Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Dr. Sabina Spielrein: Consequences of feminism and love

Irving Rosen
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Sabina Spielrein when she was younger
Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942) as a young woman. She had a hectic existence and can be considered an early contributor to the psychoanalytic literature. Image via Wikimedia 

While all our lives are eventful, some people tend to experience situations that set them apart. Born in 1885 in Rostov, Czarist Russia, Sabina was the eldest child of prosperous intellectualized parents of Jewish origin. Academically and artistically gifted, by age eighteen she developed alarming behavior. She showed tics, grimaces, body movements, and defecation obsessions suggestive of a serious mental health disorder and compelling her family to seek psychiatric help. As a measure of the family’s wealth, she was admitted in 1904 to the most outstanding mental institute of the time—the Burgholzli mental asylum of Zurich, Switzerland. While Viennese Freud was defining his talking cure and theories of neurosis, Bleuler, director of the Burgholzli, was regarded as Europe’s most outstanding psychiatrist.

On admission, Sabina was assigned to Dr. Carl Jung, then a junior staff member. He viewed her as a case of hysteria and drew out from her that her symptom complex was connected to her father’s habit of punishing her by exposing and beating her buttocks which caused her untoward distress since the punitive event proved sexually stimulating. This caused her to masturbate and soon she responded similarly to any physical act. While Jung was much involved in Sabina’s care, it was Dr. Bleuler who was responsible for her treatment. He insisted that all family exposure be avoided to protect her from any aggravation or reversion of her disturbing symptoms. He forbade family visits and insisted her brother attend university elsewhere. Later, apparently cured of her hysteria, she applied successfully for medical training at the University of Zurich with Dr. Bleuler’s approval and recommendation. Transferring after one year from a mental institution to medical training could never be considered anything but unusual, and psychiatry became her career choice.

However, her relationship with Jung continued after she left Burghozli and was living in rented rooms in Zurich while attending the school where Jung worked as a teacher. The relationship took the form of discussions, letters, arranged liaisons, and endless mutual analyses, all of which she described with comments in her diary. Mutual attraction ensued, somewhat predictably, and evolved to physical love. Sabina wrote Jung to say, “I love you so much.” The idea of marriage to an already married Jung and of conceiving a son named Siegfried by Jung possessed her thinking. While psychiatric jargon may, in a sense, have dignified their fervid discussions, Jung was seen, regardless of his psychodynamic postulations, as a power figure who frequently seduced female patients and students. Jung’s wife Emma wrote to Sabina’s mother Eva Spielrein in Russia to alert her to the Spielrein-Jung rapport. Eva came to Zurich, perhaps to extricate her daughter and threaten Jung with exposure to Bleuler, but nothing happened.

In 1906 Jung wrote Freud about a young hysterical female patient who appeared “voluptuous” and was expressing amatory feelings towards him. This permitted Freud to expand on the transference phenomenon and the dangers it posed for the earnest dedicated psychiatrist—a fate which Freud noted had bypassed himself presumably because of his advanced years. The two pioneer psychiatrists exchanged correspondence in which Freud expressed sympathy for the well-meaning therapist because of psychotherapy’s “dangerous method” and the manipulations practiced by female patients. However soon after, the disturbed Sabina wrote a letter to Freud requesting his psychiatric help. This he declined, but a series of correspondences followed which clarified that Jung was not merely an innocent victim of a lecherous female patient but an active perpetrator of loving engagements with patients. Jung’s behavior was clearly a violation of ethical behavior and in our age undoubtedly would be the cause of condemnation and medical license suspension, if the affected patients complained, which Sabina did not.

Freud had designated Jung to be his “son” and heir to leadership installing him as chairman of the psychoanalytic group and editor of their yearbook. This coronation by the “master” recognized Jung’s intellectual activity but also reflected Jung’s non-Jewish identity as Freud attempted to avoid the anti-Semitic denigration of his beloved psychoanalysis. After their combined appearance and celebration in advocating psychoanalysis for the USA at Clark University in 1909, their friendship dissolved largely due to Jung’s independence in declaring his own unique theories of personality development and their dysfunction. Freud cut short his personal relations with Jung alluding in part to Jung’s exploitation of Spielrein, who continued to correspond with Jung until 1919, accepting the reality of his marriage but never displaying anger or retribution.

After graduation from school, she spent a year in Munich studying art history, perhaps reflecting her reluctance to embark on a medical career as well as her family wealth and indulgence. In November 1911 she unexpectedly presented herself at Freud’s Psychoanalytic Circle, which Freud had arranged among his colleagues for weekly discussions. This was momentous, junior that she was. Her paper on “Destruction (including the sex act) and Creativity” was accepted. As a member, she witnessed the withdrawal of Adler and cohorts because of differences with Freud. Her presentation, her most impressive achievement, published by Jung a year later, reputedly influenced the Freuds, Jung, and Melanie Klein. She established practice aided by Freud, reporting to the society on her unprecedented psychoanalysis of a schizophrenic. She continued corresponding with Freud and Jung, trying to reconcile their differences while observing the impact of Darwin’s evolutionary studies. She maintained relations with her family who were supporting her financially while beseeching her to return to Rostov. The family was concerned about her future and had carried out negotiations with matchmakers who produced likely husband material. On June 14, 1911, she married Dr. Paul Sheftel, a Russian trained physician who had indifferent health and emotional problems.

The young couple moved to Berlin, where Sabina anticipated having an active practice because of Freudian Karl Abraham’s activity there. Husband Paul spoke no German and felt out of his element and frustrated. In 1913 Sabina found herself pregnant. Freud was ecstatic since he felt pregnancy would undermine her neurotic love for Jung and expressed uncharacteristically in tribalistic fashion that “the others will exploit us and will never understand or appreciate us.” In December 1913 she became a mother, earning Jung’s congratulations. Freud berated her unresolved oedipal complex in her reverence for a German champion while resisting her Jewishness.

