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Segal [née Poznańska], Hanna Marialocked

(1918–2011)
  • Tom Burns

Segal [née Poznańska], Hanna Maria (1918–2011), psychoanalyst, was born on 20 August 1918 in Łódź, Poland, into a family of assimilated Jews, the daughter of Czesław Poznański and his wife, Isabella, née Weintraub. She had one older sister who died aged four of scarlet fever when Hanna was two, which left an enduring hurt. Her father was a highly cultured lawyer with an interest in journalism, politics, and the arts, and an accomplished linguist. He was also reputed to be a gambler, with a resultant financial scandal causing the family to decamp abruptly to Geneva when Hanna was twelve. Their now straitened circumstances brought her mother's qualities to the fore. This cosmopolitan environment expanded Hanna's cultural horizons and her return to study medicine in Warsaw awakened her left-wing political sentiments. Her parents, having subsequently moved to Paris, only just prevented her leaving to join the Spanish Republicans in 1936. A similar, potentially fatal, attempt to get back to occupied Poland in 1939 was only thwarted by missing the train, and she left Paris with her family for England in 1940.

By the time Hanna Poznańska restarted her training in the Polish section of the Edinburgh medical school psychoanalysis already seemed the logical path. Contact with the eminent Scottish psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn cemented this ambition. She moved to London and had completed her psychoanalytical training in 1945 by the age of twenty-seven, having been analysed by Melanie Klein. On 16 November 1946 she married the mathematician Pavel (Paul) Segal (1918–1996), whom she had known since childhood in Poland but had met again in Paris. Soon after the birth of the first of their three sons she presented her first paper, 'A psychoanalytic contribution to aesthetics', at a meeting of the British Psycho-Analytic Society. Published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1952, this laid the foundation for much of her later work on creativity. She became a training analyst at the early age of thirty-five, also in 1952.

Hanna Segal became a member of a highly creative and influential group in a London psychoanalytical scene then in the process of splitting into two main approaches. Segal favoured the ‘Kleinian’ group over the ‘Freudian’ group centred on Anna Freud. After Melanie Klein's death in 1960 she became the leading proponent of her approach and a major figure in the establishment of ‘the Kleinians’. Kleinians emphasized the early mental life of the infant and focused on very primitive mental processes and the intense emotions attached to them. These ideas lent themselves to an explanation of the more severe mental illnesses such as psychoses, and Segal was involved in early attempts to use psychoanalysis with patients suffering from schizophrenia. In an influential paper on symbolism published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1957 she proposed that such patients equated the symbol with the thing symbolized, which resulted in 'concrete thinking', a recognized feature of the disorder. Outside psychoanalytic circles Klein's ideas about these mechanisms continued to have considerable influence. Those who quoted them almost certainly acquired them from Segal's lucid and best-selling book An Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein (1964). Half a century on, it remained the undisputed text.

Segal's other major psychoanalytic contribution was her explanation of artistic creativity as the process by which an artist deals in his or her art with earlier hurt and conflict. This explanation was used both to help ‘blocked’ artists and also to explain the emotional response of the audience, who essentially experienced a process mirroring the artist's.

Segal's career as a psychoanalyst was long, productive, and distinguished. She developed a thriving private practice analysing trainees and many artists, still seeing individual patients into her late eighties. She also continued to contribute papers about creativity and about aggression and our destructive drives. In 1983 she co-founded the group Psychoanalysts for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Her paper on nuclear armaments, 'Silence is the real crime', published in the International Review of Psycho-Analysis in 1987, was a powerful contribution to the debate. In addition to writing six books she taught and travelled widely. She was president of the British Psycho-Analytic Society from 1977 to 1980, twice vice-president of the International Psychoanalytical Association, an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and visiting professor at University College, London, in 1987–8.

By Segal's later years psychoanalysis was very much in retreat—challenged by an increasingly biomedical view of mental illness and the dominance of short-term, more ‘scientific’ psychotherapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy. The early enthusiastic attempts to treat psychotic illness by psychoanalysis had long been abandoned and generally considered a mistake. Despite this, Segal continued to contribute an energetic and confident voice that engaged with a wider society outside the often closed psychoanalytical world. That Klein's ideas remained common currency in psychotherapeutic and even some psychiatric circles was thanks in large part to her work. She remained a passionate and outspoken advocate for those ideas, which she advanced with disarming good humour. Her positive outlook and pleasure in the good things of life—food, wine, tobacco, travel—reflected her rewarding family life. Her supportive husband, Paul, died in 1996 after many years of Parkinson's disease. She remained proud of, and close to, her three sons. She died at her home at 44 Queens Avenue, Muswell Hill, London, on 5 July 2011, of cardiopulmonary degeneration. Her sons survived her.

Hanna Segal was an outstanding figure among the many Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution who revitalized and shaped both psychiatry and psychoanalysis throughout Europe and the Americas. With her engaging Mittel-European persona, strong Polish accent, and penchant for smoking a pipe, she exemplified the distinguished but slightly eccentric psychoanalyst that she was. Against the stereotype, however, she was politically engaged and active; she remained a lifelong socialist from the days of her youth and applied her psychoanalytical perspective outside the consulting room to the origins and dangers of armed conflict. Her most enduring contributions were in the interpretation and further development of the ideas of Melanie Klein and in her writing on symbolism and artistic creativity.

Sources

  • D. Bell, Reason and passion: a celebration of the life of Hanna Segal (1997)
  • D. Pick and L. Roper, ‘Psychoanalysis, dreams, history: an interview with Hanna Segal’, History Workshop Journal, 49 (2000), 162–70
  • J.-M. Quinodoz, Listening to Hanna Segal (2007)
  • The Times (28 July 2011)
  • The Independent (1 Aug 2011)
  • New York Times (2 Aug 2011)
  • BMJ (21 Sept 2011)
  • International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 93/2 (April 2012), 457–69
  • Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, 17/3 (2012), 317–24
  • N. Abel-Hirsch, ‘Hanna Segal’, Melanie Klein Trust website, 2012, www.melanie-klein-trust.org.uk/segal, 15 July 2014
  • ‘Hanna Segal (1918–2011)’, Institute of Psychoanalysis website, www.psychoanalysis.org.uk/hannasegal.htm, 15 July 2014
  • WW (2011)
  • personal knowledge (2015)
  • private information (2015)
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Sound

  • BL NSA, interview recording

Wealth at Death

£262,344: probate, 17 Nov 2011, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

British Medical Journal
(1849–)