Inspiring Purpose

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna on March 26, 1905. His father, Gabriel Frankl, was a strong, disciplined man from Moravia who worked his way from government stenographer to become the director of the Ministry of Social Service. His mother, Elsa Frankl (née Lion), was more tender-hearted, a pious woman from Prague. The middle of three children, young Viktor was precocious and intensely curious. Even at the tender age of four, he already knew that he wanted to be a physician.
In high school, Viktor's interest in people turned him towards the study of psychology. He finished his high school years with a psychoanalytic essay on the philosopher Schopenhauer, a publication in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, and the beginning of a rather intense correspondence with the great Sigmund Freud.
In 1925, a year after graduating and on his way towards his medical degree, he met Freud in person. The next year, Frankl used the term logo therapy in a public lecture for the first time, and began to refine his particular brand of Viennese psychology.

In 1928 and 1929, Frankl organized cost-free counselling centres for teenagers in Vienna and six other cities, and began working at the Psychiatric University Clinic. In 1933, He was put in charge of the ward for suicidal women at the Psychiatric Hospital, with many thousands of patients each year. In 1937, Frankl opened his own practice in neurology and psychiatry. One year later, Hitler's troops invaded Austria. He obtained a visa to the U.S. in 1939, but, concerned for his elderly parents, he let it expire.

In 1940, Frankl was made head of the neurological department of Rothschild Hospital, the only hospital for Jews in Vienna during the Nazi regime. He made many false diagnoses of his patients in order to circumvent the new policies requiring euthanasia of the mentally ill. It was during this period that he began his manuscript, The Doctor and the Soul. Frankl married in 1942, but in September of that year, he, his wife, his father, mother, and brother, were all arrested and brought to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Bohemia. His father died there of starvation. His mother and brother were killed at Auschwitz in 1944. His wife died at Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Only his sister Stella would survive, having managed to emigrate to Australia a short while earlier. When he was moved to Auschwitz, his manuscript for The Doctor and the Soul was discovered and destroyed. His desire to complete his work, and his hopes that he would be reunited with his wife and family someday, kept him from losing hope in what seemed otherwise a hopeless situation.

After moves to two more camps, Frankl finally succumbed to typhoid fever. He kept himself awake by reconstructing his manuscript on stolen slips of paper. In April of 1945, Frankl's camp was liberated, and he returned to Vienna, only to discover the deaths of his loved ones. Although nearly broken and very much alone in the world, he was given the position of director of the Vienna Neurological Policlinic - a position he would hold for 25 years.

He finally reconstructed his book and published it, earning him a teaching appointment at the University of Vienna Medical School. In only 9 days, he dictated another book, which would become Man's Search for Meaning. Before he died, it sold over nine million copies, five million in the U.S. alone!

During this period, he met a young operating room assistant named Eleonore Schwindt and fell in love at first sight. Although half his age, he credited her with giving him the courage to re-establish himself in the world. They married in 1947, and had a daughter, Gabriele, in December of that year.

In 1948, Frankl received his Ph.D. in philosophy. His dissertation The Unconscious God was an examination of the relation of psychology and religion. That same year, he was made associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna. In 1950, he founded and became president of the Austrian Medical Society for Psychotherapy.

After being promoted to full professor, Frankl continued to teach at the University of Vienna until 1990, when he was 85. It should be noted that he was a vigorous mountain climber and earned his pilot's licence when he was 67!

In 1992, friends and family members established the Viktor Frankl Institute in his honour. In 1995, he finished his autobiography, and in 1997, he published his final work, Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning, based on his doctoral dissertation. He has 32 books to his name, and they have been translated into 27 languages. Viktor Emil Frankl died on September 2, 1997.

Viktor Frankl's theory and therapy grew out of his experiences in Nazi death camps. Watching who did and did not survive (given an opportunity to survive!), he concluded that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had it right: 'He who has a why to live for can bear with almost anything.' He saw that people who had hopes of being reunited with loved ones, or who had projects they felt a need to complete, or who had great faith, tended to have better chances than those who had lost all hope. He called his form of therapy logo therapy, from the Greek word logos, which can mean study, word, spirit, God, or meaning. It is this last sense Frankl focusses on. Frankl set his goal to balance the dominant physiological view of psychotherapy with a spiritual perspective, and saw this as a significant step towards developing more effective treatment.

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