Auguste Henri Forel

Auguste Forel
Auguste-Henri Forel towards the end of his life
Born September 1, 1848
Morges, Switzerland
Died July 27, 1931
Yvorne, Switzerland
Nationality Swiss
Fields Myrmecology
Known for contributions to sexology and myrmecology
Influenced Adolf Meyer
Eugen Bleuler

Auguste-Henri Forel (September 1, 1848 – July 27, 1931) was a Swiss myrmecologist, neuroanatomist and psychiatrist, notable for his investigations into the structure of the human brain and that of ants. For example, he is considered a co-founder of the neuron theory.[1] Forel is also known for his early contributions to sexology and psychology.[2]

From 1978 until 2000 Forel’s image appeared on the 1000 Swiss franc banknote.


Born in villa La Gracieuse, Morges, Switzerland, Forel had a diverse and mixed career as a thinker on many subjects. He was appointed professor of psychiatry in 1879 at the University of Zurich Medical School. He not only ran the Burghölzli asylum there, but continued to publish papers on insanity, prison reform, and social morality. Forel named his home as La Fourmilière —the Ant Colony.[3] Around 1900 Forel was a eugenicist.[4] Forel suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side in 1912, but he taught himself to write with his left hand and was able to continue his studies. By 1914 he was a good friend of the eminent British entomologist Horace Donisthorpe, with whom he stayed in Switzerland;[5] his ardent socialist views frequently caused political arguments between the two. After hearing of the religion from his son in law,[6] in 1920 he became a member of the Bahá'í Faith,[7] abandoning his earlier racist and socialist views saying,

This is the true religion of human social good, without dogmas or priests, uniting all men on this small terrestrial globe of ours. I have become a Bahá’í. May this religion live and prosper for the good of mankind; this is my most ardent wish
—Auguste Forel, [8]

In 1921 he received a letter from `Abdu'l-Bahá about the differences between the mineral, vegetable, animal and human worlds, the spiritual nature of man and proofs of the existence of God.[9][10]

He died in Yvorne at age 82.

Scientific work

Forel's prize essay on the ants of Switzerland was published in three parts in a Swiss scientific journal, beginning in 1874. The work was reissued as a single volume in 1900, at which time it was also translated into English. His myrmecological five-volume magnum opus, Le Monde Social des Fourmis, was published in 1923.

Forel's predilection for finding in ants the analogs of human social and political behaviors was always controversial. In the foreword to his 1927 edition of British Ants: their life history and classification, Donisthorpe opined, "I should wish ... to protest against the ants being employed as a supposed weapon in political controversy. In my opinion an entomological work is not the appropriate means for the introduction of political theories of any kind, still less for their glaring advertisement.[11] But in 1937, the work was excerpted in Sir J.A. Hammerton's Outline of Great Books with praise for its relevance to the study of human psychology and as "the most important contribution to insect psychology ever made by a single student."[12]

Less controversially, Forel first described in 1877 the zona incerta area in the brain. He gave it this name as it a "region of which nothing certain can be said".[13]

Forel International School is named after him.


Partial List

  • Les Fourmis de la Suisse, Systématique, notices anatomiques et physiologiques, architecture, distribution géographique, nouvelles expériences et observations de moeurs. Bale, Genève, Lyon, H. Georg. (1874).
  • Ameisen aus Sumatra, Java, Malacca und Ceylon. Gesammelt V.Prof. Dr. V. Buttel Reepen in den Jahren, 1911-1912. Zool. Jahrd.Jena Abt. F.Syst. 36: 1-148.(1913).
  • Fourmis de Rhodesia, etc. recoltees par M. Arnold, le Dr. H. Brauns et K. Fikendey. Annales de la Societe Entomologique de Belgique. 57: 108-147.(1913).
  • Le monde social des fourmis du globe comparé à celui de l’homme.Genève, Kundig, 1921-1923, 5 volumes (1921-1923).


Further reading

  • Bernhard Kuechenhoff, "The psychiatrist Auguste Forel and his attitude to eugenics," History of Psychiatry, 19,2 (2008), 215-223.

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