Bruno Bettelheim (August 28, 1903 – March 13, 1990) was an Austrian-born self-professed psychologist, public intellectual, and author who spent most of his academic and clinical career in the United States. An early writer on autism, Bettelheim’s work focused on the education of emotionally disturbed children, as well as Freudian psychology more generally. Imprisoned by the Nazis in the 1930s, he arrived in the United States as a refugee under a program for scholars fleeing Europe. In the U.S., he later gained a position as professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for Disturbed Children, and after 1973 taught at Stanford University.Bettelheim theorized that children with behavioral and emotional disorders were not born that way, and could be “cured” through extended psychoanalytic therapy, treatment that rejected the use of psychotropic drugs and shock therapy. During the 1960s and 1970s he had an international reputation in such fields as autism, child psychiatry, and psychoanalysis. Much of his work was discredited after his death due to fraudulent academic credentials, allegations of abusive treatment of patients under his care, and accusations of plagiarism. Bettelheim’s ideas, which grew out of Freud’s, about alleged subconscious injury caused by mothers of troubled children are now seen as particularly damaging.
The University of Chicago was later criticized for not providing their normal oversight during Bettelheim’s tenure. Chicago area psychiatrists were also later criticized for knowing at least some of what was occurring regarding the physical abuse of patients, and not taking effective action.