The women of psychoanalysis

Professionals who have contributed to the spread of Freud’s ideas in Brazil in the first half of the twentieth century

Department of Psychoanalysis History Research and Documentation of the SBPSP Virgínia Bicudo (in the hat) with members of the Brazilian Psychoanalysis Society of São Paulo in 1944Department of Psychoanalysis History Research and Documentation of the SBPSP

Women have played a key role in the efforts to expand psychoanalysis in Brazil, in terms of clinical practice, scientific research, and the spread of ideas made popular by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the Austrian doctor who created this therapy method. Those who contributed to establish the Brazilian psychoanalysis movement in the first half of the twentieth century include Adelheid Koch, Marialzira Perestrello, and Virgínia Bicudo, the first woman to be certified as a psychoanalyst in the country. Bicudo’s involvement was of particular importance to the establishment and spread of psychoanalytical thought in the 1930s and was partly responsible for the creation of the Brazilian Psychoanalysis Society of São Paulo (SBPSP), the main educational center for these professionals at the time.

Daughter of an Italian immigrant and an Afro-Brazilian government employee, Virgínia Bicudo (1910-2003) graduated from the Caetano de Campos School in São Paulo in 1930. In 1931, she enrolled in the program for health sanitation workers at the School of Public Health and Sanitation at the Sanitation Institute of São Paulo—known today as the College of Public Health of the University of São Paulo (USP). Because she was black, Bicudo experienced racial discrimination from an early age, which created trauma in her childhood. “The need to understand the conflict that existed within herself drew her to sociology and, later, to psychoanalysis,” explains psychoanalyst Maria Ângela Moretzsohn, from the Department of Psychoanlaysis History Research and Documentation at the SBPSP.

Department of Psychoanalysis History Research and Documentation of the SBPSP Book based on the cases discussed on the Rádio Excelsior showDepartment of Psychoanalysis History Research and Documentation of the SBPSP

In 1936, at 26, Bicudo enrolled in the sociology program at the Free School of Sociology and Politics of São Paulo (known today as the School of Sociology and Politics Foundation of São Paulo). In 1945, under the supervision of American sociologist Donald Pierson, she received a master’s degree from the same institution. Her thesis, titled “Estudo de atitudes raciais de pretos e mulatos em São Paulo” (The Study of Racial Attitudes among Black and Mixed-Race People in São Paulo), was one of the first to discuss the issue of race in Brazil, according to anthropologist Janaína Damaceno Gomes from the Baixada Fluminense School of Education at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ). The work remained largely unknown to the public for sixty-five years, and was published in its entirety in 2010 to celebrate the psychoanalyst’s one hundredth birthday.

Bicudo encountered Freud’s ideas through Noemi Silveira, then professor of social psychology at the Free School of Sociology. It was Silveira who suggested that Bicudo seek out physician Durval Marcondes and ask to participate in his study group on psychoanalysis. “Her interest in psychoanalysis came about as a result of sociology’s limitations in understanding the origins of racism in Brazil,” explains Gomes. “Using psychoanalysis, Bicudo analyzed the issue of race through the prism of childhood to better understand the mechanisms involved in the formation of a racist society.”

Marcondes had been introduced to psychoanalysis in 1919 in an inaugural course taught by Francisco Franco da Rocha (1864-1933) at the Department of Psychiatry of the São Paulo School of Medicine (now an USP institution), dedicating himself to its study ever since. Franco da Rocha is considered one of the first people to have brought psychoanalytical thought to São Paulo, even though he didn’t practice psychoanalysis, explains psychologist Jorge Abrão from the School of Languages & Literature and Sciences of São Paulo State University (UNESP) at Assis.

Department of Psychoanalysis History Research and Documentation of the SBPSP Virgínia during the Fourth Annual Latin American Psychoanalysis Conference in Rio de Janeiro in July 1962Department of Psychoanalysis History Research and Documentation of the SBPSP

When he met Bicudo, Marcondes was working to encourage the training of psychoanalysts in São Paulo. To do so, he needed to bring to Brazil a psychoanalyst credentialed by the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA), founded by Freud. With the help of the institution, Marcondes brought the German Jewish psychoanalyst Adelheid Koch (1896-1980) to the country. Koch accepted the invitation to Brazil partly because of the antisemitic sentiments brewing in Germany. In 1944, the Brazilian group was accredited by the IPA, and came to be known as the Brazilian Psychoanalysis Society of São Paulo (SBPSP).

