Hermann Rorschach; His Life and Work

Wolfgang Schwarz. Rorschachiana. Volume 21, Issue 1. 1996.

In Switzerland there is a port town on the Bodensee named Rorschach, from which the family name of Hermann Rorschach was derived; the name in turn has been applied to Rorschach’s psychological experiment in perception, “The Rorschach inkblot test.” Very little factual information has been published about the life of this creative Swiss psychiatrist (1884-1922). Some of the subject matter of his seminal work, Psychodiagnostics  (Rorschach, 1921) has been appropriated under other names, and interpretations given under the heading of “Rorschach technique” are scarcely recognizable, either in significance or literalism, to the original intention and exploratory research of Hermann Rorschach. With the passing of time his name could become simply the name that is linked historically to his “inkblots.”

That Rorschach’s work was the achievement of a gifted man has already been judged, but to understand Rorschach beyond what is known of him through his work, one must learn something of the country and the traditions he grew up in, and of his parents, who had much to do with what he became.

Hermann Rorschach constructed a 32-page family tree which was based on searches into registry office, church records, and other sources. This tree traces the family of Rorschach (Roschach until the late 18th century) back to 1437, documented through direct descendants. The narrative portion of the tree opens in 496 A.D., and the “Herren von Roschach” were traced from the 10th century. The author found the ruin that was once the habitat of these knights and their descendants and photographed it. The photos match the picture of the ruin drawn in the family tree by Rorschach. The family tree is elaborately executed on heavy drawing paper and richly illustrated by him. It was completed by Christmas, 1919, by Rorschach as a gift to his brother Paul.

It appears significant that there were scarcely any emigrations among the many generations of Hermann’s ancestors on either the Rorschach or collateral branches of the family. These forebears stayed close to the Lake Constance region, primarily around Arbon, and obtained their livelihood at occupations which required little if any education. Ulrich Rorschach, Hermann’s father, was one of the few to break the family pattern. He left Arbon at 15 to travel throughout Switzerland and Germany before finally settling to a formal study of art at the Kunstgewerbschule in Zurich at the age of 31. Ulrich’s formative years helped bring into clearer focus how his experience had a bearing on the influence he was to have on his own children. Specifically, his uniqueness to Hermann’s life lies in the manner and tone in which he transmitted his cultural values to Hermann and his siblings and the benefits as well as limitations they derived from this bequest.

Hermann was born in Zurich, but within 2 years his parents moved to Schaffhausen, where Ulrich was to serve as a drawing teacher at the Realschule. Hermann’s mother, Phillippina, died suddenly and prematurely from diabetes in 1897, and his father died in 1903 of a lingering tragic illness, poorly defined at the time but ultimately traced to lead poisoning. Thereafter, the family had to endure poverty, a difficult and severe stepmother, and considerable hardship. Fortunately, Hermann experienced an excellent education at the Schaffhausen Kantonaleschule. He was a fine student, tutored his fellow students, and gave various speeches to his fraternity brothers and faculty members on subjects such as Darwin, Haeckel, evolution, and the value of poetry. He left drawings, sketches, and a few substantial signed charcoal portraits.

When Ulrich Rorschach was ill and dying, Professor Constantin von Monakow, the great neurologist who was to become one of Hermann’s future teachers, was consulted. The lead poisoning that Ulrich had contracted was not uncommon to painters of that time, and he eventually developed a form of encephalitis and its accompanying neurological disabilities. Hermann’s interest in medicine dates from the time of his parents’ illnesses. Upon Ulrich’s demise, Hermann Rorschach became the male head of the family, assuming this role at the age of 18. His sister Anna, who was 4 years younger, his brother Paul, who was 7 years younger, and his half sister Regina, who was 16 years younger, all lived at home with Regina Wiedenkeller Rorschach, who was little Regina’s mother and their stepmother.

From October 1904 to March 1909, Hermann Rorschach attended the University of Zurich Medical School. Here he began the travels and experiences that were to contribute to shaping his future views and manner of perceiving and interpreting events about him. He demonstrated an integrative pattern in approaching his studies, and his covert goal, which was verbalized at the age of 19, was related to “reading people” as well as trying to fathom the culture within which they lived and the landscape which they inhabited. His artistic ability served him well throughout these explorations and are illuminated by his sketches, drawings, and photographs.

