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What is an Alienist?


The Alienist is an upcoming American television psychological thriller series set in New York City in 1896. Alienist is an archaic term once used to describe a psychiatrist, particularly one who testifies in court.

The Alienist book

The series, set to premiere on TNT on Jan. 22, is based on the novel by Caleb Carr, published in 1994. It features Daniel Brühl as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the alienist, along with Luke Evans as John Moore, a newspaper illustrator and Dakota Fanning as Cyrus Montrose, a secretary at police headquarters. They pursue a serial killer responsible for the murders of young male prostitutes using early psychology and forensic investigation techniques.

A 1994 review of Caleb’s book in the journal Psychiatric Services notes: “Carr does a credible job, too, of describing the process by which a practitioner of the nascent field of forensic psychiatry might have attempted to discover how a child of those times could grow into a man who compulsively kills and ritually mutilates his young victims. Even the contemporary ‘alienists’ should find themselves comfortable with Kreizler’s techniques for reconstructing the killer’s personality.”

The Alienist photo

Here’s some background on the term. According to Miriam Webster Dictionary, the first known use of the term alienist was in 1864, and at one time it was the preferred term for psychiatrist. For example, a professional journal, the Alienist and Neurologist: A quarterly journal of scientific, clinical and forensic psychiatry and neurology, was published from 1880 to 1920. The term fell out of favor in the early 1900s.

A medical dictionary defines alienist broadly as “a term for a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or another practitioner who cares for the mentally ill.” A legal definition is more focused: “a psychiatrist who is an expert in sanity trial. An alienist usually analyzes a criminal defendant’s capacity to stand trial. Earlier, an alienist meant a doctor specializing in mental illness treatment.” The Urban Dictionary explains it this way: “In the 19th century, the mentally ill were thought to be alienated from their own nature. Expert psychologists who studied them were known as Alienists.”

The term alienist sounds like it should refer to a person who studies aliens. Meriam Webster Dictionary draws a connection: “in fact alienist and alien are related - both are ultimately derived from the Latin word alius, meaning ‘other.’ In the case of alienist, the etymological trail leads from Latin to French, where the adjective aliene (‘insane’) gave rise to the noun alieniste, referring to a doctor who treats the insane.”

The field of psychiatry, and forensic psychiatry, has advanced tremendously from those days. Today, forensic psychiatry is the branch of psychiatry that deals with issues arising in the interface between psychiatry and the law. Forensic psychiatrists assess the mental health of offenders, serve as expert witness in civil and criminal cases and treat people in the criminal justice system.

By APA Staff



Patients and FamiliesPersonality Disorders


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