Bicudo was closely involved in the society’s activities, taking on administrative, treasury, supervisory, and other roles. “Psychoanalysis has always been a favorable field for women in that it offers more equality in its training and workplace conditions than other fields,” says Abrão.

As an extrovert, Bicudo always expressed herself clearly, and became an enthusiastic proponent of psychoanalytical ideas. One of her projects was broadcast on the radio, which was enjoying its golden era in Brazil at the time. On Rádio Excelsior radio station, Bicudo hosted the program Nosso mundo mental (Our Mental World). In a sort of on-air soap opera format, the episodes addressed day-to-day issues experienced by families and presented topics such as the unconscious mind, jealousy, possessiveness, blame, love, and hate. The cases discussed on the show were transformed into a book of the same name in 1955. Bicudo was also one of the authors of the book Relações raciais entre negros e brancos em São Paulo (Race Relations between Blacks and Whites in São Paulo), organized by Florestan Fernandes and Roger Bastide and published in 1955 using research funded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

personal archives Next to her husband, fellow psychoanalyst Danilo Perestrello, on a trip to Paris in 1952personal archives

Meanwhile, conceptual expositions and theoretical reflections on Freud’s work were circulating in 1920s Rio de Janeiro. However, the difficulty in getting a trained psychoanalyst to come to Rio caused many professionals to move to São Paulo, as well as to Buenos Aires, Argentina, then a center for excellence in psychoanalytical training in Latin America. Among those who traveled to the Argentinean capital to be trained at the Argentinean Psychoanalytical Association was Marialzira Perestrello, the first woman to work as a trained psychoanalyst in Rio de Janeiro.

Perestrello (1916-2015) graduated from the School of Medicine at the University of Brazil—now known as the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)—in 1939. Abrão is currently working on tracing Perestrello’s personal and professional life based on interviews he had with her between 1997 and 2012. “Marialzira learned about psychoanalysis from her father, a lawyer named Francisco Cavalcanti Pontes de Miranda, who gave her Freud’s book, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” Abrão recalls. In 1940, Perestrello’s family moved to Bogotá, Colombia, when her father was assigned as an ambassador to the country. She returned to Brazil in 1941. In 1946, she embarked for Argentina with other aspiring psychoanalysis professionals.

Perestrello continued her studies in Argentina until 1948. During this time, she began analysis with Enrique Pichon Rivière (1907-1977), a prominent Swiss-Argentinean psychoanalyst. In 1947, she began to work as a foreign assistant in the Pediatric Psychiatry Ward of Las Mercedes Hospital in Buenos Aires. “Marialzira officially became a member of the Argentinean Psychoanalytical Association in 1952,” Abrão notes.

personal archives Marialzira Perestrello at her medical school graduation ceremony in 1939personal archives

Back in Rio in 1953, the psychoanalyst was involved in founding the Childhood Counseling Clinic of the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of Brazil, where she worked until 1955. Meanwhile, she also opened her own private practice. In 1957, Perestrello became involved in founding the Brazilian Psychoanalysis Society of Rio de Janeiro (SBPRJ), an organization which she remained a part of for the rest of her life.

Perestrello died in 2015 at 99 years of age, leaving behind a vast body of work on Brazilian culture, psychoanalysis, and the history of the field. One of her main works was the article titled Primeiros encontros com a psicanálise: Os precursores no Brasil (1899-1937) (First Encounters with Psychoanalysis: Pioneers in Brazil [1899-1937]). It discusses those who were required to teach themselves in order to spread psychoanalysis in Brazil in the first decades of the twentieth century. Another important project was her book titled Encontros: Psicanálise & (Encounters: Psychoanalysis &), which addresses the connections between psychoanalysis and art.