Leonardo Tondo: Brief History of Suicide in Western Cultures


Leonardo Tondo’s reply to Robert Goldney and Johan Schioldann comments


           I would add that a very first report following a statistical approach to suicide occurred with the 1835 publication of Adolphe Quételet’s (1796–1874) essay Sur l'homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou Essai de statistique sociale.  This began an intense phase of statistical studies which continued with the work of Enrico Morselli (1852–1929), who published his book, Suicidio, storia di statistica morale comparata in 1879, at the age of 27. Morselli’s book greatly influenced Émile Durkheim (1854–1917) because of its careful data on suicide rates across Europe and which were included in his Suicide. Étude de sociologie (1897). In all these studies, the search for causes outside the individual rather than in his psyche was central, while a modern epidemiological, sociological, psychological and medical investigation starts with the aim of describing and improving knowledge to prevent voluntary death.

           Both Morselli’s and Durkheim’s books provide an impressive collection of data, not very dissimilar from the epidemiology we find today. Their diffusion over time, however, has been very different: Morselli’s is practically impossible to find in Italy, while Durkheim’s  is regularly republished in economic editions, a circumstance that deserves some observation. Morselli was a famous psychiatrist and professor at universities in Turin and Genoa. In his book he dealt with the subject from a psychiatric point of view attaching  a great deal of importance to external factors arriving at Darwinian and Malthusian conclusions that suicide completers, because of internal problems, were unable to face the difficulties and problems of life and to provide sufficient resources to live. Durkheim, a professor of sociology, instead saw suicide as a completely social phenomenon. Paradoxically, a not so careful reading of his book suggests that suicide is induced by a repressive society, whereas, the sociologist's theory is that the individual kills himself because he cannot assimilate all the societal values. The general lack of sympathy for psychiatry, even less for biological psychiatry, and the equally uncritical acceptance of sociological theses, have contributed to the different fortunes of the two books.



Durkheim É. Suicidio, storia di statistica morale comparata. Paris, F. Alcan, 1897.

Morselli E. Suicidio, storia di statistica morale comparata. Milan, 1879.  

Quételet A. Sur l'homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou Essai de statistique sociale. Paris, Bachelier, Imprimeur-Librarie, Quai des Augustins, No. 55, 1835.


August 6, 2020