[Index of Biographies]

Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813)

[This is a draft of an article in The Dictionary of Eighteenth Century German Philosophers, 3 vols., edited by Manfred Kuehn and Heiner Klemme (London/New York: Continuum, 2010).]

Johann Christian Reil, born 20 February 1759 in Rhaude (Ostfriesland), was the only son of the Lutheran pastor Johann Julius Reil and his wife Anna (née Jensen-Streng). Reil was one of the most highly regarded German medical scientists of the late eighteenth century. He divided medicine into three fields —physiology, anatomy, and psychiatry — and he made important contributions to each of these with his early work on a non-vitalistic physiology, his anatomical studies of the nervous system, and his pioneering work in psychiatry (a term he coined) and the reform of mental asylums. Reil’s work was strongly influenced by a Kantian understanding of nature and science, although his later writings reflect a shift towards Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. Reil’s early death, at the age of 54, came as a result of his efforts in the Prussian military: During renewed hostilities with Napoleon’s army in 1813, Reil volunteered for military service and was given the commission to direct field hospitals west of the Elbe. His efforts to contain the typhus epidemic then raging — exacerbated by the scores of thousands of killed and wounded soldiers — eventually led to his own infection, and he retired to his sister’s home in Halle to die (22 November 1813).

Reil began his medical studies at Göttingen in April 1779, transferring after three semesters to Halle (matriculating on 14 October 1780), where he studied anatomy and surgery under Phillip Meckel (1755-1803) and medicine under Johann Goldhagen (1742-88); Goldhagen also introduced Reil to freemasonry, sponsoring his induction in the spring of 1782. Reil received his medical degree on 9 November 1782 with a dissertation on biliary disease and moved to Berlin to complete a year-long clinical course at the College of Medicine and Surgery, a course required of all physicians wanting to practice medicine in Prussia. This College, originally founded in 1725 as a training facility for army physicians and surgeons, was unattached to any university (Humboldt’s new university would not open until 1810) but along with its associated hospital, the Charité, it was the largest and best-equipped medical facility in Prussia.

Reil arrived in Berlin with a letter of introduction from Goldhagen to Marcus Herz (1747-1803) [bio], also a recent student of Goldhagen’s (graduating from Halle in 1774) and, more significantly, one of Immanuel Kant’s former students and a valued correspondent. Reil lived in the Herz home during his year in Berlin and it was here that Reil first encountered Kant’s philosophy. Along with directing the Jewish hospital in Berlin, Herz gave various lectures in his home and, beginning in 1777, these included lectures on Kant’s philosophy, the first of their kind in Berlin and drawing auditors from the highest circles of Berlin society.

Reil returned to Ostfriesland in 1783 where he practiced medicine for four years before Goldhagen called him back to Halle as a lecturer (summer 1787). After one semester he was promoted to associate professor, and Goldhagen’s death the following year (10 January 1788) led to Reil’s promotion to full professor, at which time he also became director of the university clinic founded by Goldhagen the year before, as well as assuming Goldhagen’s position as municipal physician. That October he married Johanna Willemina Leveaux, the daughter of a prominent local family, and together they had two sons and four daughters.

Reil taught at Halle for twenty-two years where he promoted physiology as the proper foundation of medical science, and which was itself to be grounded in a thorough knowledge of chemistry. He began the first scientific journal devoted to this subject, the Archiv für Physiologie (12 vols., 1796-1815), with the first issue dedicated to two of his Halle colleagues: the chemist Friedrich Albrecht Karl Gren (1760-98) — by then an opponent of Stahl’s phlogistic chemistry — and the Kantian philosopher Ludwig Heinrich Jakob (1759-1827) [bio]. This first issue consisted of Reil’s groundbreaking essay, ‘On the Life Force’, in which he rejected Stahl’s animism (what was later called ‘vitalism’) and its notion of a life force (Lebenskraft) as an occult, ontologically separate soul controlling and directing the body. Reil also criticized Blumenbach’s [bio] use of Bildungstrieb (or nisus formativus) as a mere mediation of some more ultimate and hidden cause. If medicine is to become a science, Reil argued, then all such explanations must rest entirely on efficient causality. Powers and forces are to be understood as grounded in the matter itself. (Oddly, this essay, perhaps on the basis of the title alone, was often characterized in the older literature as a defense of vitalism.)

Reil was made a member in 1793 of Germany’s oldest scientific society, the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina, although he was never invited into the Berlin Academy. In 1802 he declined a generous offer to teach at Göttingen, instead accepting from Halle a handsome raise (to 900 Thaler) and the title of Oberbergrat.

