Philippe Pinel

The French physician Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) was the major figure in early efforts to provide humane care and treatment for the mentally ill.

Philippe Pinel was born on April 20, 1745, in the hamlet of Roques. At 17 he entered the Collège d'Esquille in Toulouse to prepare for the priesthood, but he soon decided to study medicine. He received his doctorate in 1773 and continued his medical education at the University of Montpellier, France's leading medical school. In 1778 he settled in Paris, where he devoted himself to general studies in science while tutoring in mathematics. Pinel's work on clinical medicine, Nosographie philosophique (1789), was a standard textbook for 2 decades, and several 19th-century schools of thought on clinical medicine trace their origin to it.

Pinel's interests in the mentally ill gradually developed, and in 1793, through the aid of friends in the Revolutionary government of France, he was appointed physician-in-chief at l'Hospice de Bicêtre, a large mental institution in Paris. There he encountered the characteristic cruel treatment of mental patients, as they were beaten, locked in dirty cells, and generally made to suffer in the hands of ignorant keepers. Perhaps worst of all, they were commonly restrained with chains. Pinel immediately insisted that the restraints be removed, and, in spite of warnings that unchained patients would become violent, he unchained 49 inmates on May 24, 1793. All responded favorably.

In 1795 Pinel assumed the responsibility for the mental patients at l'Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, where he continued his policy of nonrestraint and brought about many significant and far-reaching reforms in the care and treatment of mental patients. Humane treatment under the watchful eye of trained and compassionate personnel in the institution made possible the recovery of many otherwise doomed patients. Pinel also introduced the practice of keeping case histories, which proved a valuable source of information in later efforts to understand insanity. The new concepts of the care of the mentally ill were published in Pinel's Traité médico-philosophique sur l'aliénation mentale (1801; Treatise on Insanity, 1806).

Pinel was professor of hygiene and pathology at the University of Paris from 1794 until 1822, when he was removed by the government because of his past association with persons involved in the Revolution and because he had served as a consulting physician to Napoleon I for a few years after 1805. However, at the time of his death, on Oct. 25, 1826, Pinel was still active at Salpêtrière.

Further Reading on Philippe Pinel

The best source of information on Pinel's ideas and methods is his Treatise on Insanity, translated by David Daniel Davis (1806; repr. 1962). A good recent study of Pinel, especially for the relation he felt to the medical ideas of Greek antiquity, is Walter Riese, The Legacy of Philippe Pinel (1969).