Postcard from Brody, 1898
In 1924 a young Ukrainian doctor arrived in the USA. His name was Leo Kanner, and in some quarters his name was to become legendary.
Kanner had been born in 1894 into an orthodox Jewish family living near the Ukrainian town of Brody in the Galician region of what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. 1894 wasn’t a good time to be living in Brody, known then as the ‘Galician Jerusalem’. The assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881 triggered a wave of anti-Jewish riots across Russia, the Jews being widely seen as responsible for the assassination despite only one of the assassins being Jewish by birth and the others atheist revolutionaries. The loss of Jewish life during the pogroms of 1881-1884 was significantly less than in the slaughter that took place between 1903 and 1906, but nonetheless from 1881 onwards Brody found itself overwhelmed by waves of Jewish refugees traveling West. Despite this influx, the Jewish proportion of the population of Brody had fallen from 90% in 1869 to 67% by 1910. The town was partially destroyed during the Polish-Soviet war in 1920 and then became an important military base occupied by the Red Army during WWII. After German occupation in 1941, the Jewish population, by then numbering 9,000, was exterminated.
Leo Kanner had managed to stay one jump ahead of catastrophe; he began studying medicine at the University of Berlin in 1913 and finally qualified as a doctor in 1921, his training being interrupted by military service during the First World War. He arrived in the USA in the same year that the Johnson-Reed Act reduced national immigration quotas. Between 1926 and 1929 around 20% of the Galician Jewish population migrated to the US, arriving with an estimated average of $22 each.
Kanner made the most of his new opportunity. After a period at the State Hospital in Yankton County, South Dakota, in 1930 he was appointed to a post at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Baltimore, which is where his pioneering work began.
Most of the material in this post is from the Wikipedia entries for Brody and for the History of the Jews in Brody.
Human beings cannot be purely objective; we all bring cognitive and emotional biases to the data we encounter. The point of the scientific method is to compensate for those biases as much as possible. But even the way we use the scientific method can be skewed by our worldview. For obvious reasons it’s difficult to make allowances for the biases of people living in our own time and our culture – we will be subject to similar biases ourselves. But I’ve found it useful to look into the background of researchers from other times and other cultures – it’s easy to assume they saw the world in the way we do, when that’s very unlikely.
So my first post is about Leo Kanner’s social and economic background. In the second, I plan to explore the theoretical framework he would have been using. It could be that what was happening in Kanner’s homeland might have nothing to do with his autism hypothesis, but it does shed some light on what he might have experienced before becoming a pioneering psychiatrist.
My interest in autism began when it was suggested that an autism spectrum disorder might be the cause of my son’s developmental problems. Like many parents, I found what I read about autism perplexing, and had to do a great deal of reading before what I read began to make sense. My investigations have taken me off the beaten track somewhat, have led me to question the prevalent theoretical models of autism in particular, models of so-called mental disorders in general, and have got me interested in how scientists form the conceptual models they use in research.
I knew next to nothing about autism when I began researching. The obvious place to start was with one of the many accessible introductory websites or books. What I found was that they described autism but didn’t explain it. So I moved on to more technical material I thought might help. I was surprised to find that academic books and journal papers also tended to offer descriptions rather than explanations. And that the explanations that were put forward often didn’t explain the data. I felt I must have missed something, decided to start from the beginning and read Leo Kanner’s ground-breaking paper on childhood autism published in 1943. That’s where this blog starts. I hope it provides a useful resource for others and that it stimulates discussion.