From time to time I would meet the late Professor Michael Shepherd for a drink. He was a most distinguished researcher in the psychiatric field, and he was formidably erudite. He also had a satirical sense of humor, laughing at the world’s absurdity. Once, for example, tired of cliché and meaningless phrases, he put forward the motion at the World Health Assembly that “war is bad for health.”
There were a lot of wars going on at the time, and he knew that his motion—seemingly so innocuous—would cause uproar. It did. The delegates of each country engaged in war insisted that its war was good for health, if not immediately, then ultimately, for it was fighting for nothing less than peace and justice, which, as is obvious, are the preconditions of health.
On the last occasion that I met him before his sudden death, he laughed at the pedantic absurdities of modern academe. As an instance he gave a recently published book about the life of Hermine Hug-Hellmuth, a figure entirely forgotten (this was in the days when the book had not yet lost its prestige in our cultural economy). Hug-Hellmuth was an early psychoanalyst who left almost no trace in history, even with Freud’s gnostic sect. She was revived, Professor Shepherd suggested, because academics have to study and publish something new, however worthless. He laughed. Hermine Hug-Hellmuth: ... Best Price: $38.00 (as of 04:05 EST - Details)
Subsequently I bought the book on her (Hermine Hug-Hellmuth: Her Life and Work, by George Maclean and Ulrich Rappen), thinking that it might one day be a curiosity. I did not ready any of it until much later. Gradually my laughter or levity gave way to sorrow. Her story was a tragic one, though not without a bitterly comic element.
The book contains both a short biography and a translation of some of her writings. The biographical section begins:
Who was Hermine Hug-Hellmuth? What did she do?
This is an inauspicious beginning because one usually reads a biography with some slight prior notion of or interest in its subject. The first paragraph continues:
When we developed our initial curiosity and began our project, no one knew much about her. People were even confused about her name.
So far, at least, Professor Shepherd’s amusement seemed justified.
The biography was very short, because indeed little was known of her. Most of us exit the world leaving little trace, and this is even more so with someone born in 1871 and dying in 1924.