Forel, Auguste-Henri (1848-1931)

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Auguste-Henri Forel
Born (1848-09-01)1 September 1848
Morges, Switzerland
Died 27 July 1931(1931-07-27) (aged 82)
Yvorne, Switzerland
Nationality Swiss


Auguste-Henri Forel (September 1, 1848 – July 27, 1931) was a Swiss myrmecologist, neuroanatomist and psychiatrist, notable for his investigations into the brain structure of humans and ants. Forel is also known for his early contributions to sexology.

Auguste-Henri Forel was the son of Victor Forel, geometer and countryman, and Pauline née Morin. He was born on a country estate near Morges, on the shore of Lake Geneva. He was fascinated very early by the life of insects and particularly by that of ants, and at eleven years Huber’s famous work on the behaviour of ants literally became his bible. When fourteen he was sent to Lausanne to pursue secondary studies at the Collège Cantonal and later he attended the city’s academy. Somewhat against his own desires, he began the study of medicine at the University of Zürich, registering in 1866, at the same time continuing his investigations on ants, publishing papers and becoming a member of the Swiss Entomological Society.

Attracted by Alois von Gudden’s (1824-1886) courses and clinical studies in psychiatry, he devoted himself to psychology but maintained a never-failing interest in the natural sciences. He became a friend of the famous botanist and palaeontologist Oswald Heer, the specialist on Tertiary flora.

Forel was at the University of Zürich from 1866 to 1871, the year he took the cantonal medical examination in Lausanne but, because of local medical politics, failed to pass. For the next few months he travelled through Switzerland, working on a monograph dealing with the ants indigenous to that country.

He then went to Vienna where he spent the winter of 1871-1872 working in neuroanatomy and writing his thesis on the thalamus opticus of mammals. Under the guidance of Theodore Hermann Meynert (1833-1892). Although in disagreement with many of Meynert’s fundamental teachings, Meynert nevertheless accepted the thesis and had it published in the Proceedings of the Vienna Academy of Sciences, in 1872.

Forel passed the cantonal medical examination in Lausanne in 1872, but did not succeed in obtaining the position in a psychiatric institution of his native canton for which he had applied. In 1873 he went to the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, becoming assistant physician at the Kreisirrenanstalt under Bernard Aloys von Gudden, who was later murdered by King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Forel became Privatdozent in 1877 after completing his important paper on the tegmental region in which he described the tegmental fields, the zona incerta, and various hitherto unknown structures.

Forel started on a myrmecological expedition to Colombia in 1878, but had to abandon it at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands because of the sudden death of his friend, the optician Eduard Steinheil (1830-1878) of Munich.

He turned increasingly to psychiatry and in 1879 was appointed professor of psychiatry at the University of Zurich Medical School, as well as director of the important cantonal asylum Burghölzli in Zürich. His predecessor was Julius Eduard Hitzig (1838-1907) and he was succeeded, in turn, by Eugen Bleuler (1857-1939), Hans Wolfgang Maier (1882-1945), and Eugen Bleuler’s son, Manfred Bleuler. In 1882 Forel married Emma Steinheil (1865-1946), the young daughter of his deceased friend.

While in Munich, under the Guidance of Gudden, he was the first to achieve histological preparations of human brain specimens. His specialized studies of particular brain regions made Forel a master of the development of the nervous system’s microscopic anatomy. In 1875, Forel made the first complete section of the whole brain and, during his tenure at Zurich as professor of psychiatry, he formulated independently the concept of cellular and functional units (later termed the neuron theory).

He made remarkable studies of the topography of the trigeminal, pneumogastric, and hypoglossal nerves and gave such a precise description of the hypothalamus that one of its regions - Nucleus hypothalamicus - is called Campus Foreli, or Forel's body, in his honour. His first major contribution to the anatomy of the brain was his paper in 1877 on the tegumental region, which described several previously unknown brain structures. In 1885 he discovered the origin of the acoustic nerve in the brain, Nervus acusticus. He also had a significant part in devising the first usable brain microtome.

In 1887 Forel published one of his most important works, on the neuron theory, describing cellular functions within the brain. This work, based on pathological and functional evidence, appeared about two months after that of Wilhelm His, Sr.(1831-1904), in which similar conclusions had been reached on the basis of histogenetic studies. The same year the Norwegian zoologist Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), later of polar exploration fame, published his doctoral dissertation on the build of the central nervous system. These three share the honour of introducing the modern neuron theory.

