Enrico Morselli

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Enrico Agostino Morselli
Enrico Morselli, c. 1920
Occupation Physician, Psychical researcher

Enrico Agostino Morselli (17 July 1852 – 18 February 1929) was an Italian physician and anthropologist. He is best known for the publication of his influential book, Suicide: An Essay on Comparative Moral Statistics (1879) claiming that suicide was primarily the result of the struggle for life and nature's evolutionary process.[1][2][3][4]

According to Edward Shorter "Morselli is known outside of Italy for having coined the term dysmorphophobia. In Italy, he is known for the psychiatry textbook, A Guide to the Semiotics of Mental Illness."[5]

Morselli was a eugenicist and some of his writings have been linked to scientific racialism.[6][7] Morselli was also interested in mediumship and psychical research. He studied the medium Eusapia Palladino and concluded that some of her phenomena was genuine, being evidence for an unknown bio-psychic force present in all humans.[8]


Early life and education

Enrico Morselli was born in Modena. In 1855, having lost his father, he moved with his mother, expecting her second-born Giuseppina, to Correggio, placing the family under the protection of a powerful great-uncle. At his great-uncle's behest, Morselli first attended a well-known religious boarding school in the Emilian town, then a private high school in Modena.

He studied at the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Modena, where he took part in the lectures of Giovanni Canestrini, a zoologist, and Paolo Gaddi, an anatomist, who introduced him to anthropology and craniology. In particular, the latter made available to Morselli the exhibits of the University Anatomical Museum he had founded. Finally, in July 1874, he graduated with a thesis, later published by Loescher, entitled La trasfusione del sangue (The Transfusion of Blood), in which he tried to deny the efficacy of this practice in psychiatry.

Career overview

At the invitation of Carlo Livi, professor of Hygiene and Forensic Medicine and director of the Reggio Emilia Asylum Institute, the young man made the decision to take up psychiatry, and on August 15, 1874 he was hired as a practicing physician in the mental asylum directed Livi. What's more, again under Livi's suggestion, he attended an advanced course in Anthropology at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Florence held by Paolo Mantegazza founder of the Italian Society of Anthropology and Ethnology.

Here the cultural debate was led by philosophers such as Felice Tocco and scientists such as Moritz Schiff; so that in such a lively environment Morselli found himself forced to revise the approaches he had held to craniology, as well as the anthropological method. These influences would later give rise to La rivista di filosofia scientifica, which was to become the organ of Italian Positivism for the whole of a decade, gathering around it most of the men of culture and thinkers adhering to the school.

The experience at the St. Lazarus asylum represented a turning point in Morselli's life, as he was able to incorporate Livi's modern approach to psychiatry, along with a consideration of the value inherent in combining speculation and empiricism in the medical sciences. At that time he also met Augusto Tamburini, with whom he shared the need for a renewal of the landscape of psychiatry in Italy. With these he proposed that Livi found the still-existing Rivista sperimentale di freniatria e medicina legale.

At the same time, from 1875, Morselli worked, as assistant to Carlo Ghinozzi, in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, dealing in particular with neuropathology as evidenced by his constant articles in Lo sperimentale — a medical journal founded by Maurizio Bufalini — in which he favored a clinical approach to the sick person understood in his entirety as a man and not in relation to his pathology.

In February 1877, at the age of 25, having married Maria Pia Regàlia, sister of the well-known paleontologist Ettore Regàlia (1842–1914), he moved to Macerata, where he had been hired as Medical Administrative Director of the S. Croce Asylum: following the teachings of Carlo Livi he aimed at defining a therapeutic and not custodialist direction for the Institute. In deference to his view of the facts, Morselli would be the first in Italy to allow groups of patients to leave the institute and to attend public places and premises.

He won the competition announced by the Regio Istituto Lombardo with the essay Il suicidio. Saggio di statistica Morale comparata (1879), a work that would be published in English in 1887, and thus obtained in Pavia his first professorship in Clinical Psychiatry.

The work was immediately a relevant success, so much so that it attracted the attention of Émile Durkheim, who largely used Morselli's statistical analyses as the empirical basis for writing one of his most significant books: Suicide. A Study in Sociology, which came out in 1897.

He then began teaching the discipline in Turin, where he also directed the city's Royal Asylum. Then, from 1887, he taught courses in anthropology from which would be derived the essay General Anthropology. Man according to the theory of evolution (1911). To these years date some of those statements that would make Morselli one of the pioneers in the field of psychiatry in Italy. In reference to the attitude of nurses toward the sick, in fact, he argues:

Be for our sick the caring brothers and friends that life has denied them; they must feel in you the flame of love, not the cold detachment of the janitor, or, worse, the tormentor.[9]

In the Turin environment he got to know both Cesare Lombroso, with whom he had had the opportunity to make a summer trip to Lunigiana, Lucchesia and Garfagnana for reasons of anthropometric study, and Eugenio Tanzi, with whom he conducted research work that would lead to the publication of Il magnetismo, la fascinazione e gli stati ipnotici. In this text, and in subsequent articles published in various journals, he defended the psychological interpretation carried out by the Nancy school, which, in contrast to Charcot's neurological reading, sees hypnotism as closely related to suggestion: a faculty present in greater or lesser quantity in the individual, healthy or ill.

