Segal developed the theory of symbolism, the understanding of the nature of creativity, and the establishment of a psychoanalytic approach to severe disturbance, including psychosis. She was also known for her exploration of the functioning of phantasy (unconscious fantasy) and for her detailed elaboration of the inner struggle between forces that strive towards living and development, and those that pull towards destruction.
Segal, Herbert Rosenfeld, Wilfred Bion and Betty Joseph constituted a small group of major thinkers whose influence has remained central to the development of psychoanalysis; but Segal was unique among this group since, in the tradition laid down by Sigmund Freud, her work encompassed a very broad span. She was able to demonstrate the relevance of psychoanalytic thinking to human knowledge in general, and this made her work well known outside the field of psychoanalysis.
She was born Hanna Poznanska, into a highly cultured family in Łódz´, Poland. Her father, Czeslaw, was a barrister, an art critic and a newspaper editor. In the early days, Hanna's mother, Isabella, lived the life of a typical bourgeois lady but, when life took a downward turn, her strength and resourcefulness became manifest. The family moved to Geneva, although Hanna returned to Warsaw to complete her education.
By her late teens she had already read all the Freud that had been translated into Polish. Other early intellectual influences included Voltaire, Rousseau, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Proust and Pascal. Having witnessed both poverty and lack of political freedom, she joined the Polish socialist party and her commitment to the left continued throughout her life. Psychoanalysis was, as she put it, "a godsend", as in it she found a way of combining her deepest intellectual interests with her desire to help people.
The rise of fascism saw the expulsion of her father from Switzerland, and the family, now stateless and impoverished, took up residence in Paris, where Hanna joined them in 1939. In 1940 they again took flight, this time for the UK, where Hanna completed her medical studies in London and Edinburgh. In Edinburgh, she met the psychoanalyst WRD Fairbairn, which determined the further course of her life. After completing her medical education she moved to London, where she played a major part in the rehabilitation of mentally ill Polish soldiers. She was accepted for training at the British Psychoanalytic Society and entered into analysis with Klein, completing her training in 1945, at the young age of 27. The analysis with Klein was central to her development. The year 1946-47 was an extraordinary one as during it she married the mathematician Paul Segal, conceived her first child and presented her first paper, A Psychoanalytic Contribution to Aesthetics, to the British Psychoanalytical Society.
Soon after she qualified, she trained as a child analyst, being supervised by Paula Heimann, Esther Bick and Klein, and began teaching students at the Institute of Psychoanalysis. Her first book, Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein (1964), in which Klein's ideas were illustrated through clinical material from Segal's own patients, became and remains a standard text. Her second book, Klein (1969), in the Fontana Modern Masters series, was also a homage to Freud and Klein. This series was meant for a popular audience and Segal put Klein's work in its context by reviewing Freud's contribution and showing how Klein built on this and extended it.
In 1952 she became a training analyst and built up an active private practice with a variety of patients, including candidates in training, psychotic patients and also some artists, who sought help because they were blocked in their work. This enabled her to make use of her interest in creativity, art and literature, and led to the publication of A Psychoanalytic Contribution to Aesthetics, her now famous paper, which remains perhaps the most original attempt at a psychoanalytical understanding of creativity.
In this paper Segal did not restrict herself to a study of the psychology of the artist. She showed how psychoanalysis can also contribute to the understanding of aesthetic questions. Segal puts the capacity to mourn at the centre of the artist's work and of the audience's aesthetic response. From this perspective, works of art derive their aesthetic depth from this inner struggle, the work itself giving it substance and constituting an act of reparation.
During this period Segal wrote her seminal paper on symbolism, Notes on Symbol Formation (International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1957), in which she distinguished between more primitive and developed forms of symbolic function, bringing a necessary clarification to the understanding of more disturbed states of mind. Many of the papers written in this highly productive period were reprinted in her third book, The Work of Hanna Segal (1981), while her fourth, Dream, Phantasy and Art (1991), explores afresh the interpretation of dreams and via this route proceeds to a deeper discussion of phantasy and symbolism.
Developments in psychoanalytic theory were combined with her interest in literature and politics in Psychoanalysis, Literature and War (1997). The paper The Clinical Usefulness of the Concept of the Death Instinct (1993, International Journal of Psychoanalysis), republished in this volume, outlines the way the balance between the life and death instincts determines the individual's attitude to reality, as exemplified by the two possible reactions to states of need. One, driven by the life instinct, is life-seeking and object-seeking, leading to an attempt to satisfy those needs in the real world, where necessary by aggressive striving. The other, under the influence of the death instinct, has as its aim to annihilate experience of need and the mental pain that goes with it. Here the self, or that part of the self capable of experiencing pain, is inhibited or destroyed and, instead of a reliance on reality, the patient turns to omnipotent phantasy as a solution and thus leads a highly restricted life.
In her sixth and final book, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (2010), Segal included a fascinating discussion of the Eden myth as presented by Milton in Paradise Lost. She argued that, for man, the expulsion from paradise is nothing more that a return to the reality of ordinary life. However, Milton's account captures a more disturbing human response to exclusion – Satan filled with envy dedicates himself to a spoiling of goodness and especially of creativity.
Segal believed that the psychoanalytic understanding of the pervasiveness of our destructiveness, and the human cost of its denial, can contribute in an important way to sociopolitical questions. Although she was criticised for her political involvement, some suggesting it went against the neutrality that characterises psychoanalysis, she believed this was based on a misunderstanding. Psychoanalytic neutrality, she asserted, is a clinical stance for the consulting room and needs to be distinguished from "allowing oneself to be neutered as a citizen". Here she was clearly in the tradition of Freud.
She was one of the prime movers behind the formation of a psychoanalytic movement against nuclear armaments. Her paper Silence is the Real Crime (International Review of Psychoanalysis, 1987) remains one of the most important psychoanalytic contributions to the nuclear debate. Following the end of the cold war, she expressed the fear that the west would be unable to manage without maintaining an enemy to fuel its paranoid system of thinking and she viewed the post 9/11 context and the Gulf wars from this perspective. In 2006 she wrote: "What does the future hold? It is pretty grim, because global oppression, which includes mass murder as well as total economic exploitation, leaves desperate terrorism as almost the only weapon for the oppressed ... This expanding global empire, like all such things, has to be sustained through control of the media – and this is of necessity based on a series of lies. From the humane (and psychoanalytic) point of view we are led as citizens to struggle with the unending task of exposing lies for the preservation of sane humane values – this is our only hope."
Segal served as president of the British Psychoanalytic Society from 1977 until 1980 and as vice-president of the International Psychoanalytical Association on two occasions. She was a visiting professor at University College London in 1987-88. In 1992, she received the Mary S Sigourney award for contributions to psychoanalysis.
Throughout her life Segal had a deep passion for literature, including detective stories, and she wrote papers on novels by Joseph Conrad, Patrick White and William Golding. She was proud of her family, and followed their considerable successes and shared their worries. Her husband, Paul, died in 1996; Segal is survived by three sons, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
• Hanna Maria Segal, psychoanalyst, born 20 August 1918; died 5 July 2011