Obituary: Anne-Marie Sandler

Psychoanalyst who pioneered work on blind children's behaviour


Psychoanalysis was still a controversial discipline when Anne-Marie Sandler, who has died aged 92, was growing up. For a young woman brought up in a loving but strict family, Freud’s revolutionary theories were a source of fascination tinged with guilt.

This new science was daring, opening up new pathways into the workings of the mind and Sandler’s early interest led her to train in psychology at the University of Geneva, with Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development.

But the turning point in her life came when she moved to London to study with Freud’s daughter Anna at the Hampstead Clinic in the early 1950s. Here she was involved in Freud’s project on congenitally blind children, working at a nursery to observe their behaviour and monitor the mother-child relationship.

She noticed the mothers became depressed when the babies reached the six months stage because their children appeared unresponsive. She established that their stillness was due to the fact that they were concentrating on listening to their mothers. She later wrote a seminal paper on the subject, Beyond Eight-Month Anxiety.

Anne-Marie Weill was the daughter of French teacher Hildegard née Oberdorf and Otto Weill, a store manager, who had left their native Germany for Switzerland in early 1900 due to rising Antisemitism. During Anne-Marie’s early years the connection with the motherland was provided by a German nanny.

However, that connection broke in 1933 when Hitler came to power and the nanny refused to work for the family any longer as they were Jewish.

Otto and Hildegard tried to shield their children from the unfolding horror, so when they started taking in young refugees, Anne-Marie wondered why these children couldn’t go home, as they appeared distressed at being separated from their parents. Apart from creating a haven for refugee children, the Weills also helped people cross the border to safety.

Anne-Marie didn’t realise what was happening to the children sheltered by her parents, but their distress stayed with her, so when working with Piaget she took part in a UNESCO study on children’s notion of homeland and foreignness.

Although she worked for years with Anna Freud, Sandler – who throughout her career was known for her warmth and openness – liked to explore other views, such as those of Melanie Klein, finely balancing different traditions.

That ability to establish bridges between people and her understanding of the ‘child within’ continued in her work with adults. Elected President of the British Psychoanalytic Society in 1990, she was also Director of the Anna Freud Centre from 1993 to 1996. In 1998 she received the prestigious Sigourney Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Psychoanalysis.

In 1957 she married Joseph Sandler, a South-African born psychoanalyst with whom she published a number of seminal papers. He died in 1998. She is survived by her daughter Catherine, son Paul and stepdaughter Trudy McGuinness, seven grand-children and three great-grandchildren.



Anne-Marie Sandler: born December 15, 1925. Died July 25, 2018


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