Views & Reviews Personal View

Are we all Balintians now?

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 03 September 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1549
  1. Jeremy Holmes, retired psychiatrist and visiting professor of psychological therapies, University of Exeter
  1. j.a.holmes{at}

    An invitation to the Balint Society’s annual dinner provided a welcome opportunity to revisit and review the enduring legacy of Michael Balint on British general practice and psychiatry.

    I was one of the smallish band of “Balint boys” (and girls) who were lucky enough to be in his seminars for medical students at University College Hospital, London, which ran for a couple of years in the mid-1960s. Several of us ended up as psychiatrists. I remember that first electrifying seminar well. He instantly reminded me of my maternal grandfather, a powerful influence in my life: stocky, bull necked, with thin, swept back hair, myopic, intriguingly deformed hands, and a bossy yet an acute listener. In retrospect, the resemblance was probably only superficial, but Balint, like all charismatic people, had the ability to evoke strong transference reactions. One could not help projecting onto him significant aspects or figures from one’s life: the father one wanted to please, the feared critic, the Goliath figure one would have to slay to find one’s manhood, the encyclopaedic polymath that one admired and envied, the attentive and protective lover. As for the last: an acquaintance who had been a patient of his always referred to him as “my darling Balint.” She was still seeing him at the time of his premature death and, like many others, was not given time to resolve her positive transference.

    His skill with medical students was to persuade us that we—role-less nothings in the medical hierarchy then prevailing in hospital medicine, even in a liberal institution like UCH—were the “experts” on our patients. Only we, not the consultants and other gods, had the time, he insisted, to sit and talk with our patients, to hear their fears and hopes. He taught us …

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