Troubled by the effects of alcoholism, in 1889 Forel founded the Asile d’Ellikon, an institute at Zürich for the medical treatment of alcoholism, and throughout his career he worked for social reforms to prevent such causes of mental illness as syphilis and alcoholism. He himself practiced complete abstinence, as an example, and fought in every way possible the effects of alcoholism on the working classes. He introduced the IOGT (International Order of Good Templars - now International Organisation of Good Templars) to Switzerland. He also concerned himself with public education, and he was engaged in the peace cause.

From April 1898 Forel retired prematurely from Burghölzli, and first settled in Chigny près Morges in the canton of Vaud, then in Yverne, to live as a private learned, devoting the remainder of his life to social reform and the study of the psychology of ants, published in Les Fourmis . .

Although professionally Forel was one of the important psychiatrists of the last century, he is primarily known as an ant specialist. When very young he went on a study trip to southern Switzerland; the published results of his observations at once brought him high repute as an entomologist and earned him the Schläfli Foundation Prize. As an anatomist Forel studied the internal morphology of ants carefully and thus came to propose a new taxonomy of these members of the order Hymenoptera. In addition, having become engrossed in the psychology of these insects, he contributed greatly to the study of their social instincts. Forel was the first to describe the phenomena of parabiosis (the natural or artificial joining or grafting of two organisms) and lestobiosis (the relation in which colonies of a small species nest in the walls of the nest of a larger species and enter the chambers of the larger species to prey on brood or rob the food stores) in ants. Having gathered a considerable collection of Hymenoptera he described the various species, finding more than 3.500 new ones. Thus he became a remarkable taxonomist.

He undertook several study trips, to North- and South America, Africa, and Bulgaria in order to collect material for his entomological research. His collection of ants was one of the largest in the world.

Forel’s teaching in Zurich, the direction of his clinic, and his interest in psychology led him to effect innumerable reforms that not only influenced psychiatry in Switzerland but brought about important changes in the penal code. He undertook investigations in the field of accountability and made suggestions for reforms of penal laws. Research on hypnotism also fascinated him, he wrote many papers on that subject and was considered and authority on the treatment of mental disturbances with hypnosis. Hygienist as well, Forel published the important book La question sexuelle, which was translated into nearly twenty languages.

In 1912 Forel suffered a cerebral vascular accident resulting in right hemiplegia. Courageously he overcame this condition and at sixty-four years of age learned to write with his left hand. He remained active in his fields of interest until his death at the age of eighty-three.

Forel was co-publisher of the Internationale Monatsschrift zur Bekämpfung der Trinksitten.

With Grossman Forel founded the journal Zeitschrift für Hypnotismus. In 1902, now with Cécile and Oskar Vogt, this was made into the Journal für Psychologie und Neurologie, which in 1954 was renamed the Journal für Hirnforschung, and still exists under the name of Journal of Brain Research. The journal ceased after publication of vol. 39(1998/99).

"Every act of thinking is identical with the molecular activity of the brain-cortex that coincides with it."

Die psychischen Fähigkeiten der Ameisen.

[The mental capacity of ants]

We thank Patrick Jucker-Kupper, Switzerland, for information submitted.

Primary location of author's collection: Musee d'Histoire Naturelle Genève.


Forel published 284 papers on ants during his career, most of them taxonomic in nature.



  • A. Westley: August Forel. Ein Arztleben im Zwiespalt seiner Zeit. Salzburg, 1953.
  • Vera Koelbing-Waldis: Forel, Auguste. In: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz [electronic publication], version from 2005-12-08
  • Deutsche Zeitschrift für Nervenheilkunde, 1931, 122: 117-118 (Otto Veraguth). Schweizerische medizinische Wochenschrift, Basel, 1948, 78: 838-839 (O. L. Forel).
  • Schweizer Archiv für Neurologie und Psychiatrie, Zürich, 1950, 65: 421-425 (Steck). Die Medizinische Welt, 1928, 2: 1-5 (Oskar Vogt). Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, Chicago, 1931, 26: 1303-1305 (Adolf Weyer).
  • Journal of Comparative Neurology, Philadelphia, 1893, 3: 1-6 et seq. (Adolf Meyer, 1866-1950).
  • Biography in: L. R. Groote, Die Medizin der Gegenwart, 6 volumes, Leipzig, 1927, page 53. von Muralt: August Forel, Zurich 1928.