Psychiatry Captured Her Mind; People Won Her Heart


Dr. Grete Bibring, physician, feminist—and hostess

As a school girl in Vienna, Grete Bibring was fascinated by the work of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis.

Born in 1899, she was already on her way to becoming a modern woman. At 19, she entered medical school at the University of Vienna, where she fell in love with her dissection partner, World War I veteran Edward Bibring. They married in 1922 and were partners in what is known as the "second generation" of psychoanalysts who established the fundamental role of psychoanalytic concepts in the practice of psychiatry.

Psychiatry captured her mind. People won her heart. 

She championed the theory that successful medical care requires a doctor to understand a patient's personality and psychological needs.

A Renowned Hostess

Dr. Bibring’s mother, the wife of a wealthy manufacturer, was a legendary hostess. The gregarious young physician followed suit in inviting friends and colleagues to the table, including Freud and his daughter Anna. She was a true people person; entertaining helped her to deal with the growing tension in Vienna at the beginning of the Nazi regime.

For more than 50 years, she wrote copious notes on every dinner party, afternoon tea, and social gathering she hosted, detailing the guest list, recipes and menus. Traveling with the Freuds, the Bibrings moved to London after the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938. Even as the bombs fell, she kept entertaining, adjusting her menus to cope with food scarcity. Her feasts for mentors, proteges and friends are chronicled in “Grete Bibring: A Culinary Biography,” by Daniel Jacobs and Olga Umansky. 

A Feminist Trailblazer

Her career and influence accelerated when the couple moved to Boston. Even as she climbed the professional ladder, she maintained close ties to her family, saving childhood paintings her two sons brought home from school.

She became a sought-after mentor for ascendant women in medicine seeking insights on balancing career and family. At Radcliffe College, she created “The Educated Woman,” a seminar which brought together small groups of students to talk about the social issues faced by collegiate women.

Dr. Bibring was a feminist, a trailblazer, and a leader for modern women. In 1955, she became the first woman to be named Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Beth Israel Hospital; in 1961, she became the first female full clinical professor at Harvard Medical School.

In an interview with WGBH, Boston’s NPR affiliate, Dr. Bibring said she was never intimidated by being one of few women in medicine and cultivated a positive attitude. 

“In Vienna, I was taken for granted, like another student…(and) there were maybe five women in medical school. I found it delightful that there were so many men,” she recalled. “But in my seminar, the Harvard seminar, two young, intelligent women felt worried because they went into medical school…and there were 25 other students or something like that and they were worried because there were so few women to hold their hands.”  

In 1965, she retired from Harvard. An article on her career highlights her core belief that people are social creatures. The title: “To Whom Nothing Human has been Foreign.”  

Dr. Bibring continued to see patients until her death in 1976 at age 77.

This story was made possible by The Countway Library of Medicine.

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Alicia Lazzaro