Morselli and his research group was among the first in Italy to support the psychological reading of hypnotism in a strongly organicist-oriented psychiatry. At the VI Congress of the Società Freniatrica Italiana[10] Tamburini, initially a Charcotian, proposed a "conciliatory theory" that provided a synthesis between the Nancy school and the Salpêtrière school, in fact advocating a psychological reading closely linked to suggestion. A work, this, which ended up representing a total break with that academic environment in Turin within which, Morselli, was already identified as an "uncomfortable" personality. Precisely for this reason the latter resigned in 1888, at the age of 37, and asked for a transfer to the University of Genoa.

In 1890 Morselli was called to occupy the vacant chair of clinical psychiatry at the Ligurian university, which had remained vacant following the death of Dario Maragliano in 1889. He brought Tanzi with him but still cultivated a large core of students, including Giuseppe Portigliotti, Giuseppe Vidoni, and Moisey Kobylinsky. Over the years he was entrusted with teaching a varied number of disciplines: from Forensic and Experimental Psychology, to Neuropathology and Electrotherapy, not forgetting Anthropology for the School of Preparation for Travelers, established by the Faculty of Science.

In 1894, he accepted the directorship of the department of Neurology at the polyclinic, where a few years earlier he had already founded an section for psychiatric pathologies, and where both free consultations in favor of indigents and paid services were offered. A few years later he inaugurated Villa Maria Pia in Albaro, which promised ultra-modern cures for psychopaths, neuropaths and morphocainomaniacs; all this after directing in 1887 the hydrotherapeutic establishment in San Maurizio Canavese, aimed particularly at women suffering from hysteria, and not forgetting the direction of the Paedagogium Institute for late children in Nervi. It was precisely on these numerous and varied experiences that he based the expertise that led Morselli to the definition of the two successful volumes of the Manual of Semeiotics of Mental Diseases in which he attempted for the first time to combine empiricism and classificatory rigor, and in the second edition of which he devoted special attention to the Psychological Examination of Madness.

During these years he began to take an interest in mediumistic phenomena, first approaching the subjects with great skepticism; then, having made the Society for Psychical Research's addresses his own, he came to the writing in 1908 of a meticulous diary entitled Psychology and Spiritism, after having participated as a careful observer in the sessions of Eusapia Palladino, among the best-known mediums of the time.

He founded in 1914 the Quaderni di Psichiatria, entrusted to the editorial care of his son Arturo Morselli, also a psychiatrist, which became, in wartime, a forum for the exchange of views related to the new problems that the conflict posed and that alienists were faced with. Summoned to participate in the war, he chaired the Union of Italian Physicians for the National Resistance, and at the end of the conflict began to demonstrate new interests in social prophylaxis and eugenics, taking part in the First International Congress held in London in 1912.

Later years

In the last years of his life, Morselli devoted himself in particular to the popularization, accompanied by his personal reservations, of the new psychoanalytic instances of Freudian origin already widespread in Europe but still completely unknown in Italy. Thus he published two volumes with the title La psicanalisi (Psychoanalysis), which he sent to Freud himself, accompanied by a pamphlet on Zionism, a demonstration of the new interest that Morselli's already multifaceted personality was beginning to cultivate. An interest that would lead the Bolognese doctor to analyze the new vistas that Freudian science was offering: those relating to libido and sexuality. Of these late studies, however, we are left with only a few writings, collected in a posthumous edition, published under the editorship of his son, and bearing the title Human sexuality according to psychology, biology and sociology (1931).

Reservations about psychoanalysis

In 1926 Morselli published the two volumes of his study of psychoanalysis — the first volume dedicated to Roberto Ardigò, the second to Cesare Lombroso — among the first attempts to introduce into the Italian scientific-cultural environment the thought matured by Sigmund Freud and his school; and in the editing of the work the Modenese mostly drew on foreign literature on the subject, already abundant with studies in various languages while they are still almost absent in Italy.

From a strictly scholarly point of view, Michel David argues, in La psicanalisi nella cultura italiana, that Morselli does not, however, go beyond the stage of "diligent compilation" and indeed sins with "an almost total incomprehension toward his own subject."[11]

Against this severe historical criticism of the Modenese scholar, stands the letter sent in February 1926 to Morselli by Freud, with frank thanks for "his great work on psychoanalysis," while not concealing disappointment at the Italian's obvious reservations about the new subject. Wrote Freud:

In reading your great work on psychoanalysis I noted with regret that you fail to give your adherence to our young science without great limitations, and I am compelled to console myself for this by thinking of the necessary divergence of opinions in such difficult subjects, as also of the certainty that your work will contribute greatly to awakening the interest of your fellow citizens in psychoanalysis.

