The Vision of George Drysdale, Part III




Margaret Sanger Microfilm Edition, Smith College Collections, S70:1016
"The Vision of George Drysdale, Part III," Birth Control Review, Sept. 1923, pp. 225-227


This article is the third in a four-part series of the same title. For the preceding articles, see July 1923 and August 1923; for fourth and final article see October 1923.


Drysdale, George
Freud, Sigmund




The Vision of George Drysdale

The revelation in modern psychology, for which we are mostly indebted to Sigmund Freud, is marked by the shifting emphasis and interest from the intellectual to the instinctive, from the descriptive to the behavioristic. It is based upon the application of scientific determination to the mental sphere. It tends to become more and more physiological and biological. It reveals the human mind as subject to natural automatic processes, with sex as the unconscious dynamic and motivating force in all the more important phases of human behavior. Drysdale was not merely a vague precursor of this modern point of view. Though his contribution in this field is slight, he realized the absolute interdependence of bodily and mental health, and cried out for a creative and illuminating psychology which might free individuals from their invisible chains. It was because of his insistence that this realm must be studied as scientifically as the human body, and his belief that mental science must be free of all theoretical and metaphysical tradition, that he may be called one of the true founders of the new psychology.

The spiritual and the physical life of man, he pointed out, are organically united. The one cannot be understood without the other. The physical enters equally with the psychic element in every human question. Insanity and all mental disease, of which there is a particular diseased bodily state to correspond with each one; should all come, he felt, under the patient investigation of the scientist. Drysdale foresaw the present development in psychology in indicating that the true analyst must be familiar not only with physical habits, but with mental habits also. Just as psycho-analysts are able to substantiate and illuminate their discoveries by examples drawn from literature and art, history and biography, so Drysdale pointed out that in studying human nature the scientists, to understand the general cause of health and disease, must become acquainted with the world of creative expression. True scientists "should seek to enter into the thoughts of religious and moral thinkers; for all of them are in their own sphere physicians, and their every thought has a physical and moral import." To make any advance in this field, he pointed out, perseverance and the combined effort of many workers are needed. Medicine must be combined with other sciences, and, until the public is as well informed on physical as on psychic subjects and as thoroughly conversant with their paramount importance, we cannot expect any true progress.

He also saw the advance of the method of analysis, in encouraging the patient to reveal himself. Any true understanding of mental disease or unbalance, he felt would be barren and incomplete without this self-revelation, just as morality and religion were barren and incomplete before men began to think on these subjects for themselves. He deplored the fact that very few medical men had ever thought of allowing their patients to speak for themselves in their diagnoses. Intent on arriving at physical facts and physical conclusions, physicians of his day paid apparently little attention to the mental state of the patient, which, as he pointed out, forms no less a part of the disease. In questioning a patient they sought to bring him as soon as possible to the physical point, "checking his digressions and the out-pouring of his suffering heart." On the other hand, the psychology of that artificial era was as barren and unfruitful, as we could well expect it to be. It limited itself, as any reader of the old textbooks remembers, to descriptive analysis of intellectual and mental processes, with no reference to the unconscious physical or instinctive behavior of the individual.

Drysdale was one of the first to see that these two things, to be of any real benefit to humanity, must be united and synthesized into a new science. The modern analyst has to base his therapy upon the ever-increasing revelations the individual is able to make. Drysdale foresaw some such method as this by speaking of the value of the patient's digressions, confessions and outpourings. He realized that the physician and science were losing in a great degree not only by the silencing of the feelings, but also by their lack of insight into the psychology of health and disease. This, he insisted, is as valuable a part of medical knowledge as any other, and as important for the prevention and treatment of disease and the advancement of health. Every physical state has its peculiar mental one, and to discover what this is, and the influence on the mind of all bodily states, such as hysteria and insanity, is a most essential branch of medicinal science. This psychology of health and disease is to be obtained only by a study of every individual's mind compared with his bodily condition, and a full knowledge of this can be arrived at only by his own revelations. We want a whole man to sympathize with, not merely a body or a soul.

"How few subjective records of physical life are to be found in history!" he exclaimed. "Among the numerous autobiographies that have been written by so many noble human beings, who has given us any but the most meager details of his physical life, even though its history may have been the most extraordinary, the most sadly eventful of the twin parts of his nature? Hence do all these men present to us most imperfect pictures. Through all the tissues of their loves we do not know what physical threads have been interwoven, and therefore we can pass no satisfactory judgment on themselves or their actions. But how immensely does the world lose by not having the fruits of their physical as well as their moral experiences! Had their penetrating minds been as keenly directed to the physical goods and evils they encountered as to the mental ones, had they used, each in his own case, the subtle insight which personal experience alone gives, would the world have been in as wretched state as it is, with so low a physical standard that health is not health, that there is a skeleton in every house, and a disease, secret or open, gnawing at the vitals of almost every one of us! Would we still be stumbling on from age to age in the same erroneous tracks, and falling one after the other, like sheep, into the same physical pitfalls? . . .

"If we will not remain thus ignorant, we must imbue our minds equally with physical knowledge. We must study the language of the body, a language not confined to an age or a nation, but wide and universal as humanity, in order that we may attain to a higher self-consciousness."

He reverts time after time, in the "Elements of Social Science," to this necessity of a new psychology. One chapter is entitled "Subjective Medicine," another "Mental Disease," while another chapter on hysteria seems to me to be fundamentally in agreement with the epoch-making study of Freud, published in 1895, the first book of the great Viennese pioneer. In his chapter on "Mental Disease," George Drysdale points out that the mind, exactly like the body, operates according to fixed natural laws. Sorrow in the mind corresponds to pain in the body. In Freud's first book "Studien über Hysterie" the point was made that "sexuality plays a leading part in the causation of hysteria." When we recall that Charcot was indifferent to the psychic side of his cases, that he regarded the recognition of a sex element in the causation of disease as degrading, and that Freud and Breuer in 1895 first launched the doctrine of sexual suppression, which is now the foundation pier upon which the whole structure of the new psychology rests, we can gain some sense of Drysdale's importance as the true pioneer of the whole modern outlook.