In his final years at Halle, Reil’s interests turned to neuroanatomy, apparently awakened by a visiting lecture given there during the summer of 1805 by the neuroanatomist and phrenologist Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828). Reil began with several studies of the cerebellum, completing and publishing the majority of this work between 1807-1809.

Along with the Archiv für Physiologie, Reil also began two other journals, although these were short-lived: the Magazin für die psychische Heilkund (1805), co-edited with the philosopher A. B. Kayszler (1769-1821), and the Beyträge zur Beförderung einer Kurmethode auf psychischem Wege, 2 vols. (1808-12), co-edited with the philosopher J. C. Hoffbauer (1766-1827).

Reil’s Kantian understanding of science and of the self, shaped by Herz in Berlin and strengthened by Jakob at Halle, appears in Reil’s mechanistic account of physiology, and is at work even as late as his 1802 volume on fever (vol. 4, dedicated to Napoleon). Reil and Kant never corresponded, although Kant does refer to Reil’s writings on physiology in his Conflict of the Faculties (1798), and a student of Reil’s, Carl Arnold Wilmans (1772-1848), wrote several letters to Kant, one of which Kant published as an appendix to part one of his Conflict (1798; Ak. 7: 69-75). Here Wilmans mentions Reil’s physiology as an account of a materialistic basis of the understanding, a position from which Kant distanced himself in his letter to Wilmans (May 1799).

Reil’s philosophical orientation shifted towards Schelling’s Naturphilosophie in his 1803 book on insanity and its therapies (Rhapsodies on the Use of Psychological Therapies for the Mentally Disturbed). Here insanity is no longer seen as a straying of autonomous reason, but rather as a fragmentation of the rational self and its consequent inability to properly construct the non-ego. Sanity was now viewed as a proper balancing of one’s mental forces that themselves arise from an interplay of less complex forces within the nervous system. These mental forces were Selbstbewußtsein (the sense of oneself as a distinct, continuous, and integrated person), Besonnenheit (the sense of the relative importance of objects of awareness, allowing one to allocate attention appropriately), and Aufmerksamkeit (the ability to attend to what one chooses). An imbalance of these forces could be corrected in various ways, ranging from ‘talking cures’ to various forms of shock treatment (such as plunging the patient into a tub of live eels). Reil’s shift away from a wholly mechanistic account of nature is most apparent in his 1807 study on pregnancy, where Reil claims that uterine behavior is inexplicable without positing something like Blumenbach’s Bildungstrieb.

Reil’s Rhapsodies (1803) also pioneered reforms in the care and treatment of the mentally ill, such as housing the curable and incurable separately. His interests in hydrotherapy led to opening a spa during his last years in Halle — one of the first in Germany — and after moving to Berlin he continued to promote the building of public baths and saunas as a matter of public hygiene as well as for therapeutic uses. He also discussed euthanasia (1816), having witnessed killings of lingering patients, generally by suffocation. Here he argued for the relief of bodily and emotional unease, but not for the hastening of death.

During the War of the Third Coalition, student opposition to Napoleon led to the closing of the university at Halle for three semesters (20 October 1806 until 9 March 1808). Having been the largest of the four Prussian universities (the other three were Königsberg, Frankfurt/Oder, and Duisburg), political reconfigurations now left Halle as part of the Kingdom of Westphalia, thus reinvigorating talks of a new Prussian university to be founded in Berlin. Wilhelm von Humboldt, acting as the Prussian minister of education, consulted both Reil and Christoph Hufeland (1762-1836) [bio] on how medical education should proceed both at the new university and throughout Prussia in general, and received from them quite different proposals. Reil argued for a classical science education, against those ‘apostles of utility’ who valued science only for its practical applications. He had argued in his 1804 essay on the Pepinieren for a split-track educational system, with physicians attending the university to receive a classical training in the sciences and paramedics training in a vocational school where they would learn to follow certain basic rules for the treatment of simple medical conditions. In Reil’s mind, physicians were primarily scientists, while for Hufeland they were first and foremost healers. Hufeland complained that already there were too many unthinking healthcare providers lacking good medical judgment, and that Reil’s plan would give us physicians full of theory but with little sense of its application, and paramedics with little understanding of what they were doing. As it happened, Reil captured Humboldt’s ear, and his views heavily shaped the medical faculty at the new university in Berlin (founded in 1810), even though Hufeland was appointed as its first dean. Reil’s victory was brief, however: His early death three years later, at the age of fifty-four, cleared the field for Hufeland, who quickly found a more clinically minded replacement.


