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Leo Kanner: Father of Child Psychiatry

News from the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Leo Kanner
Dr. Leo Kanner

A Mississippi child so unusual that he “failed to pay the slightest attention to Santa Claus in full regalia” became the first of 11 case studies Leo Kanner wrote about in Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact, his 1943 monograph that established autism as a childhood psychiatric disorder. Kanner was also first to apply the word “autism” to the illness.

By the time he wrote the article, psychiatrist Kanner was in top form, his insightfulness evident:

The parents, grandparents and collaterals are persons strongly preoccupied with abstractions of a scientific, literary or artistic nature and are limited in genuine interest in people. We must assume, then, these children are born with an innate inability to form the usual biologically provided affective contact.

A physician and electrocardiologist, Kanner had emigrated in 1924 from Berlin to a state hospital in Yankton, South Dakota. There, rampant free time let him read widely on pediatric psychiatry. By 1928, articles he’d written had caught the eye of Adolph Meyer, who invited him to join the famous Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins.       

Two years later, he’d started this country’s first pediatric psychiatry service—an event we celebrate with this year’s 75th anniversary of continuing care at Hopkins. “Children were referred here,” Kanner wrote, “from everywhere!” His defining text on child psychiatry came shortly after.

Find other Hopkins Newsletter articles from past issues.