The fullest personal accounts of Rorschach’s activities, medical experiences, and thoughts and feelings are expressed in the letters that he wrote to his sister Anna, who herself had begun to travel considerably. She and Hermann as the two older children, and eventually brother Paul and sister Regina, shared family experiences and understood each other’s values.

During 1904, while Rorschach was on a brief trip to Dijon in France, he met an older man who was an acquaintance of Tolstoi’s. This relationship blossomed for Rorschach into an introduction to Russian culture, and he soon became enchanted with it and all its mysteries. In Switzerland, Rorschach socialized with the Russian colony in Zurich. There were a number of Russian émigré medical students in his class so that, with his customary application when something was of interest, he was, within a relatively brief time, able to converse in Russian as well as read and write it to his own satisfaction. After he was invited by a fellow student to Moscow for a 3-week winter holiday, he became acquainted with Russia’s vast spaces, exotic cities, and the great Moscow Art Theater. He hungered to learn more thereafter about Russian art, literature, and culture.

By 1906, Rorschach met a Russian fellow medical student, Olga Stempelin, with whom he was eventually to become engaged and ultimately marry. In 1908, Hermann wrote to his sister Anna, “In Switzerland there is nothing to hold me … only the huge mountains.” Hermann married Olga Stempelin (his “Lola”) in 1910, and there was a question of whether to settle in Russia or Switzerland. By August, 1909, after having clerked as a medical student in Münsterlingen on several occasions, Rorschach decided to accept the position of first assistant at this Cantonal Mental Hospital located some miles above Arbon on Lake Constance. During this time, he published a number of articles and book reviews for professional journals; occasionally he reviewed medical texts. By 1912, he had completed his doctoral dissertation (Rorschach, 1912). The sponsor for the dissertation was Dr. Eugen Bleuler, who was Professor of Psychiatry at the medical school in Zurich and the director of the Burghölzli Mental Hospital. By this time, Professor Bleuler was already recognized as a world authority on dementia praecox.

Rorschach’s dissertation gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his extraordinary intellectual prowess. Since a sizable portion of the Reflexhallucination dissertation drew upon Rorschach’s own experiences and observations, it was of interest to learn how much of the Psychodiagnostic grew from Rorschach’s experimental framework. He had already visibly established the basic principles of the Psychodiagnostic by 1911, not only because of his experiments with inkblots at that time, but because the conceptual framework was embedded within his dissertation. This then was consistent with Rorschach’s own approach of utilizing earlier experiences to develop subsequent conceptions, which in turn were selectively made use of or discarded in furthering the development of a new idea.

Rorschach’s stylistic freedom in his drawings and skillful verbalizations, his creative imagination, his love of the theater and pantomime, and his unusual ability with shadow puppetry and photography all dovetailed with his traits expressing accuracy and precision in the service of his productions. His detailed explicitness when dealing with a scientific problem, his speed as well as deliberateness, and his ability to control aspects of his autonomic nervous system and draw upon inner resources and pursue consensual validation in the outside world all existed in an apparently remarkable proportion within this gifted man. It is interesting to note that documentation for these talents comes not only from his own work and the material which has been verbalized or written about him, but from a synthesis of his life and work. Of the numerous people interviewed for this work and the research associated with it, nowhere is found a tone that one associates with eulogies or the reactive inflation one hears in connection with feelings of envy by others.

Rorschach’s other early articles, during and after the Reflexhallucination, dealt with unconscious processes and their expression. Although accepted analytic interpretations were utilized in part to arrive at an explanation, Rorschach had his own slant even at this early stage of his professional development. Interestingly enough, he also published a lengthy paper under the sponsorship of Professor von Monakow of a psychiatric patient who was found to have a pineal tumor. Whereas at the time it was considered a rather minor work, it subsequently generated considerable interest.

