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Werner Leibbrand as contemporary witness

The psychiatrist and medical historian Werner Leibbrand (1896-1974) has to be rediscovered as one of the highly important figures of post war Germany’s scientific community. Today only little is known about his commitment to establishing democratic structures in  the fields of public health and university education in West Germany after 1945, neither about his role as an expert during the Nuremberg Trials. Leibbrands work as senior lecturer of history of medicine at the university in Munich since 1953 resulted in a large number of publications, which still have to be considered part of the scientific canon in this field. Especially, his commitment to the improvement of the relations between Germany and France should be paid more attention by the public.


Werner Leibbrand

Fig. 1. Werner Leibbrand at the institute for history of medicine, LMU munich around 1965


Leibbrand was born in Berlin as the only son of an entrepreneur and his wife. Because of his musical talent he thought of a career as piano player. Furthermore he showed a lifelong passion for the French language, which he spoke fluently, as well as Italian, Spanish, Russian and Yiddish. His love for the fine arts brought on conflicts with his father. As a compromise Leibbrand began to study medicine and philosophy in Berlin. After he had got his doctor’s degree he worked as medical assistent at the “Westend-Sanatorium” of Julius Weiler until 1927. Then he set himself up as psychiatrist, with many of his patients coming from the world of theatre and film. Having seen the misery in working-class quarters, though, he became engaged in charity as well. Leibbrand joined the “Verein Sozialistischer Ärzte” and, together with some of his colleagues, he founded a care centre for people addicted to alcohol and drugs. After divorce from a singer in 1932, Leibbrand married Margarete Bergius (1885-1949) the former wife of Nobel prize winner Friedrich Bergius (1884-1949). She was of Jewish descent, her family being merchants in Breslau, and hosted a famous salon in Berlin.


After 1933 Leibbrands professional and personal situation deteriorated rapidly. In protest against the expulsion of Jewish colleagues from medical associations he left the “Ärztlicher Verein Wilmersdorf” in summer 1933. Consequently he was immediately removed from his office as district medical officer and lost his licence to practice as panel doctor. Shifting his attention to the field of history of medicine offered a way out of this unedifying situation.

Different plans concerning emigration came to nothing. While shunning to much publicity, Leibbrand’s followed his interests as historian and author and worked as freelance with the “Frankfurter Zeitung”, and he became acquainted with Theodor Heuss (1884-1963), later on Federal President. Between 1937 and 1939 Leibbrand published his first major medical-historical studies, including “Romantische Medizin”. The beginning of World War II meant a further dramatic deterioration of the personal situation of Leibbrand and his wife. In accordance with the so-called “Aktion Conti” Leibbrand was forced to do service at the Nervenklinik in Nuremberg. 1944 he also started to work at the psychiatric clinic in Erlangen. Here Leibbrand and his wife were given support by the intern Annemarie Wettley (1913-1996). Constant hostilities on the part of some of his colleagues forced Leibbrand and his wife to go into the underground until the end of the war.


After the war Leibbrand, as politically uncompromised psychiatrist, offered his services to the U.S. military government and was immediately appointed director of the clinic in Erlangen. His open critique of the unworthy conditions of psychiatric care in the post war era very soon led to conflicts with authorities and other physicians removed from office. During the Nuremberg Trials (1946/47) Leibbrand played an outstanding role as the only German expert there. In 1946 he and Annemarie Wettley began to reestablish the institute of history of medicine at the university of Erlangen; in 1947 Leibbrand was appointed tenured professor. However, lasting conflicts with former employees of the clinic as well as authorities caused him to instigate a call to the chair of history of medicine at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich.


Probably thanks to the support of August Rucker (1900-1978), minister of education and cultural affairs in Bavaria, Leibbrand was called to Munich. In 1958 he was appointed regular associate professor. In 1969 he became emeritus. From a scientific view, the time Leibbrand spent in Munich may justly be considered as his most productive years. Since 1954 he had attended different international congresses on medicine and history of medicine, mainly in Romance-speaking countries. Between 1955 and 1973 he and Annemarie Wettley, whom he had married in 1962 after Margarete Bergius’s death, regularly offered courses at the Sorbonne in Paris. In recognition of his merits in 1971 he was awarded the “Palmes Académiques”, the highest academic award of the French Republic.


As with its other projects the main focus of the working group is on securing and rendering a critical edition of the written estate, especially a revised edition of an autobiographic fragment written by Werner Leibbrand. Furthermore, on account of Leibbrand’s extraordinary career the sources from this estate are an unique testimony to the development of psychiatry and history of medicine in Germany from the 1920s to the 1970s. The archiving, publication and commentation of these sources are therefore highly desirable as far as psychiatry and history of medicine are concerned.


Research groups involved:

linkWebsiteRG Matthias Weber: W. Burgmair

linkWebsiteInstitut for the history of medicine, LMU munich



Weber, M. M.: Werner Leibbrand. In: Sigusch, V.; Grau, Günter (Hrsg.): Personenlexikon der Sexualforschung. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/M. 2009, 407-410.


Paul U. Unschuld, Matthias M. Weber, Wolfgang G. Locher (Hg.) (2005): Werner Leibbrand (1896-1974): "...ich weiß, daß ich mehr tun muß, als nur ein Arzt zu sein...", W. Zuckschwerdt Verlag München-Wien-New York 2005