History of psychology


As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary was part of the larger German cultural arena and underwent rapid modernization in the last decades of the 19th century. During these times several factors influenced the acceptance of psychology. For Hungarians, it was customary to study or visit universities in Austria (especially in Vienna) and Germany, as well as France, where they got acquainted with the new science. Reform pedagogical ideas and the study of children were spreading among teachers. The emergence of Budapest as a European metropolis and the accompanying social problems (poverty, crime, alcoholism), the introduction of public education in 1868, the pressing problem of mental health, and the mass ‘shell shock’ phenomenon of the war created a social environment ready to accept the new field of psychology.


As in Europe, various phrenological and characterological theories appeared in Hungary in the 19th century. The new science of psychology was discussed in the philosophical and pedagogical literature. The first representatives of psychology were mainly philosophical thinkers, high school and university teachers, and academics who cultivated and disseminated psychology of the mind, based on the German tradition. The key role was played by Gyula Kornis (1885-1958), philosopher, Piarist monk, and university professor, who was outstanding for his publications on psychology and, as a cultural politician, he wrote a modern psychology textbook for secondary schools. Modern psychology was available to students in grammar schools, and psychology was already included in philosophy and pedagogy courses at universities long before the turn of the century.


The country’s first large mental hospital operating on modern principles was opened in December 1868 in Lipótmező, in Buda, by the order of Franz Joseph I. The institution represented national independence and modernization and was an excellent school for the nascent Hungarian psychiatry. Experimental psychiatry appeared in the medical faculties of the country’s two major universities in the 1890s, through the work of two outstanding persons coming from medical science: Károly Lechner and Pál Ranschburg. Károly Lechner headed the Neurological and Mental Clinic at the Ferencz József University in Cluj, which he founded, and which was one of the most modern medical institutes in Europe. Next to the Clinic, there was also an experimental laboratory. Lechner won a gold medal at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris with his self-made skull-measuring instrument.

Pál Ranschburg, the young doctor-psychiatrist founded an experimental psychophysiological laboratory at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Budapest in 1899, developing his own testing procedures and pieces of equipment. In 1902, he published in German his famous experimental work on homogeneous inhibition, which is still known as the Ranschburg phenomenon. After 3 years of operation, the Ranschburg laboratory had to leave the medical faculty since it was not looked upon favorably by the conservative faculty. Ranschburg then transferred his research laboratory to the emerging institution of special education. From 1906, this became a state-supported research center, under the name of “The Hungarian Royal Laboratory of Medical Pedagogy and Psychology”. The laboratory became one of the most important scientific centers in the development of psychology in Hungary. From then on, the close interweaving of psychology and curative education became one of the cornerstones of Hungarian psychology. Ranschburg was among the first to carry out internationally significant studies on reading, writing, and arithmetic disorders in childhood.


Hungarian educators became involved in the international child study movement early on. Publications advocating the scientific study of children and reformist pedagogical views appeared even before the turn of the century. However, the movement gained national importance under the leadership of László Nagy, who was also a teacher at a training institute for primary school teachers. In 1906, László Nagy founded the Hungarian Society for Child Study, with the aim to transform pedagogical practices based on the scientific knowledge of childhood. Within a short time, child study became a national movement. Nagy’s activities covered the fields of law, child protection, children’s literature, career guidance, data collection, pedagogy, and experimental psychology. The latter direction was led by Paul Ranschburg. The movement was supported by the National League for Child Protection. The Society provided a professional and public forum for professionals interested in child psychology and pedagogy and played a major role in the dissemination of psychological knowledge. In 1911, the Society’s professional center, the Budapest Pedagogical Seminar and the associated Psychological Laboratory were established by decree of the Budapest City Assembly, under the leadership of László Nagy and Ödön Weszely. During the war, in 1915, an experimental New School was established with the help of the Society, under the leadership of Emma Löllbach Lászlóné Domokos. In the same year, the Family School, also based on the principles of child study, began its work in Budapest, under the leadership of Márta Nemesné Müller.


The emergence of psychoanalysis in Hungary can be dated back to Sándor Ferenczi’s encounter with Freud. The personal meeting took place in 1908 in Vienna. Ferenczi quickly became part of Freud’s inner circle, and they developed an intense professional relationship and close friendship. Freud took Ferenczi with him to the United States in 1909, when he visited Clark University at the invitation of Staley Hall. The International Psychoanalytical Society was founded in 1910 on the initiative of Ferenczi, and the Hungarian Psychoanalytical Society was founded in 1913 under his organization. The movement was not associated with any academic or medical institution. Psychoanalysis was not accepted by the authorities in medicine and psychiatry. Psychoanalysts practiced psychoanalysis semi-legitimately, only a few of them working in formal institutions. By the 1910s, however, psychoanalysis had become a well-known intellectual and therapeutic movement, especially in Budapest. Its adherents were typically members of the rapidly assimilating Jewish citizenry, many of them artists, not psychologists. In Hungary, the movement was strongly linked to the then very active left-wing, radical, socialist, avant-garde intellectual circles. Ferenczi was part of the lively Budapest café culture, which was like that in Vienna. Many well-known writers and artists became friends with psychoanalysis. This intellectual circle was deeply concerned with socio-political issues. Later, many of them became decision-makers in the government of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.


Deák Gábor (1998). The history of the Hungarian child study movement. Magyar Pedagógia 98. évf. 1. szám 59–70.

Kovai Melinda (2015). Lélektan és (köz)politika: Pszicho-tudományok a magyarországi államszocializmusban 1945–1970. Budapest, L’Harmattan Kiadó

Pléh, Csaba (2009). Early Hungarian experimental psychology and the wider world – in memory of Géza Révész. Magyar Pszichológiai Szemle, 64(3), 467-495.

Szokolszky Ágnes (2016). Hungarian psychology in context. Reclaiming the past. Hungarian Studies, 30 (1), 17-55.