Schmidl, Fritz (1897-1969)

  • By Esther Altshul Helfgott, Ph.D.
  • Posted 4/15/2008
  • Essay 8589
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Viennese-born Fritz Schmidl, lawyer, social worker, and author of numerous articles on social work, law, and applied psychoanalysis, arrived in Seattle with his wife, child psychoanalyst Dr. Edith Buxbaum (1902-1982), on January 1, 1947. In the late 1940s, he taught in the University of British Columbia’s Social Work Department. He worked as a social worker in Seattle for more than two decades, first at the Family Society of Seattle and then from 1949-1959 for the Veteran's Administration Hospital. From 1959 until his death in 1969, he was in private practice with Dr. Harvard Kaufman. Schmidl was an associate member of both the Seattle and the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Societies, and served on the faculty of the Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute. He served as clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington from 1961 until his death in 1969. Schmidl’s keen intellect and cultured, yet friendly and unassuming manner endeared him to a wide circle of friends and colleagues in the social work and psychoanalytic communities, as well as in the arts and beyond.

Early Years 

Fritz Schmidl was born (Friedrich) in Vienna in 1897 to assimilated Jewish parents. His father owned a leather-garment factory, and until Fritz was a young teen his family enjoyed financial success. When the elder Schmidl developed serious eye problems due to an earlier strain of syphilis, the family’s well-being deteriorated. Schmidl’s mother, nervous, depressed and sickly, died when the boy was 9 years old. According to Edith Buxbaum’s account, Schmidl and his older sister, Martha (1893-1975) were raised by the family housekeeper, Frau Anger; and like many Viennese Jewish children raised by nannies, they were influenced by their nanny’s Catholicism. 

Psychoanalysis played a key role in Schmidl’s young life. His father was treated by Dr. Josef Breuer (1842-1925), co-author, with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), of Studies on Hysteria (1895), the text that ushered in the world of psychoanalysis, and Schmidl’s mother was an early patient of Freud's. Most interesting, when sister Martha Schmidl finished public school at age 14 and there was no money for her to seek higher education, a distant relative stepped in to finance the young woman’s education. That relative was Bertha Pappenheim (1859-1936), the social worker friend of Freud's wife, Martha Freud, and an early activist in the German Feminist Movement. She was also “Anna O,” that famous psychoanalytic patient who defined psychoanalysis as “the talking cure.” (Incidentally, Pappenheim decreed that Martha go to business school rather than pursue an academic degree. This, because she wanted to spare Martha the possibility of marrying for financial support.)

Martha Schmidl was furious but her business education did serve her well in later life. (While Fritz retrained professionally for America in New York City, Martha joined the Scattergood Quaker hostel for refugee training in Iowa. Here she developed skills to
collect data on the social and working conditions of laborers.)

After graduating from the Gymnasium, Schmidl entered the University of Vienna where he earned a law degree. While on campus, he did not limit his studies to law. He took courses in sociology, economics (studying with Thorstein Veblen) and, in his spare time, he studied history and philosophy. Self-motivated and socially comfortable, Schmidl inhabited coffeehouses and youth groups where conversation, debate, and intellectual exercise were common fair. He attended concerts, theatre, art exhibitions, and opera houses. By his early 20s, Schmidl was a man of the world, or at least a man of Vienna's world. 

In 1925, at age 28, Fritz married the painter Trude Waehner (1900-1979) with whom he lived a Bohemian and open life-style. She had a two-year-old son, Gustav (Gusti) Szekely, whom Fritz helped raise and with whom he would develop a life-long relationship. During this period Schmidl began an analysis with Dr. Willy Hoffer (1905-1994), friend of Freud and founder and editor of the prestigious journal on remedial education, The Journal for Psychoanalytic Pedagogy (zeitschrift fur psychoanalytische pedagogik). Schmidl had known Hoffer, along with other analysts and analytic students, including Edith Buxbaum, through Viennese youth groups.  

Emigration, Education, Remarriage 

In 1938, at the insistence of his wife Trude Waehner, she, Fritz, and Gusti (now 16) made their way through Switzerland, France, and England and eventually reached the United States. "On the docks of New York, Edith Buxbaum received us and had already found a small apartment for Fritz, Trude and myself" (Gustav Szekely to Helfgott). While in Paris, Fritz socialized with psychoanalysts, including Princess Marie Bonaparte who, along with American ambassador William C. Bullitt, helped Freud flee Europe. In England he studied psychoanalysis with refugee analysts. Edith Buxbaum, who had been imprisoned in Vienna for underground activity and had fled to the States in 1937 (Schmidl had been her lawyer) helped Schmidl and his family, as she did other émigrés, including her maternal first cousin Bruno Bettelheim and his mother Pauline.

