. In 1936 Mahler met and married Paul Mahler, a chemist, who was a junior partner in his family cordial factory. With the impending force of Nazism engulfing Germany and Austria, Mahler made efforts to leave Austria as early as January 1937. In 1938, Margaret and Paul Mahler left Austria and relocated in England, through the intervention of Lady Leontine Sassoon and the psychoanalysts of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. The Mahlers were granted six month visas and authorization to continue their emigration to the United States. In England, Mahler conducted Rorschach tests, attended Anna Freud's seminars at the Hampstead Child Clinic, and studied English. In October 1938 Margaret and Paul Mahler set sail for the United States.

With the aid of American analysts and other European emigrés in New York City Mahler set about establishing her psychoanalytic practice. She was befriended by Caroline Zachary, then Director of the Bureau of Child Guidance of the New York City Board of Education and head of the Institute of Human Development. Mahler conducted Rorschach testing for Zachary at the IHD and its affiliate, the Educational Institute. Zachary introduced Mahler to Edith T. Schmidt and Benjamin Spock in 1939. It was Spock who first referred child patients to Mahler.

The New York psychoanalytic community did not welcome the recent emigrés. In 1939 an effort was made within the New York Psychoanalytic Society to encourage the emigrés to venture to other geographic locations to establish their practices. Mahler politely, but characteristically refused the idea that she should establish her practice in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Additionally, the emigrés were strongly urged not to practice psychoanalysis before obtaining their medical licenses. Mahler passed the state medical board exam on her first attempt. In 1940, she presented her paper "Pseudoimbecility: A Magic Cap of Invisibility" to the New York Psychoanalytic Society. She was accepted into the New York Psychoanalytic Society based on her presentation, and the Psychoanalytic Quarterly published the lecture. Mahler became the chief consultant to the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Children's Services at Columbia University and was appointed an associate in psychiatry at Columbia University. Mahler published papers, lectures and pamphlets pertaining to various aspects of child psychosis from 1942. In 1943 she published with Leo Rangell, in Psychiatric Quarterly, the results of a study they conducted on children with tics: "A Psychosomatic Study of Maladie des Tics" (Gilles de la Tourette's Disease). She published pamphlets for the New York State Committee on Mental Hygiene and lectured at various local aid societies including the New York School of Social Work, the Schilder Society and the Jewish Board of Guardians. Mahler spoke at professional associations as well, such as the New York Psychoanalytic Society, the American Psychoanalytic Association and the American Society for Research in Psychosomatic Medicine.

Mahler continued to work with children who had multiple tics and this led to the discovery that some children admitted to the New York State Psychiatric Institute became psychotic at puberty. In collaboration with Dr. Jean Luke, Mahler published in 1946 "Outcome of the Tic Syndrome" in the Journal of Nervous Mental Disease . In subsequent studies Mahler focused on childhood psychosis and its manifestations, presenting and publishing numerous papers on childhood psychosis in the late 1940s. In 1948 she presented her work with J.R. Ross and Zaira deFries at the American Orthopsychiatric Association and in 1949 published "Clinical Studies in Benign and Malignant Cases of Childhood Psychosis (Schizophrenia-like)."

In 1950 Mahler began to concentrate her research efforts on the study of child psychosis. She became affiliated in 1955 with the newly organized Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, serving as the main consultant to children's services, as well as holding conferences on child psychosis. In 1959 she became a clinical professor in psychiatry. At this time she also became affiliated with the Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute where she was the chairperson of the child analysis training program from 1950-1960. Mahler also taught classes and conducted advanced seminars in child analysis. In addition, she supervised analyst trainees.

Mahler's research efforts centered in New York, where she and Manuel Furer, fellow Einstein faculty member, founded a therapeutic nursery for psychotic children. This nursery was established to continue the work Mahler began at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. In 1955 Mahler and Furer applied to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to support a study of the natural history of symbiotic child psychosis. At the time of this initial application, Mahler and Furer realized that the focus and resources of the newly established Albert Einstein College of Medicine would not support their research efforts. Upon being granted funding by the NIMH, Mahler and Furer returned that money, with the hope that once an appropriate site for the nursery was located, the NIMH would again fund the project. In 1956 two buildings at the Masters School in New York City became available which suited Mahler's research needs. Mahler and Furer reapplied to NIMH in 1959 and again received the initial funding they earlier returned.

