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Falk Dean | Fellow Visitor
2023-08-28 - 2023-09-25 | Research area: History of Biology
Letters from the Round Table: New Light on Hans Asperger and the Development of Pediatrics in Vienna

The Therapeutic Pedagogy Unit (TPU) of the University of Vienna’s Children’s Hospital that was directed by Hans Asperger (discoverer of Asperger Syndrome) during the Nazi occupation of Austria has recently been in the academic and public spotlight because of sensationalistic claims that Asperger was complicit in the Nazi Child Euthanasia program. Although my colleagues and I have begun to publish responses to this allegation, the controversy about Asperger and what went on at his ward is becoming more heated. Unfortunately, there is a significant lack of evidence that addresses the specifics of Asperger’s ward, the people who ran it, their attitudes toward their patients, and how they regarded their boss. The proposed project will address this gap by publishing a collection of private letters written to Asperger between 1933 and 1949 by members of his inner circle at the TPU who referred to themselves as the Round Table (Tafelrunde): Valerie Bruck, Josef Feldner, Georg Frankl, Anni Weiss, and Viktorine Zak. The letters were provided to us from Asperger’s estate, which is curated by his daughter Dr. Maria Asperger Felder. They discuss the ward’s patients, goings-on at the clinic, and the personal and professional lives of Asperger and his colleagues. The proposed project is to translate into English and publish these letters in a volume, titled Letters from the Round Table. The volume will be coauthored by an interdisciplinary team of five scholars (three of them from Austria) and will consist of approximately thirty items, most of them letters. Each item will be annotated to shed light on its context and/or further relevant historical background. Photocopies of the original communications, written in German, will be presented along with their English translations and explanatory information. However, the volume will offer more than a set of translated letters that have relevance for assessing the current controversy about Asperger. Medical Therapeutic Pedagogy predated the advent of child psychiatry and developed from pediatrics in Vienna in the early 20th century to meet the needs of children with emotional, behavioral, and educational difficulties. For the care of such children, psychoanalytical and psychological testing approaches were considered irrelevant. At the same time, the Child Guidance Movement, which included the latter approaches, developed in the USA. Tensions between the European and American schools are reflected at a very personal level in some of the volume’s letters. This wealth of information should be of interest, not only to historians of psychology, but also to child psychiatrists and other pedagogic practitioners. In sum, the volume will be relevant for scholars interested in the history of medicine in Vienna in addition to historians and members of the public who want to understand how Asperger and his colleagues treated disabled children before and during the Nazi occupation of Vienna.