Once settled in New York, Schmidl realized he could not continue his law career. He earned a master's of social work (MSW) from the New School for Social Research and took graduate courses at Columbia University, planning to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology. In the meantime, he and Trude separated and finally divorced. In 1944, Schmidl and Edith, longtime friends, took a drive cross country, stopping in Nevada to wed on August 16, 1944. He and Buxbaum had an easy and loving relationship. According to friends, including Dr. Heidi Kirschner of Seattle, they were great companions, intellectually compatible and comfortable with each other in social settings. They had a history together, after all. In addition to psychoanalytic interests, while in Vienna, Schmidl served as Buxbaum’s lawyer when she was arrested. Moreover, the couple  had common interests, especially music; and, once Schmidl became a social worker with a psychoanalytic emphasis, their professional lives entwined and included many of the same contacts, including those connected with the Seattle Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Life and Work in Seattle 

As a natural leader and organizer, friendly and easy to get along with, Schmidl made a host of friends, both professionally and socially. In the field of social work, friend and co-worker, Morry Tolmach, MSW, reported that “Fritz changed the view of social workers as servants to psychiatrists.” He was noted as an expert on the Rorschach test and reinforced the connections between psychoanalysis and social work, prevalent in this period.

He created the Psychoanalytic History Group, which was attended by University of Washington History Professor Joan Ullman, Ph.D., and the future president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, George Allison, M.D., among others. This group became the Seminar of Applied Psychoanalysis, which Schmidl went on to teach for the Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute. Many of Schmidl’s writings that appeared in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and others were fine-tuned while interacting with this seminar.

Fritz and Edith Schmidl (Buxbaum often used her husband’s last name) brought people from various disciplines together. They developed a social network that included the “Rainy City Chaverim,” a friendship group whose members stemmed primarily from the University of Washington and its Union Bay Village (university housing for students and faculty), but also included professionals in other fields. Slavic language professor Victor Erlich and the psychoanalyst, Iza Erlich, economists Frank Holman and Morris D. Morris, anthropologist Melford Spiro and the painter Windsor Utley were members of the Chaverah.

Schmidl was an avid pianist, traveler, and photographer. His polished and easy-to-get-along-with manner made him a favorite among friends, colleagues, and relatives. He had lasting relationships with his Viennese stepson Gusti and with his step-grandchildren, Daniel and Christina, who lived in Seattle. 

On May 6, 1969, while he and Edith were vacationing in Hawaii, Schmidl died of a heart attack. He was 71. The following Sunday, a memorial service was held at 6036 Upland Terrace, Schmidl’s last residence. Fritz's sister, Martha Schmidl, was among the 105 guests who signed the Schmidl Memorial guestbook.


Edith Buxbaum, “Introduction,” in On Applied Psychoanalysis by Fritz Schmidl (New York: Philosophical Library, 1981; Edith Buxbaum, Personal Diary, 1965, Schmidl/Buxbaum Marriage Certificate, and Fritz Schmidl Memorial Guest Book courtesy Buxbaum estate executor Herbert J. Belch;  “UBC Social Work Prof is Champ of Commuters” Daily Ubssey, Vol. 31, No. 16, October 14, 1948; “Fritz Schmidl, Social Worker, Dies in Hawaii,” The Seattle Times, May 6 1969, p. A-33; Fritz Schmidl, letter to Prof. Giovanni Costigan, November 28, 1965, Giovanni Costigan file, Accession no. 4338-001, Box 3, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle; "Fritz Schmidl," Social Security Death Index,; Trude S. Waehner,  Interpretation of Spontaneous Drawings and Paintings (Provincetown, Mass.: Provincetown Journal Press, 1946); Esther Helfgott to Victor Erlich, Ph.D., 2002;  Esther Helfgott to Christina Szekeley, Seattle, Washington, 2002;  Esther Helfgott to Gustav Szekeley, Vienna, Austria, 2001-2003; Michael Luick-Thrams, Creating 'New Americans': WWII-Era European Refugees' Formation of American Identities (Ph.D. Diss, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften der Philosophischen Fakultät I der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 1997); Esther Altshul Helfgott interviews as follows: with George “Mike” Allison, M.D., Seattle, 1994; telephone interview with Herbert J. Belch, October 24, 1994 and in person, Seattle, December 5, 1994 and March 24, 2002; with Robert Campbell, Seattle, 1994 and March 2002; with Samuel Goldenberg, Ph.D., Seattle, November 11, 2003; with Adolph ("Dolph") Gruhn, M.S.W. and Edward Kaplan, M.S.W., Seattle,  November 11, 1994; with Heidi Kirschner, M.D., Seattle, August 1, 1994, August 15, 1994, and September 12, 1994; with Charles Mangham, M.D., Seattle, August 23, 1994; with Gerald Olch, M.D., Seattle, September 8, 1994; with Eleanor Siegl, Ph.D., Seattle, 1995; with Lawrence Schwartz, M.D., Seattle 1994; with Daniel Szekely, M.D., Seattle, 1994; with Christine Szekely, M.S.W., Seattle,; telephone interview with Gustav Szekely, November 6, 1994; with Morry Tolmach, M.S.W., Seattle, September 29, 1994 and  October 1994; and with Prof. Joan C. Ullman, Seattle, 1994 (no audio tape); Audio tapes of interviews in possession of Esther Altshul Helfgott, Seattle, Washington; Gustav Szekely to Esther Helfgott, June 4, 2015, in possession of Esther Helfgott, Seattle, Washington. Note: This entry was corrected and slightly expanded on June 26, 2015, and corrected on August 1, 2015. 

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