Verification of this fact is to be strikingly found in his chapter on mental disease and hysteria. He makes the unqualified statement that a morbid sexual state--both physical and mental--lies at the root of hysteria. Compare this with the statement made by Freud in his first book that "the great majority of serious neuroses in women arise from the marriage bed." With none of the equipment of modern psychology and modern science at his command. Drysdale nevertheless reveals a definite and concrete insight, stated in unequivocal terms, concerning the hysterical and neurotic character. He asks us to analyse the peculiar mental and physical phenomena of hysteria, and to consider the disturbing influences which the systematic denial and repression of natural desire must have on the delicate and susceptible girl. He says it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this suppression is the main cause of the disease: "The natural emotions are checked and thrown back upon themselves, and it is inevitable that they should become disordered and their disorder gradually implicate the whole nervous system." How closely he anticipates the very phraseology of the twentieth century psychology is indicated in this striking statement: "The stream of feeling, instead of being allowed to flow onward in its natural channel in the light of day, gladdening and fertilizing all around, is pent up in the gloomy secret caverns of the mind, to cause there a deluge and desolation. That, which should have been the young girl's pride and delight, becomes her shame and torture; she must conceal and studiously repress her eager and beautiful emotions; and can we wonder that bewilderment and timidity and impotence result? Nature cannot bear this constant state of slavery, and ever and anon she shows in the hysterical convulsions, in the wild delirious excitement of nymphomania, that she will not be repressed." He realized that an age of spiritual Puritanism and repression was responsible for the inevitable spread of hysteria and the increasing numbers of neurotic women. He saw that rank and morbid growth of sexual passions was the outgrowth of these suppressions. Happiness is a sign of moral health; joy and sorrow, according to Drysdale, are our guides to truth showing us where we are right and where wrong in the exploration of our being. He saw long before the advance of modern psychology that the mental element plays as important a part as any other in the causation of physical disease; and to cure the latter, it is just as requisite to apply remedies to the mental as to the bodily state. To do this, he said, we must first be able to recognize what is the mental disease and then to treat it according to the principles of mental health. Our ignorance of the laws of our minds has involved us, body and soul, in ruin. People pride themselves on their woes, and glory in their contempt of health. Even to-day we have not outgrown this pride in sorrow and disease.

But Drysdale insisted, like the most advanced of modern psycho-biologists, that the human body in its interacting mental and physical aspects is the touchstone of moral truth; that its health or disease is "tangible and demonstrable." We see that joy and all the allied feelings are linked most closely with the physical health and wellbeing, whereas sorrow and all its miseries cause derangement and ill-health of the bodily functions in a measure exactly proportional to their intensity and continuance." He saw that the great need of his time, as it is still of our own, was to attain a true idea of what is health and what is disease. The physician of mind and body cannot effect a cure if there is lurking in the physical or mental system, a disease or derangement which is not recognized, and which may be at the bottom of all the symptoms. He saw that the true origin of a great many physical diseases is in reality to be found in depressed or anxious state of mind. In this way he preceded the modern theories of complexes and suppressions, of morbid fears and compulsions. Thus he urged upon physicians to pay equal attention to mental disorder and to seek the true roots of physical and mental unbalance.

How wide-spread the action of conventional sexual suppression and repression as restrictive and enslaving agencies upon human nature, was fully realized by Drysdale. He saw this expressed in a morbid curiosity caused by the dense ignorance and inhibitions, which gave rise to the demand for prurient and stupid books published to gratify the sexually starved; in the degradation and corruption of minds; in the infantilism and underdevelopment of men and women. Because of this childish curiosity and ignorant imagination; because of the degraded feeling of mystery, shame or disgust, varied only by vulgar pretences of knowingness, the society of his time was grossly perverted on all sexual matters.

Drysdale insisted that the laws of mind are not one whit less definite and invaluable than those of the body. He saw that if psychology was to make any advance it must give up its metaphysical and supernatural assumptions. There is no thought, no emotion, no instinct within us that is not subject to definite mechanisms, as certain and invariable as physical or chemical reactions. He realized that the psychology of his day was still in a rudimentary and even stagnant state. "Its very first fundamental axioms are not admitted, but all is involved in a paradoxical mystic supernatural obscurity."

It was his idea that the two great natural guides to the understanding of mental health and disease are joy and sorrow, corresponding to the feelings of pain and pleasure in the body. The ordinary standards of moral excellence were obviously unhealthy, according to Drysdale. Many of the characters most admired by Victorian moralists were to him infected with disease. The great crying need in mind as well as body, he insisted, is not humility nor spiritual sentiment, but self-reliance, expressive energy and an active enjoyment of life--in a word, health. A true enjoyment of moral and spiritual nature, Drysdale claimed, could only be obtained by the comparative examination of the minds of all living beings and by tracing our faculties upward from their simple expressions in the lowest animals to the very most complicated state in humans. Until this is done, he was convinced that there could be no real psychology. "The science of comparative psychology," he wrote, "though it has yet scarcely an existence, opposed as it has been by our narrow conception of the human mind, will ultimately be recognized as equally indispensable with comparative anatomy in order to attain a true knowledge of our nature." In this statement we find in Drysdale a striking anticipation of the new psychology with its studies of myth, folk-lore and primitive man.