Karl Augustus Menninger was born in Topeka, Kansas, on July 22, 1893, to Charles and Florence Menninger. He studied at Washburn College, Indiana University, University of Wisconsin, and eventually graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1917. Dr. Karl became interested in psychiatry and mental health during his medical internship at Boston Psychopathic Hospital where he met his mentor, Elmer Ernest Southard. It was Southard who encouraged Karl to consider the mental health needs of children.
Dr. Karl returned to Topeka and began practicing medicine with his father. Together the two opened the Menninger Diagnostic Clinic in 1919. By 1925, the two doctors opened the Menninger Sanitarium, a private facility that served as an alternative to state hospitalization. After securing the services of his younger brother, William Menninger, The Menninger Foundation was created, offering a variety of mental health services and programs for both adults and children. Dr. Karl also helped to establish, with collaboration from the federal government, the Winter VA Hospital, whose potential as a training ground for students of psychiatry became the impetus for the creation of the Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry.
Menninger was married in 1916 to Grace Gaines, with whom he had three children: Julia Menninger Gottesman, Robert Gaines Menninger, and Martha Menninger Nichols. Dr. Karl and Grace divorced in 1941. On September 9, 1941, Menninger married again, this time to Jeanetta Lyle. The two adopted daughter Rosemary Menninger in 1948. In 1949, Menninger was awarded an honorary degree, D. Sc., from Washburn University.
In addition to playing roles as doctor and educator, father and husband, Karl Menninger authored a number of influential books. In his first, The Human Mind, published in 1930, Menninger argued that psychiatry was a science and that the mentally ill were only slightly different than healthy individuals. In The Crime of Punishment, he suggested that crime was preventable through psychiatric treatment and punishment was a brutal and inefficient relic of the past. He advocated treating offenders like the mentally ill. Other works by Dr. Karl Menninger include: Man Against Himself, Love Against Hate, and The Vital Balance.
Throughout his life, Dr. Karl was committed to many causes pertinent to mental health outside of his involvement with the Menninger Foundation. He was a consultant on prison affairs as well as assisted in the development of the Stone-Brandel Center in Chicago. In 1964, he founded the Villages, Inc., an organization that provides housing for children who have been abused, neglected and abandoned. Dr. Karl was an active member of 35 professional groups, including a term as president of the American Psychoanalytic Association from 1941 to 1942. He also held a seat on the board of directors of 22 organizations, and accepted professorships at six universities and training centers. For his dedicated service, Dr. Karl was recognized as the recipient of many major awards before his death on July 18, 1990, including the Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, from President Jimmy Carter.
Return to Top of Page
*Biographical information was obtained from the Kansas Historical Society.
Clinical experience has indicated that where a child has been exposed early in his life to episodes of physical violence, whether he himself is the victim or ... the witness, he will often later demonstrate similar outbursts of uncontrollable rage and violence of his own. Aggression becomes an easy outlet through which the child's frustrations and tensions flow, not just because of a simple matter of learning that can be just as simply unlearned, not just because he is imitating a bad behavior model and can be taught to imitate something more constructive, but because these traumatic experiences have overwhelmed him. His own emotional development is too immature to withstand the crippling inner effects of outer violence. Something happens to the child's character, to his sense of reality, to the development of his controls against impulses that may not later be changed easily but which may lead to reactions that in turn provoke more reactions - one or more of which may be criminal. Then society reacts against him for what he did, but more for what all of us have done - unpleasantly - to one another. Upon him is laid the iniquity of us all...
- Karl Menninger, The Crime of Punishment, Viking Press: 1969
Before we can diminish our sufferings from the ill-controlled aggressive assaults of fellow citizens, we must renounce the philosophy of punishment, the obsolete, vengeful penal attitude. In its place we would seek a comprehensive, constructive social attitude - therapeutic in some instances, restraining in some instances, but preventive in its total social impact.