In 1913, Rorschach followed his old director from Münsterlingen to the Mental Hospital at Münsingen in order to remain there for a 6-month period before leaving for Russia. By going through the old case histories in Münsingen, Rorschach came across a patient named Binggeli who was institutionalized there from 1896 to 1901. He pursued this case with interest because Binggeli was a sect leader who ultimately could be traced back to an earlier 18th century sect about which considerable information had been gathered. He was able to locate and interview Binggeli in his habitat. This 18th century sect was founded by Anton Unternährer. The interest generated by the Binggeli case was to lead eventually to several discoveries by Rorschach regarding the kinds of conditions that give rise to sects and sect leaders (Rorschach 1917, 1919).

Intermittently and for the balance of his career, Rorschach was involved with this fascinating subject. This corresponded to a larger scheme of investigation, some of which was published in his lifetime. His initial interest in sects was aroused by his friendship in Dijon in 1904 with Tolstoi’s friend and confidant, I.M. Tregubov, who was directly connected with the Dukhobor movement in Russia. The Dukhobors were a sect who were cruelly persecuted by the Russians. Ultimately Tolstoi made it possible for thousands of them to emigrate to Canada for safety. Rorschach was privy to this compelling story when he was 20 years of age. He made a number of presentations throughout later years resulting in his seminal studies on sects, ultimately published posthumously (Rorschach, 1927).

From December 1913 to June 1914, Rorschach worked at Krukovo, a private sanitarium several miles outside of Moscow. His studies at that time as well as his observation of Russian psychiatry contributed to his future investigations in the area of sects. It is noteworthy that Krukovo had all sorts of therapies available, ranging from hydrotherapy to psychoanalysis, and it must be remembered that the first foreign translation of Freud was into Russian.

By July 1914, Rorschach was back in Switzerland to work at the Waldau University Hospital in Berne, just before the time that Germany declared war against Russia. While at this institution, Rorschachincubated a number of ideas that were to contribute to the future development of the “Erlebnistypus” (experience type), which was to become an anchor point for the Psychodiagnostic. Rorschach often sketched his patients directly into the case history, as defined by a specific posture or expression or stance. His ability to capture in sketch typical facies or mannerisms was so accurate that 40 years later, some patients, although very old by then but still manifesting the same behavior, were immediately recognizable from these sketches. His interest in kinethesis played a prominent role in his diagnostic studies of these patients. During his Waldau stay, Rorschach made the acquaintance of two men: Dr. W. Morgenthaler, who was subsequently to contribute to the publication efforts of the Psychodiagnostic; and Dr. E. Fankhauser, who developed a theory regarding affect as it relates to color.

By 1915, Hermann Rorschach had accepted the position of “Sekundarzt” (senior in authority after the director) at the Cantonal Institution at Herisau, which is quite near St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland. It was during the years at Herisau that he produced the work for which he is known today. Rorschach’s responsibility for the hundreds of institutionalized patients under his care was demanding because, aside from the director, Dr. Koller, Rorschach was the only other full time psychiatrist on the staff. He was a sympathetic and attentive physician and was exceptionally successful in making sustained contact with many withdrawn patients. The institution, known as Krombach, had an unusual configuration and was one of the most modern cottage system mental hospital complexes in Switzerland at that time.

Eventually, Rorschach acutely felt the pressure of having to apportion his energy and time to his professional institutional obligations. In addition to these, he organized courses, considered innovative at the time, for the institutional personnel and produced and directed plays starring personnel and patients. It was not until several years later that volunteer medical residents were accepted who could help out with the enormous patient load. Two of these eventually became pupils of Rorschach and one, Hans Behn-Eschenburg, wrote his doctoral dissertation under Rorschach’s direction. Behn-Eschenburg developed a parallel set of ink blots (Behn-Eschenburg 1921). Meanwhile, the war was raging all about Switzerland, and the Swiss were called on to assist both sides in the rehabilitation of captured prisoners, German and French. For a brief period, Hermann Rorschach was also involved in these activities.

