By Thomas F. Schwartz
Although Abraham Lincoln predates Sigmund Freud, the Illinois lawyer did write to famed Cincinnati physician Dr. Daniel Drake for help during his emotional crisis of “the hypo” in 1841. If Drake replied to Lincoln’s letter, it has never surfaced. Since then, both professionals and amateurs have tried to explain Lincoln’s personality. One particular incident led to a number of individuals lobbying President Herbert Hoover to intervene. The incident is instructive both because of the prominent persons involved as well as Hoover’s response.
Dr. Abraham Arden Brill (1874-1948) announced that he planned on delivering a paper at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in Toronto, Canada on June 5, 1931 in which he characterizes Abraham Lincoln as a “schizoid-manic personality.” Brill was hardly a quack. Rather, he provided the first English translations of Sigmund Freud’s work introducing into the American lexicon Freudian concepts such as transference, repression, displacement, and unconscious. Brill founded the New York Psychoanalytic Society and served for a time as head of the psychiatry clinic at Columbia University before going into private practice. He is widely known for his advising famous public relations guru Edward L. Bernays (1891-1995) on how to overcome the stigma surrounding women smoking cigarettes. Brill suggested that cigarettes be viewed as “torches of freedom.” Bernays hired a number of young models to march in the 1929 New York City Easter Parade and on his cue, lit Lucky Strikes in front of a group of photographers he had assembled. The women’s “torches of freedom” were lit as a protest against male domination but also to help Bernays’ sponsor , the American Tobacco Company, promote its most popular cigarette brand to a new audience—women.
Brill’s characterization of Lincoln as a “schizoid-manic personality” immediately drew the ire of fellow psychiatrist Dr. Edward Everett Hicks senior physician of the psychopathic department of Kings County Hospital, New York. Hicks was an avid history buff and member of the Sons of the American Revolution as well as the Society of Mayflower Descendants. He made a formal protest to the American Psychiatric Association regarding Brill’s intended paper and received the assistance of F. Walter Mueller, Eastern Division Sales Manager for the Continental Lithograph Corporation. It was Mueller who took it upon himself to write to Lawrence Ritchie, Secretary to President Hoover, seeking to obtain a Presidential request to suppress Brill’s paper from being delivered in Canada.
The media enjoyed the brief controversy because it provided entertaining copy. An unidentified instructor of psychology declared: “Some of our psychiatrists and psychologists seem to get so saturated with abnormal in their practice that they lost the normal point of view. They then get a compulsion to pigeonhole all persons, and especially eminent men in the routine psychiatric categories.” One less kind reaction goaded Hicks: “I hope you hit the illustrious gentleman [Brill] in the solar plexus, and once for me too.” Hicks offered the following assessment of Brill to the press: “I understand Dr. Brill is an alien. If he was not born here and was permitted to become a citizen, it seems very bad taste for him to criticize a man of the caliber of Lincoln. If psychiatrists would modify some of their fantastic theories and apply more common sense, the American public would have greater respect for them. Psychiatrists and psychoanalysts ought to be analyzed themselves and classified as to the types they belong to.” Hicks was reminded by the reporter that “you’re a psychiatrist too.” Hicks replied laconically—“yes”—and smiled.
Hoover idolized Abraham Lincoln but wanted no part in the controversy. Lawrence Richey replied to F. Walter Mueller’s letter indicating: “The matter of an address before a scientific association in another country is not, it seems to me, within the purview of the President’s duties.” Brill delivered his paper on Lincoln, one which people have since little noted nor long remembered.