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Leo Kanner: a special doctor for special children

The history of a Jew from a village by Lviv who was the first in the world to describe autism

The Jewish people have given the world a huge number of outstanding people. It is surprising how often tiny shtetls produce thinkers who go on to become scientists of international significance. One of them was Leo Kanner, the founder of child and teenage psychiatry.

On 18 June 1894, in the little village of Klekotow in Galicia (Lviv Oblast), Haskel-Leib was born. The future psychiatry professor was born into a family of devout Jews, but as he grew up he became ashamed of his name and provincial background, so at the first opportunity he changed it to a more European name – Leo.

Childhood always makes its mark on a person’s future, and often determines their future profession or hobby. Haskel’s first years of life were not easy. His father, Avraam Kanner, enthusiastically studied the Talmud, at the same time investigating everything that came his way. Possessing a phenomenal memory, Avraam Kanner couldn’t ignore even the most superfluous facts, and never forgot anything. Recalling his father, Leo often said that if he had lived in a time when medicine was more developed, he would have certainly been diagnosed with “Asperger’s syndrome”.

His mother, whose need to oppose her husband and society was very strong, tried to lead a non-religious way of life and reject the rules that were customary for a Jewish family. She insisted on sending her son to an ordinary school, where he soon became an outcast, as the only Jew in a small school of a tiny village.

Kanner, like his parents, was a rather asocial child who was not inclined to socialize. The family rarely expressed their feelings, and there was never any loud laughter heard in the home, although tears were also very uncommon.

Nevertheless, Haskel-Leib became an unusually developed, intelligent and talented child. At the age of 10, he began to write poetry, but it did not win him any acclaim. Later he said that this saved his life: “If I had decided to devote myself to literature I would have stayed in Germany, and would have died there in the Holocaust”.

At the age of 12, Leo moved to Berlin, where his uncle lived at the time. The head of the family, together with his wife and other children, moved to Germany shortly afterwards. In their new home, the Kanners opened a small family business. Leo found studying at a new school a little more difficult, but the future genius still became the best pupil in his class, which did not stop him from feeling lonely, as he had since early childhood.

In 1913, Leo successfully enrolled at the Berlin University, but service in the Austrian army in the First World War forced him to interrupt his studies. He only continued his academic work after the war, and received his M.D. in 1921. Besides successfully completing his studies that year, Leo also became a husband – he married Miss June Lewin, and they had two children, Anita and Albert. Their children also devoted their lives to medicine.

After working for a while as a cardiologist at a Berlin hospital, Leo met an American intern who persuaded him to move to the USA, which he did in 1924.

In America, Leo almost immediately received a position as assistant doctor at the state hospital of South Dakota. As he did not have experience in pediatrics and psychiatry, he acquired it here, in practice, studying the subtleties of these spheres of medicine at night. Later, in 1930, Adolf Meyer and Edward Park selected him to found the first children’s psychiatric department at the pediatric hospital of John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Kanner accepted the offer and three years later became a professor of psychiatry.

Leo Kanner may be justly called the first psychiatrist who devoted himself to studying children’s illnesses. His textbook on child psychiatry published in 1935 is the first English-language textbook on this topic. The book “Child Psychiatry” written by Leo Kanner went through many editions and had an enormous influence on several generations of specialists in child and teenage psychiatry.

Undoubtedly, autism as a phenomenon had already existed for many centuries, but the first clinical cases were described and published by Kanner. Over five years, from 1938 to 1943, Leo Kanner collected 11 cases from his clinical practice, analyzed and summarized his observations. The work “Autism disturbances of affective contact”, written as a result of these studies, along with the article by Hans Asperger written a year later in 1944, to this day remain the basis for the study of autism. It is interesting that Kanner described serious cases of autism, while Asperger studied highly-functional “mild” autists. Also, the scientists lived a long way from each other and did not communicate.

It was Kanner who coined the phrase “refrigerator mother”, to describe emotionally cold parents. Perhaps the lack of warmth and emotions in the home of his own parents made him sympathize with children suffering from autism and other mental disorders, and feel a special understanding towards them. For many years, this behavior in the family was considered to be one of the causes for autistic behavior in children. Only in the 1970s was this hypothesis rejected.

The main characteristic of autism, the severe form of which was also called “Kanner’s syndrome”, was the inborn inability to establish ordinary contacts with the social medium. Children with this syndrome seem to live in their own world, without noticing the people around them, and react inappropriately to standard situations in society.

At the twilight of his medical career, Kanner was the editor of the journal “Autism and Developmental Disorders”, which was the country’s main scientific journal on this topic. Doctor Kanner published a total of eight books and around 250 articles and papers on the topics of psychiatry, pediatrics, psychology and the history of medicine.

Leo Kanner won many awards, including the award “For the contribution to the development of medicine” and the prize of the National organization for mentally retarded children. Several children’s psychiatric centers and schools have been named after him, including two in the USA, one in Brazil and one in the Netherlands.

Leo Kanner was possessed of an incredible humanism and love for people. Throughout his life, he not only fought against the mockery and harassment of children with autism and mental retardation, but he also provided assistance and care to their families.

He always insisted on an extremely caring attitude to his young patients. “Special children need to be given the opportunity to form relationships with a limited number of people, so they can thaw out and come into our world,” Doctor Kanner said.

His son Albert remembered him as a very pleasant and warm-hearted man with a wonderful sense of humor, who had an infectious laugh and liked to solve crosswords from the New York Times.

One journalist who interviewed the doctor for two hours said that Leo’s main idea that expressed his world view was contained in his words: “Every child, just like every adult, needs three things: love, to be accepted the way they are, and approval. If a child has these three basic things in life, then regardless of their IQ, everything will be fine.”

In 1981, at he age of 86, Leo Kanner died of heart failure.

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