The "Study of the Natural History of Symbiotic Child Psychosis" conducted at the Masters Children's Center from 1957-1964 began as a study of five very disturbed children and their mothers. Mahler discovered shortly after beginning the study that one child was psychotic and would require individual attention. The project was undertaken in the tripartite design meaning the child, therapist and mother became involved in the therapy. To supplement the work conducted by the therapist, the mother was also required to see a social worker involved with the study. Mahler's contention was that the child developed through a series of phases which allowed the child to begin to recognize itself as an individual entity from the mother. For reasons unknown to Mahler, some children did not carry out the steps which lead to individuality, or the steps were retarded for a particular reason. If the children did not move through these phases, they became deeply disturbed, some psychotic. Mahler reasoned that if the mother took an active role in the therapy, she could facilitate the process for the child. This relationship was crucial for allowing the child to develop a relatively normal symbiotic relationship with the mother, and then carry out the individuation and separation from the mother which the disturbed and psychotic children lacked.

Mahler's theory by which a child becomes an entity with a personal sense of identity was first reported in 1954 when she presented with Bert Gosliner, their work in "On Symbiotic Child Psychosis: Genetic, Dynamic and Restitutive Aspects." In 1960, Mahler and Furer reported their findings in "On the 'Symbiotic Syndrome' in Infantile Psychosis" at the Pan American Medical Congress. In 1968, On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation was published describing their findings from this study as well as subsequent studies relating to the development of the separation-individuation theory.

Questions arose from the Mahler/Furer study: Why does a relatively small percentage of children not firmly develop a sense of identity during the first three years? Why does the majority? When does this formation of identity take place? Mahler and Furer realized the need to conduct another study with a group of psychotic babies, their mothers and a control group of "normal" babies and their mothers. In 1962 the Field Foundation supported this pilot study which marked Mahler's transition from focusing on developing psychotic children to that of children with normal development. Mahler continued her studies with support from the NIMH. In 1960 Fred Pine joined the Masters Children's Center from the Hudson Guild Settlement, and John McDevitt joined the staff in 1965 from the Yale Child Study Center. With Pine and McDevitt, Mahler continued to conduct her studies on the development of the separation-individuation of the "normal" child. This "normal" study was conducted through the early 1970s, and the findings from this study were reported in the seminal work, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, published in 1974. After the publication of The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant Mahler continued to study the development of normal children. Work from the original study continues through the Margaret S. Mahler Psychiatric Research Foundation.

Mahler continued to present and publish her findings during the 1970s and early 1980s. Mahler delivered the Freud Anniversary Lecture at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1971. The Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute honors Mahler with the Margaret S. Mahler Symposium Series. She was named visiting professor of child psychoanalysis at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and professor emerita of psychiatry at Columbia University in 1974. Mahler has received awards from the New York Psychoanalytic Society, the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, the New York Council on Child Psychiatry, and she has been honored by many other institutions of higher education. Margaret S. Mahler died in October 1985 at the age of eight-eight. In August 1986, her ashes were placed with her husband's next to her mother and father's gravesite in the Jewish Cemetery in Sopron, Hungary.

From the guide to the Margaret S. Mahler papers, 1822-1987, (Manuscripts and Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Berta Bornstein Papers, 1933-1971, (bulk 1945-1970) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Erik H. and Joan M. Erikson papers, 1925-1985 (inclusive) 1960-1980 (bulk). Houghton Library
creatorOf Margaret S. Mahler papers, 1822-1987 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Aichorn, August. person
associatedWith Albert Einstein College of Medicine. corporateBody
associatedWith American Academy of Child Psychiatry. corporateBody
associatedWith American Psychiatric Association. corporateBody
associatedWith American Psychoanalytic Association. corporateBody
associatedWith Blanck, Gertrude. person
associatedWith Blanck, Rubin. person
associatedWith Blos, Peter. person
associatedWith Blum, Harold P., 1929- person
correspondedWith Bornstein, Berta, 1898-1971 person
associatedWith Brazelton, T. Berry, 1918- person
associatedWith Call, Justin D. person
associatedWith Columbia University. College of Physicians and Surgeons. corporateBody
associatedWith Elkisch, Paula. person
associatedWith Erikson, Erik H. (Erik Homburger), 1902-1994 person
associatedWith Ferenczy, Béni. person
associatedWith Freud, Anna, 1895- person
associatedWith Furer, Manuel. person
associatedWith Greenacre, Phyllis. person
associatedWith Greenson, Ralph R. person
associatedWith Harley, Marjorie. person
associatedWith Hoffer, Willi. person
associatedWith International Association for Child Psychiatry and Allied Professions. corporateBody
associatedWith Kaplan, Louise J. person
associatedWith Lebovici, Serge. person
associatedWith McDevitt, John. person
associatedWith Medical College of Pennsylvania. corporateBody
associatedWith Neubauer, Peter B. person
associatedWith New York Psychoanalytic Institute. corporateBody
associatedWith Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute. corporateBody
associatedWith Pine, Fred, 1931- person
associatedWith Rangell, Leo. person
associatedWith Sandler, Joseph. person
associatedWith Settlage, Calvin F., 1921- person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Child development




Ark ID: w6c94ch4

SNAC ID: 67280533