Dr Myriam de Senarclens – A Pioneer in Psychosomatic Medicine

A few biographical milestones (08.06.1921–06.04.1993)

Myriam Kleynmann was born to doctor parents in Geneva in 1921. She completed her entire education there, received a degree in Latin in 1939, a certificate in Piano-Playing from the Geneva Conservatory in 1943 and a federal diploma in Medicine in 1945. She then completed internships and substitutions in medicine, surgery and obstetrics at the Cantonal Hospital in Geneva. She published her first scientific article and brilliantly defended her doctoral thesis in the same subject: Ten Years of Rachianesthesia in the Maternity Ward of Geneva in 1949. She became a doctor of gynecology and obstetrics.

In 1950, she married François de Senarclens, who was also a gynecologist. She was 29 years old and he was 38. They shared the same passion for their work and mutual admiration for each other. In 1953, she earned the title of Specialist in obstetrics/gynecology from the Swiss Federation of Physicians (FMH), which allowed her to open her own private practice. Since then, both had their own office and clientele. They formed a couple that was both solid and free. François would share all of his struggles with her.

A bit earlier on, in 1948, she made a decisive study trip to the USA and to London. In the USA, she focused on obstetrics, gynecology, endocrinology and sterility in three public hospitals (New York, Baltimore and Boston). In London, she visited the FPA (Family Planning Association) Birth Control Centers, which had existed since 1930. When she returned to Geneva, she founded Maternal Hotels to help single mothers who, in the 1950s, had no other solution than either abortion or abandonment—sending their illegitimate infants to live in institutions. For two or three years, these women could train or work without being separated from their children. This was a revolution in mentalities and traditions.

In 1948, in London, she took seminars at Tavistock Clinic, the first psychoanalytic therapy center founded in 1920. There, she met Michael Balint, a doctor, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and his wife, Enid. This was an important encounter that would definitively change her conception of medical practice and the relationship between the doctor, his patient and the illness1 and thus also give her career an entirely new direction. She stayed in contact with the couple, trained in psychosomatic medicine and would in turn train many caregivers and carry out much research in the field of psychosomatic obstetrics and gynecology throughout her entire life. She would put all her energy into spreading Balint’s ideas and methods in Switzerland, Europe and all over the world.

Then, in 1961, along with psychiatrists Michel Sapir and Léon Chertok and urologist Pierre Aboulker, she founded the French Society of Psychosomatic Medicine. In July 1962, she became part of the fourteen founding members of the International Society of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology (ISPOG). Of the fourteen, only two were women, the second one being American Niles Newton.

In 1963, with a few colleagues, she founded the Swiss Society of Psychosomatic Medicine (SSMPS). Then, she started teaching in earnest: at the annual Sils-Maria seminars in Grisons, where she organized Balint Groups starting in 1965; at the psychosomatic gynecology and sexology unit with Prof. W. Geisendorf, G. Garrone, G. Abraham and W. Pasini in Geneva starting in 1970; and during the Franco-Swiss Psychological Training Days for doctors and caregivers in Divonne-Les-Bains organized jointly by the French and Swiss Psychosomatic Medicine Societies starting in 1972, which would later become the Balint Days in Annecy, which still carry on today.

In 1972, she earned the title of Privat-Docent for her work on The Menstrual Cycle – a Psychosomatic Study from the Faculty of Medicine in Geneva. She believed that this would give her more access to courses on gynecology. This was not the case. She would be assigned to the Psychiatric Department as a consultant in Psychosomatic Gynecology. From that point, her gynecologist colleagues considered her as belonging to the field of psychiatry, and the psychiatrists believed her to be definitively a gynecologist. Faced with this dead-end, she reacted by dedicating herself to the ISPOG. “Luckily, the world is big,” she would say. In 1972, she became the secretary, then the treasurer of ISPOG. She would organize the 7th Dublin Convention in 1983 dedicated to The Young Woman.

She participated actively in all ISPOG Conventions for 30 years (1962 to 1992), published innumerable scientific articles in proceedings and other reviews, in addition to chapters in books such as Perspectives of the Teaching of Balint in Approaching Sexual Problems and Gynecological Practice and Sexuality: from Pain to Pleasure in the book Introduction to Medical Sexology by G. Abrahama and W. Pasini in 1974.

Finally, she would write a book presenting research results with sociologist W. Fischer about Amenorrhea: Impossible Femininity? – A Socio-Psychosomatic Study published in French (Masson, Paris, 1978), then translated into Portuguese (ed. Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal, 1981).

In 1982, she received funding from the FNS/SNG (National Swiss Fund for Scientific Research) for an interdisciplinary study with sociologists W. Fischer and E. Perrin about Determinants and Expressions of Morbidity between 40 and 60 Years Old and Response Systems. Her scientific qualities were acknowledged late by the largest official organization in Switzerland.

Until her death in 1993, Myriam de Senarclens had been a pioneer in the complex domains of gynecological practice and research and in medicine. She was a well-groomed, elegant woman, but was not pedantic. With a strong personality, she left no one indifferent among her patient or her colleagues. She was either loved or despised, but she was respected. She had striking intelligence, an ability to listen, humor, a love for life and a phenomenal capacity to work.

Eliane Perrin, March 2016

[1] The title of a book by Michael Balint: The doctor, his patient and the illness. London: Tavistock Publications; 1957. ↩ - Jump back

Foundation Board

Noémi Deslex-Zaïontz, President

Dr. Noémi Deslex-Zaïontz, president of the foundation, member of the committee since its inception. Obstetrician - Gynecologist FMH since 1989. Trained in doctor-patient relationship and psychosomatic medicine already as a resident physician. Secretary and President of the Swiss Society of Psychosomatics in Gynecology and Obstetrics until its dissolution to found the Swiss Academy of Psychosomatic and Psychosocial Medicine (SAPPM). Specialized in children and adolescent Gynecology.

Eliane Perrin, Secretary

Dr Eliane Perrin, PhD, Prof. emeritus, is secretary of the Dr Myriam de Senarclens Foundation. As sociologist, the field of her researches was pain and suffering, sexuality, women health, contraception and termination of pregnancy, mainly in interdisciplinary teams. She collaborated with Myriam de Senarclens (1981-1993). She was internal referee of the National Research Council of the SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation, division Humanities and Social Sciences) from 2004 to 2012.

Michal Yaron

Dr Michal Yaron finished her medical studies and specialty in ObGyn in Israel. She followed her passion to Toronto where she completed a fellowship in pediatric and adolescent gynecology and ever since has been empowering young women in pursuing healthy sexuality. She is the head of the ambulatory gynecological consultations in the the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics and head of pediatric and adolescent gynecology consultations at the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG). She is a committee member of the Swiss Society of Paediatric and Adolescent Gynecology since 2010. Dr Yaron teaches at the Geneva faculty of medicine and is a researcher in the domain of contraception, psychosomatic gynecology and pediatric and adolescent gynecology.

Manuella Epiney

Dr Manuella Epiney, PD is a gynecologist obstetrician and head of the “Perinatality Unit” in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG). Her clinical expertise is in counseling, follow up and treatment of high risk pregnancies affected by psychosocial factors and emotional vulnerabilities. She is president of the Swiss Group of Psychosomatic Gynecology and Obstetrics of the Swiss Society of Gynecologists and Obstetricians (AAGO) and co-chair the “Perinatal Depression Program” in HUG. She is involved, and published different research projects, in the field of “stress and pregnancy” and the effects on the placenta, the fetus and the mother.