Reservations that Morselli himself pointed out in the preface:

We Italian alienists and neurologists are most willing to recognize the original sides of psychoanalysis, but at the same time we want to subject them, according to the criteria of healthy positivism, to a serious and subtle examination, maximally in regard to its general principles; we cannot accept what for the moment seem to us paradoxes or parts of fantasy. Least of all will we join the phalanx of those advocates of it who put the creation of psychoanalysis on a par with the discoveries of the planetary system, universal attraction, or cellular pathology. We listen unblinkingly to the immense presumptions of Freudism and admire, perhaps, its daring and Pindaric flights, but we stand firm on the solid ground of facts, that is, of positive evidence and experience. Therefore, neither can we become enthusiastic about psychoanalysis, nor all of it do we reject it out of bias; we want to judge it without preconceptions, and so it will come to pass that which fairness of criterion will prove acceptable to us in its doctrines: for the remainder, and in particular for its psychological methods and procedures, for certain of its psychotherapeutic successes which are now proclaimed to us to be stable and sure, we prefer to submit them to bail, and we stand in an attitude of a more less benevolent expectation, of courteous and prudent reserve. From Italian scholars we do not demand more than this!

All this gives the final synthesis of the Italian's intentions toward the new subject; so that "past the great moment of infatuation," Morselli will choose to converge rather toward the "more soundly somatic" science, as expressed then especially by Pavlov: a distinctly deterministic theory and for that reason certainly closer to Morselli's positivistic-Lombrosian training.

Morselli is credited with the first scientific description in 1891 of the psychopathological picture of some phobias and their names, including:

  • Taphophobia (or taphephobia), the irrational fear of being buried alive.
  • Dysmorphophobia, the fear related to a distorted view of one's outward appearance.


  • Conferenza sui rapporti fra il cervello e il pensiero (1870)
  • Razze umane e la lotta per l'esistenza (1871)
  • La trasfusione del sangue (1876; 1885)
  • Sul lavoro agricolo e industriale nei manicomi (1877)
  • Le scuole per gli infermieri nel manicomio (1878)
  • Il suicidio. Saggio di statistica morale comparata (1879)
  • Critica e riforma del metodo in antropologia (1880)
  • Manuale di semeiotica delle malattie mentali (1885)
  • Il magnetismo animale. La fascinazione e gli stati ipnotici (1886)
  • La dismorfofobia e la tafefobia nei loro rapporti con le forme consimili di pazzia del dubbio (paranoia rudimentaria) (1891)
  • Per la polemica sul divorzio (1902)
  • Biografia di un bandito: Giuseppe Musolino (1903)
  • Psicologia e spiritismo (1908)
  • Antropologia generale. L'uomo secondo la teoria dell'evoluzione (1911)
  • L'uccisione pietosa (Eutanasia) in rapporto alla medicina, alla morale e all'eugenica (1923)
  • La Psicanalisi (1926)
  • Sessualità umana secondo; la psicologia; la biologia e la sociologia (1931)


  1. Stark, Rodney; Bainbridge, William Sims. (1996). Religion, Deviance and Social Control. Routledge. p. 32. ISBN 978-0415915298
  2. Maj, Mario; Ferro, F. M. (2002). Anthology of Italian Psychiatric Texts. World Psychiatric Association. pp. 177-180. ISBN 2-84671-041-4
  3. Farberow, Norman L. "History of Suicide" In "Suicide Basics" article, Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (Retrieved June 29, 2009).
  4. Weaver, John. (2009). Sadly Troubled History: The Meanings of Suicide in the Modern Age. McGill Queens University Press. pp. 25-26. ISBN 978-0773535138
  5. Shorter, Edward. (2005). A Historical Dictionary of Psychiatry. Oxford University Press. p. 182. ISBN 978-0195176681
  6. Cassata, Francesco. (2011). Building the New Man: Eugenics, Racial Science and Genetics in Twentieth-Century Italy. Central European University Press. pp. 18-21. ISBN 978-9639776838
  7. Bashford, Alison; Levine, Philippa. (2012). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Oxford University Press. p. 380. ISBN 978-0199945054
  8. Brancaccio, Maria Teresa. (2014). Enrico Morselli's Psychology and "Spiritism": Psychiatry, psychology and psychical research in Italy in the decades around 1900. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 48: 75-84.
  9. Musitelli (1964), Vol. 2.
  10. Novara, September 8-14, 1889.
  11. David, Michel (1966). La Psicoanalisi nella Cultura Italiana. Torino: Boringhieri.


  • Concari, Graziano (1983-1984). "Alcuni aspetti della ricerca psichiatrica di Enrico Morselli," Acta medicae historiae Patavina, Vol. XXX, pp. 27–30.
  • Musitelli, Sergio (1964). Storia della Medicina, Vol. 2. Milano: Fratelli Fabbri Editori.
  • Guarnieri, Patrizia (1986). Individualità Difformi: La Psichiatria Antropologica di Enrico Morselli. Milano: F. Angeli.
  • Porter, Roy (1988). Dizionario Biografico della Storia della Medicina. Milano: Franco Maria Ricci Editore.

External links