World War I broke out and her husband left for military duty in Russia. Sabina and her child spent the war years in Lausanne on a hand to mouth existence, with Sabina picking up odd medical jobs while still receiving family support. Her clinical research relied on her observing and analyzing her child’s behavior. She continued her correspondence with Jung, which was highly personal as well as analytic, concluding in 1919 at a time when Jung was apparently resolving his own psychotic breakdown. She continued her correspondence with Freud until 1923. In 1920 she went to the Sixth International Psychoanalytic Convention in Holland attended by leaders in the field and gave a paper on the origins of speech in childhood.

In 1920 she traveled to Geneva to join the Rousseau Institute, which addressed the issues of education psychology, in which psychoanalysis and evolutionary biology were considered relevant. How Spielrein managed this position is unknown, although the institute’s staff presumed she was installed therein by Freudians as an advocate for psychoanalysis. This represented a most productive academic period in her life, as she specialized in the psychoanalytic aspect of education. Her staff position was unclear. She received a small stipend from the institute, belonged gratis to the Swiss psychoanalysts, was supported by the International Psychoanalysts Association, and offered analysis to her colleagues. Jean Piaget accepted her offer and underwent six months of analysis. This was no negligible act. Jean Piaget (1896-1980) must still be considered the outstanding educational psychologist of our time. He held multiple major coincidental university positions in Switzerland and France and described a categorization of educational development in children that commands global respect. Piaget and Spielrein collaborated in planning projects and attended conferences together. However, her family insisted she return home.

The Bolshevik revolt had occurred in 1917 and appeared won by 1923. The family had become proletarianized by the Bolsheviks but the promise of a brave new world made their impoverishment bearable. Her brothers had attained technological expertise and became directors of state enterprises. One brother used influence to obtain for Sabina a professorship in psychiatry at Moscow University. Before leaving Geneva, still unsure of her move’s permanence, she packed papers and diary in a container she left behind in the basement of the Institute. Once in Moscow, she was also involved in a children’s school, attended by Stalin’s son and run with psychoanalytic permissiveness which became problematic because of widespread masturbation amongst the students. Parental repression resulted, implicating the progressive staff. In addition, Trotsky was a supporter of Freudianism, which assured its negation with his loss to Stalin for Bolshevik leadership.

By 1925 Sabina left Moscow for Rostov where she assumed duties as psychiatrist at its university. Her husband, who had fathered a child with another female physician, now joined Sabina to renew his marital role after a decade of separation. As a result, Sabina gave birth to another daughter in 1924. In Rostov she undertook various medical duties as a child health worker which did not exclude psychiatry, but the scope of freedom in practice was narrowing with the emergence of Stalinism. In 1929 she gave her last public address in defense of Freudianism by relating it to social alterations. This was an act of bravery as Stalinists denigrated the personal factor in favor of Pavlovian conditioned reflex to understand mental illness. The era of paranoid Stalinist ideological purges ensued that 1,000 people were killed daily by the NKVD. In 1938, Sabina’s three brothers, all convinced communists and qualified directors of programs, were arrested and executed. Sabina’s employment became unreliable and unfocused and she was described as old, tired-looking, in an old black dress and boots, but still gentle and respectable.

In 1939 Hitler started World War II after the Nazi-Soviet entente permitted both dictators to occupy parts of eastern Europe. The Nazis invaded Russia in 1941 and by 1942 the German army occupied Rostov accompanied by Einsatzkommando D under the command of a former lawyer. Sabina had long heard frightening stories about the Nazi’s excesses. She stoutly refused to believe these were true. She repeatedly stated that she knew the German people from living amongst them. She maintained that a people that produced great composers and philosophers could not be capable of the dreadful acts that she had heard about. Consequently, she refused several opportunities to evacuate Rostov for safer areas. The last time Sabina was seen was in the summer of 1942 walking in a column of people, holding the hand of each of her daughters who were talented musicians. The column was made up of Jews, mainly, as well as communist functionaries and psychiatrically hospitalized patients. All were taken to “the snake gully” just outside the city where a Babi Yar operation took place.

The story of Dr. Sabina Spielrein ended badly but her entire life had a somewhat melancholy tone. She made some remarkable contributions and associated intimately with iconic workers in psychiatry, psychology, and pediatrics. She was an obscure figure until the 1980s when her forgotten cache of material was discovered in the basement of Geneva’s Rousseau Institute. This material has given rise to articles, books, plays, and movies. Her contributions to psychiatry have been discussed by psychiatrists. Unlike her mentor Freud, whose influence has waned, she has been discovered and sensationalized. Her life recalls Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago in its picaresque perambulations and political pandemonium. One, however, cannot help feeling badly for a young intelligent woman whose unrequited crush on Jung, her psychiatrist, persisted to the point of denying herself much fulfillment and happiness, influenced her better judgment, and resulted in her murder.


  1. John Launer Sexvs Survival Overlook Duckworth pub. New York 2014
  2. John Kerr A Most Dangerous Method A.E.Knopf pub. Toronto 1993
  3. J.Frost Scott Fitzgerald and Mental Illness Hektoen International Journal 2009
  4. Wikipedia Sabina Spielrein Oct.13, 2020
  5. Wm Schoenl, Linda Schoenl Jung’s view of Nazi Germany J, An Psych.6.4. 481-496 2016

IRVING B. ROSEN, MD, FRCS(C), is retired from long-time clinical practice and is currently occupied with the history of medicine by membership in the Toronto Medical History Club as well as in written and platform presentations.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 13, Issue 2– Spring 2021

Fall 2020  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology

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