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Philippe Pinel (1745-1826)

French physician Philippe Pinel was a founder of moral treatment. His family were country doctors. He trained in Toulouse and Montpellier, then moved to Paris in 1778. He believed this would bring him closer to cutting-edge medicine, but he was prohibited from practising medicine there since his degree was from the provinces. He grew disillusioned with the ‘baseness and intrigues’ of the Paris medical establishment.

Pinel worked as a medical journalist, and then as an unlicensed doctor in a private asylum. The old guard of the Paris medical profession lost influence during the French Revolution and several of Pinel’s friends became advisers to the new government. A government committee appointed him Physician-in-Chief at the men’s and women’s public asylums in Paris in the 1790s. Pinel transformed asylum practice over the next decades - he believed people under his care should be treated like patients rather than like animals or criminals.

Asylum reform advocates in the 1800s celebrated Pinel as the doctor who first ‘freed the mad from their chains’. It was actually Pinel’s assistant, an ex-patient named Poussin, who first unchained the mental patients of Paris in 1797. Little is known about Poussin, who was unofficial ‘governor’ of the Paris men’s asylum from the 1770s. Pinel publicly acknowledged Poussin’s role, arguing that elitist physicians of his time overlooked the practical knowledge developed since the 1600s by medically untrained ‘madhouse-keepers’. These included Poussin, Francis Willis and William Tuke. However, asylum physicians in the 1800s used the story of Pinel ‘freeing the mad’ in order to strengthen their claim that medical men, not laymen, were experts in treating insanity. They made Pinel a hero and ignored Poussin.

Related Themes and Topics


I Dowbiggin, Inheriting Madness: Professionalization and Psychiatric Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)

J Goldstein, Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp 67-119

D Weiner, The Citizen-Patient in Revolutionary and Imperial Paris (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993)

D Weiner, ‘Le geste de Pinel: The history of a psychiatric myth’ in M Micale and R Porter (eds), Discovering the History of Psychiatry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp 232-247