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BORIS SIDIS

From "American Explorers of the Subconscious"

in The Riddle of Personality by Harold Addington Bruce

New York: Moffat, Yard, 1915, 88-93.

 

         Equally impressive, as testifying to the value to the new methods of treating mental alienation, is the work of Boris Sidis, the Janet of the United States. And first a few words as to Dr. Sidisís career, in itself most interesting. Of Russian birth, he came to this country when still extremely young and entered Harvard. It was not long before his industry, his alertness, and, above all, his originality, attracted the attention of Professor James, who conceived a hearty admiration for the young Russian and prophesied that he would be heard from after leaving Harvard. This prophecy was speedily fulfilled with the publication of his "The Psychology of Suggestion," which made it evident that a remarkably gifted investigator and thinker had entered the scientific field. About this time, too, opportunity knocked at Dr. Sidis's door in most unexpected fashion. Acting on the recommendation of Dr. Carlos F. MacDonald, president of the State Lunacy Commission, the New York Legislature had created a novel department of governmental activity, a "pathological institute." This was intended to be, so to speak, an educational annex to the State hospital system, its chief legal raison d'etre being that it might "provide instruction in brain pathology and other subjects for the medical officers of the State hospitals." But, as luck would have it, a progressive and liberal-minded physician, Dr. Ira van Gieson, was appointed director, and the institute speedily developed into something more than a mere hospital appendage.

         Dr. van Gieson, who deserves to be ranked among American pathfinders of the subconscious, saw clearly that as then constituted psychiatry (the study of insanity) was in a dismal slough of despond and could make little progress until the problems of insanity were approached from other than the purely medical standpoint. To this end he gathered about him a staff of specialists in allied sciences, and as associate in psychology and psychopathology he selected Dr. Sidis. It was in 1896 that the institute began work in earnest, and by 1899 Dr. van Gieson could report to the State Commission that "much material has been accumulated by the director and his associates, and many scientific generalizations of theoretical and practical importance have been worked out." Among these generalizations was Dr. Sidis's now famous "law of dissociation" which has thrown a flood of light on the mechanism both of insanity and of suggestion, and which we shall presently survey in brief.

         But if Dr. van Gieson might justly feel proud of the results obtained in so short a time, it was none the less certain that the commission was dissatisfied with his conduct of the institute. Criticism hinged on the fact that he was subordinating the educational to the experimental phase, and he was urged to pay more attention to the work of instructing the asylum physicians. In vain he protested that "the main function of the institute is the investigation of the principles and laws of abnormal mental life." He was reminded that the act creating the institute contemplated other objects. A bitter controversy developed, and in the end he and his associates were swept from office with their work unfinished, and the institute was reorganized on a "practical" basis. For a time the little band of investigators found refuge in a private laboratory, but ere long lack of funds caused their dispersal, Dr. Sidis removing to Brookline, Mass., where he continued his scientific work, to no small extent centering his efforts on elaborating the law of dissociation.1

         This law or principle is connected with a novel conception in biology―the much-debated theory of neuron motility, itself a product of recent investigation. According to  it the neuron (that is to say, the nerve cell and its prolongations) is held to be an anatomical unity, possessing the power of independent movement and securing concerted functional activity with other neurons by means of a connection simply of contact. Having regard to this theory―and appreciating the ease with which, under such conditions, contact might be broken, neuron energy interfered with, and the detached neurons either be utterly destroyed or form themselves into new clusters it seemed possible to Dr. Sidis to view mental disorders as the accompanying psychical manifestations of neuron disaggregation. For example, the individual, A, suffers from a severe illness, a blow, a mental shock, and subsequently exhibits, it may be loss of memory, it may be a proneness to hallucinations, it may be even a completely changed personality. Dr. Sidis would explain all such phenomena or the ground that the initial trouble, whatever its nature, whether physical or psychical, had brought about a neuron disturbance with accompanying "dissociation" of consciousness. More than this, he would apply the law of dissociation to explain sundry physical disorders (as certain headaches...*

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1. Dr. Sidis is now (1915) conducting a sanitarium at Portsmouth, N. H., the Sidis Psychotherapeutic Institute.

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* I apologize for not providing the rest of this piece. Apparently I did not photocopy the final page. If anyone is near a university library, please send the text. Thanks.--Dan Mahony

 

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