In the last analysis this becomes a question of personal morals and values. No matter how glorified or how piously disguised, vengeance as a human motive must be personally repudiated by each and every one of us. This is the message of old religions and new psychiatries. Unless this message is heard, unless we ... can give up our delicious satisfactions in opportunities for vengeful retaliation on scapegoats, we cannot expect to preserve our peace, our public safety, or our mental health.
...But the punitive attitude persists. And just so long as the spirit of vengeance has the slightest vestige of respectability, so long as it pervades the public mind and infuses its evil upon the statute books of the law, we will make no headway toward the control of crime. We cannot assess the most appropriate and effective penalties so long as we seek to inflict retaliatory pain.
- Karl Menninger, The Crime of Punishment, Viking Press: 1969
In 1930, Dr. Karl Menninger wrote a column of advice in Ladies Home Journal addressing specific problems related to mental health. The following is a letter received April 6, 1931, from a troubled woman from Fort Worth, TX:
Ft. Worth, Tex.
Apr. 6, 1931
My dear Sir:
Your articles in the Ladies' Home Journal have interested me intensely, particularly the one on "Self-Adoration." I believe you can give me valuable information and advice--hence my appeal.
Perhaps there is no better way than coming directly to the point, though the unvarnished truth in this case is not beautiful. Is there hope of becoming normal, through psychiatric or any other kind of treatment, for a man, thirty-five years of age, who has never known sexual satisfaction except through contact with men? He can feel passionate affection for a woman, but much more for one of his own sex. He is very high-strung, has an abnormal appetite, suffers from indigestion, is subject to violent fits of temper, at which times he says he does not mean and often does not even remember. He is very critical of people, even his best friends. He becomes angry or disgusted over the most trivial occurences or remarks and then says the most unkind things to or about the friend or relative involved.
He seems to realize his condition but fears it is impossible to change it. If you can give us any hope and direct him to the best place for consultation he will go. He prefers not to consult anyone here. Is there someone competent along this line in Dallas? This man is planning a trip west in June. Can he find someone in that part of the country? Or should he go somewhere else? Will his case require the constant personal supervision of the doctor handling it?
May I beg of you to give my letter most thorough consideration and send me the help you can. It is indeed a matter of vital importance to him and to me.
Thanking you, I am,
May. 2, 1931
My dear Mrs.:
I have read with a great deal of care your letter of April 6 in regard to the man who has so much difficulty in his sexual life.
Everything you describe about this man indicates that his homosexual tendency is of neurotic origin. I must explain to you what I mean. There are in general two kinds of homosexual men. In one case the preference for a person of the same sex arises on the basis of constitutional or physical factors which cannot be changed by psychological treatment. In the other type the preference for persons of the same sex is a kind of perverted or distorted psychological development which can be successfully treated.
The nervous symptoms which accompany this man's condition and the other symptoms which you describe all indicate, as I have said, that he is under an enormous psychological stress which indicates that his homosexual satisfactions are not giving him real happiness and could, therefore, be relieved by the right kind of psychological surgery. In my opinion the best possible treatment for this condition is psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, I do not believe there are any psychoanalysts in your near vicinity. The man will have to make up his mind that he really wants to be treated, that it is the most important thing in his life for him for a while. It may take him a year and it may even take him longer. It will necessitate his going whenever the psychoanalyst is and staying there. It will require daily personal contact with the doctor until he sees the thing thru. It will cost him a great deal of time and some money but a successful outcome in a case like this is immensely gratifying and is worth many, many times what it costs to everyone concerned. I very much hope that you will be able to guide him to treatment of this sort. May I give you a final word of warning in regard to the particular psychiatrist you pick out. There are many claiming to be psychoanalysts who are quacks. This has brought psychoanalysis into rather bad repute in certain quarters. Unfortunately, however, it has not eliminated the quacks. Therefore, be sure that the man you wish to go to is a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
Upon re-reading your letter I notice you ask if there is anyone doing psychoanalysis so far West. Unfortunately I think not. I do not think it would be possible for this man to combine business and treatment. He will have to give up everything for a time and do nothing but follow out the treatment. If it is not worth that sacrifice, it isn't worth doing at all.
Karl A. Menninger
Return to Top of Page