In 1912, Rorschach published a fascinating case concerning a patient who had stolen a horse during a fugue state (Rorschach 1912). These dissociative states continued to be of interest to him, so that by 1917 he published a case in which he utilized the word association experiment of Jung, free association, and hypnosis for the cure of an amnesia (Rorschach 1917). At the same time, he was also pursuing his interest in sects, sect leaders, and sect founders. All this material appeared by 1917. In addition, he had been incubating ideas that were connected with the Reflexhallucination and, in particular, the inkblots with which he first experimented in 1911. By chance, he saw Hens’ dissertation (Hens 1917), in which subjects were tested with inkblots to elicit certain responses dealing with imagination. The story of how all these matters came together for Rorschach in 1917 leading to the full blown birth of the Psychodiagnostic is in itself a wonderously charming story that was related by Hermann to his brother Paul in their correspondence. To cap the excitement of 1917, Rorschach’s wife, Dr. Olga Stempelin Rorschach, gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Elizabeth.

It should be remembered that Rorschach did not call the Psychodiagnostic a test, but rather an experiment. Rorschach’s way of referring to his work in his conversations and correspondence was always “Wahrnehmungs Experiment” (Perceptual experiment). Within a portion of the subtitle of the Psychodiagnostic ( Rorschach 1920, 1921) one can find the original title “Methodik und Ergebnisse eines wahrnehmungs-diagnostischen Experiments (Deutenlassen von Zufallsformen).” The English version called the entire subtitle “a diagnostic test based on perception.” The compounding here of the original publisher’s initial inflation added to the later criticism and misunderstanding of Rorschach’s intention. It was the editor and publisher who prevailed in the choice of the final title of the manuscript.

On the other hand, even though Rorschach labeled his work as an experiment, he believed completely in the worthiness of his discovery and devoted most of his intellectual activity to it from 1917 onward. As word spread of his extraordinary success in analyzing protocols taken by others with his plates, calls to attend to his experiment increased. These interpretations were all accomplished through “blind diagnosis” and were often several single spaced typed pages in length. He was constantly trying to find the time to oblige the many people who requested this type of interpretation. At the same time, he was striving to obtain specific records from a variety of clinical, professional and occupational sources to expand the boundaries of the experiment, rather than have it serve merely as a diagnostic tool. Rorschach’s need to provide for his family (a second child, Ulrich Wadim was born in May 1919) conflicted more than once with the immediate needs of his colleagues for his interpretations.

It will be recalled that when Jung and Freud broke with each other, there was considerable turmoil within the Swiss psychoanalytic community. By 1919, a number of Swiss founded their own Swiss psychoanalytic society, which was connected to Freud in Vienna rather than to Jung in Zurich. Participants included members from the medical and lay communities. Rorschach’s interest in psychoanalysis was tangential rather than primary. What he derived from this branch of learning in contrast to the formal psychologies of the time is partially incorporated into his writings, both in correspondence and in published form. Had he been completely captivated by psychoanalysis, it is more than likely that he would have thrown himself into the study of this pursuit wholeheartedly and thereby would not have been able to devote himself as fully to his own work.

On the other hand, Rorschach was under a practical degree of pressure from the psychoanalytic community to participate because of the impact psychoanalysis was making in his country at the time and the benefits it could offer to those who were dispensing this sought after method of treatment in Switzerland. Whereas he refused to be drafted by Oberholzer and Pfister for the presidency of the Swiss psychoanalytic society, he did accept the post of vice president and filled this position to the time of his death. He had a number of analytic patients, some of whom became prominent in the fields of psychiatry, theology, and music, and who revealed to the author the fascinating story of their treatment by Rorschach. Furthermore, since psychoanalysis was one of the methods of treatment employed as early as 1909 in Krukovo, he was never very far away from this discipline, even while in Russia.

Because several nationalities surround Switzerland, the Swiss are able to speak a number of languages comfortably. In a similar manner, they have often been able to be more adaptable to outside influences without surrendering their Swissness. It may have been natural for them to have made early compromises, modifications, and alterations concerning psychoanalysis in the style of Bleuler, Jung, Binswanger, and others of the time. Some of their interpretations seem to be unique and identifiable in their garb of Swissness. Rorschach did not altogether throw off his early influences, but he did seem to be aware of his cultural ties and used them to advantage. It was his intention to assess the responses of other cultures and races to his experiment, and he made a beginning attempt to obtain protocols from Africans, American Indians, South Americans, and others. Rorschach understood the need to collect experimental evidence and cited this in the Psychodiagnostic as well as with increasing frequency in much of his correspondence thereafter.

