Barry Blackwell: Ervin Varga: Family, Culture, Persona and Career

Robert Balazs’ comment

I have known Ervin for a long time. We went to the same school in Hungary, the Jewish Gymnasium, although Ervin was in a class one year below mine. That school had a very important and positive influence on us; during the anti-Jewish, discriminatory and often hateful atmosphere, it gave us stature that maintained our human dignity. Then, after the war was over, we were among those who started medical school almost immediately, which was impossible during the Horthy regime. In spite of this long acquaintance, I learned a lot of new things about Ervin from the excellent summary of his autobiography and more recent life by Barry Blackwell. This is a reflection on Ervin’s character that was shaped by his upbringing, as summarized by Barry Blackwell, ‘He was expected to “behave like a man”; it was fine to seek advice or help but totally unacceptable to solicit sympathy, dramatize accomplishments or feel sorry for yourself. With hindsight and psychiatric training, Ervin realized how systematically he was encouraged to develop inhibitions, repress basic urges and feelings, to pretend strength and suppress anxieties. He rationalizes these as self-regulatory technique essential to civilized, disciplined behavior’.  For example, he never talked to me about the terrible experience in the Hungarian death camp in Hidegseg.

Ervin was in the forefront of the developing biological psychiatry, which had a difficult time, especially in the USA, against the dominant psychoanalytic school. From the beginning of his scientific career, he produced original important work that often went against the mainstream beliefs, such as in the case of his analysis of the great Hungarian poet, Attila Josef’s death.

 I had little knowledge about his American career, and now better understand the reasons why at the end he left a scientific career route. He must have had difficulties to work with his first American boss, Nathan Kline, who besides his very positive attributes was a domineering, self-aggrandizing, money-oriented individual and in a way ‘the polar opposite of Ervin’s innate reserve and modesty concerning any accomplishment of his own.’ In addition, with the children growing up, there were financial problems paying for their expensive college education. So approaching the retirement age, Ervin entered private practice and enjoyed it very much.

The family played a very important role in Ervin’s life and he had a strong support from his wife, Vera. They met and married when they were both medical student and their marriage lasted till Vera’s death for 67 years.

Ervin has maintained his interest in Hungarian events. He has been especially sensitive about failures in democratic developments in the country. I have received frequent e-mails from him about the situation there.

Ervin’s autobiography and Barry Blackwell’s summary with the addition of Ervin’s life during the period not covered by the autobiography are an important contribution both to Central European social history of the last century and to the development of psychiatry in his working lifetime.


Robert Balazs

June 30, 2016