‘Von der Lebenskraft’ in Archiv für die Physiologie, vol. 1 (1796), pp. 8-162.

Über die Erkenntnis und Kur der Fieber, 5 vols. (Halle, 1799-1815). The last volume was published posthumously by Christian Friedrich Nasse.

Rhapsodieen über die Anwendung der psychischen Curmethode auf Geisteszerrüttungen (Halle, 1803).

Other Relevant Works

Tractatus de polycholia (Halle, 1782).

Diatetischer Hausarzt für meine Landsleute, 2 vols. (Aurich, 1785, 1787).

Memorabilia clinica (Halle, 1790).

‘Über den Bau des Hirns und der Nerven’ in Neues Journal der Physik, vol. 1 (1795), pp. 96-114.

Pepinieren zum Unterricht ärztlicher Routiniers als Bedürfnisse des Staats nach seiner Lage wie sie ist (Halle, 1804).

‘Über das polarische Auseinanderweichen der ursprünglichen Naturkräfte in der Gebärmutter zur Zeit der Schwangerschaft, und deren Umtauschung zur Zeit der Geburt, als Beytrag zur Physiologie der Schwangerschaft und Geburt’ in Archiv für die Physiologie, vol. 7 (1807), pp. 402-501.

Untersuchung über den Bau des Kleinen Gehirns im Menschen und den Thieren (with Johann Fridrich Meckel) (Halle, 1807-1809).

Entwurf einer allgemeinen Pathologie, 3 vols., ed. by Christian Friedrich Nasse and Peter David Krukenberg (Halle, 1815-16).

Entwurf einer allgemeinen Therapie, ed. Peter David Krukenberg (Halle, 1816).

(editor), Archiv für Physiologie (12 vols., 1796-1815).

Further Reading

ADB, vol. 27, pp. 700-1 (Bandorf).

Broman, Thomas H., The Transformation of German Academic Medicine, 1750-1820 (Cambridge, 1996).

DBE, vol. 8, p. 209 (Reinhard Mocek).

DSB, vol. 11, pp. 363-5 (Guenter Risse).

Eulner, Hans-Heinz, ‘Johann Christian Reil, Leben und Werk’ in Nova acta Leopoldina, vol. 22 (1960), pp. 7-50.

Hamberger (Lemgo, 1798), vol. 6, pp. 272-73; (1803), vol. 10, p. 458; (1823), vol. 19, pp. 280-82.

Hansen, LeeAnn, ‘From Enlightenment to Naturphilosophie: Marcus Herz, Johann Christian Reil, and the Problem of Border Crossings’ in Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 26 (1993), pp. 39-63.

— ‘Metaphors of Mind and Society. The origins of German psychiatry in the revolutionary era’ in Isis, vol. 89 (1998), pp. 386-409.

Jöcher/Adelung (Leipzig, 1819), vol. 6, cols. 1640-41.

Lenoir, Timothy, The Strategy of Life: Teleology and Mechanics in 19th Century German Biology (Dordrecht, 1982).

Le Roy, LeeAnn Hansen, Johann Christian Reil and Naturphilosophie in Physiology (Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA, 1985).

Mocek, Reinhard, Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813). Das Problem des Übergangs von der Spätaufklärung zur Romantik in Biologie und Medizin in Deutschland (Frankfurt/Main, 1995).

NDB, vol. 21, pp. 323-33 (Volker Hess).

Petzold, Ingeborg, ‘Johann C. Reil, Begründer der modernen Psychotherapie?’ in Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, vol. 41 (1957), pp. 159-79.

Richards, Robert J., ‘Rhapsodies on a Cat-Piano, or Johann Christian Reil and the Foundations of Romantic Psychiatry’ in Critical Inquiry, vol. 24 (1998), pp. 700-36.

Roelcke, Volker, ‘“Wir rücken Schritt vor Schritt dem Tollhause näher...”: Das moderne Leben und die Nervenkrankheiten bei Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813)’ in Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, vol. 80 (1996), pp. 56-67.

White, William A., ‘Critical Historical Review of Reil’s Rhapsodieen’ in Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, vol. 43 (1916), pp. 1-22.

[Index of Biographies]

Copyright ©2006 Steve Naragon (Manchester University)
Last modified: 11 Jul 2010
Please send comments and questions to: ssnaragon@manchester.edu