From 1917 to his death in 1922 Rorschach carried out a vast correspondence with colleagues and others in order to obtain subjects to further his experiments and receive increased verification for his findings. A major turning point in the acceptance by professionals came when Professor Eugen Bleuler gave Rorschach a total of 21 protocols for “blind” interpretation. Within a short time, Rorschach returned these protocols with the information he was able to extract from them. Bleuler’s enthusiasm and public statements thereafter openly supported Rorschach’s work.

The original Psychodiagnostic included only 28 cases, cited for specific examples of “normals, neuroses, and psychoses.” Most of these had been seen before 1919. The struggle for publication is a story in itself and caused no end of hardship for Rorschach. It is of interest that subsequent to the time the manuscript was submitted for publication, Rorschach continued working on the theoretical implications of his opus and gathered experimental evidence for it in terms of hundreds of extremely interesting and complex protocols. Buried within this material, there lies an enormous exposition far beyond what the original Psychodiagnostic envisaged. Consequently, there was a 3-year back log of material in terms of the developmental concepts associated with the Psychodiagnostic. Only one of the protocols was published posthumously (Rorschach, 1923) by Oberholzer to be subsequently included in the 1932 edition of the Psychodiagnostic. This protocol was discussed in a paper delivered by Rorschach in February, 1922, 6 weeks prior to his death.

Rorschach submitted to Professor Bleuler a list of topics related to the Psychodiagnostic.  He felt that further exploration of various aspects of the method might help in the construction of specific theories. Some of the topics were later assigned as dissertations under Bleuler and thereafter by his son, Professor Manfred Bleuler, who was to became the director of the Burghölzli. It is fascinating to note how many future explorations in this area had been anticipated by Rorschach.

It can be stated categorically that, during his lifetime, Rorschach had no collaborators who contributed in any systematic way to the direct development of the experiment. His professional colleagues, teachers, and friends, who submitted protocols for his interpretations, helped immeasurably to further the progress of the experiment by supplying many of the subjects and welcome encouragement. However, not one of them was associated with Rorschach in the cerebral portion of his work. Finally, it should be noted that much of what has been called the Rorschach tradition stemmed from the contact that later researchers had with some of the friends of Rorschach. Therefore, the conceptual framework that was specific to Rorschach himself needs to be reassessed not only for historical purposes but also for developmental ones.

To bridge the gap between the time Hermann Rorschach died at the age of 37 from a mistaken diagnosis of appendicitis and the present, the first full length biography from unpublished primary source material about one of the great creative psychiatrists of the 20th century, of whom little factual material is known to date, is in preparation by the present author and will be presented to enrich the fund of information in the history of medicine and psychology. Professor Eugen Bleuler said, “Hermann Rorschach was the hope of an entire generation of Swiss psychiatry.” Rorschach’s work was the springboard for much of what was to follow. The direct Rorschach test bibliography worldwide consists of thousands of titles since 1922. His germinal concepts are rich in potential, as is apparent in the constant flow of books and journal articles since that time and continuing to the present day.

Rorschach was extraordinarily creative. His unpublished work is pregnant with ideas and conceptions regarding the study of the individual, the group culture, and the process of creativity. Rorschach’s interest in kinesthesis, form, field, structure, psychograms, sociograms (as sect structures), apperception, and symbols was used to calculate the unknown in the equations he set up about human behavior. How these works anticipated later studies in perception, muscular, cutaneous, and tactile sensations, phenomenology, and existentialism will be of interest in its historic perspective. Rorschach was an artistically inclined scientist who possessed enormous curiosity. How he developed within his milieu in an independent, relatively isolated course, overcoming obstacles and working under difficult conditions with little early professional encouragement should make an interesting contribution to the study of genius.