Alfred Adler Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Adler, the founder of individual psychology, introduced such fundamental mental-health concepts as “inferiority feeling,” “life-style,” “striving for superiority,” and “social interest.” The first to occupy a chair of medical psychology in the United States, Adler pioneered the use of psychiatry in both social work and early childhood education.

Early Life

Alfred Adler was born on February 7, 1870, in Penzing, Austria, a suburb of Vienna, the second of seven children of Leopold Adler, a Jewish Hungarian grain merchant from the Burgenland, and his wife, a native of Moravia. Though reared on a farm, Adler was exposed to the rich cultural life of Vienna’s golden age. The death of a younger brother and his own bout with pneumonia at the age of five caused Adler to resolve to study medicine. He received his medical degree in 1895 from the University of Vienna. Much later, Adler would be awarded his Ph.D. from the Long Island College of Medicine in New York. In 1895, Adler married Raissa Timofejewna Epstein, a Moscow-born student. Together they had three daughters and a son. Two of his children, Kurt and Alexandra, later took up the practice of psychiatry. By 1897, Adler was practicing general medicine in Vienna, specializing in ophthalmology. His zeal for reform was indicated in articles in various socialist newspapers.

Though Adler’s first professional monograph had been a study of the health of tailors, by 1900 he had become interested in neurology and in psychopathological symptoms. His review in 1902 of Sigmund Freud’s book on dream interpretation led to an invitation to join the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Though closely associated with Freud (they attended the first International Congress on Psychoanalysis together in 1908), Adler insisted that he was neither Freud’s disciple nor his student. This fact was revealed in 1907 in his Studie über Minderwertigkeit von Organen (Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation, 1917). In 1911, Adler and nine others resigned from Freud’s circle to found the Society for Free Psychoanalysis. Freud then launched what has been called an “almost scurrilous attack” on Adler. For his part, Adler acknowledged his respect for Freud but explained his major intellectual disagreements with him. Adler denied the dominance of the biological over the psychological in human behavior, refusing to see sex as the primary determinant of personality. Adler stressed freedom, not determinism, in conduct, believing that Freud compared humans to animals or machines, forgetting to emphasize what makes them unique, namely, concepts and values. Adler resolved to champion a holistic, humanistic psychology. By 1912, his Über den nervösen Charakter (The Neurotic Constitution, 1917) indicated the directions being taken by Adlerian or individual psychology.

During World War I, Adler served in the Austro-Hungarian army as a military doctor on the Russian front at Kraków and Brunn. Returning from three years in the war, Adler established what was probably the world’s first child-guidance clinic in Vienna in 1919. Soon thirty such centers were operating in Vienna, Munich, and Berlin. Adler emerged as the first psychiatrist to apply mental hygiene in the schools, lecturing meanwhile at the Pedagogical Institute. A pathfinder of family therapy or community psychiatry, Adler involved students, teachers, and parents in treatment. Innovative counseling was done before a restricted audience as a teaching device. By 1926, Adler was much in demand as a lecturer in Europe and North America, and his work was commanding wide recognition.

Life’s Work

Adler’s life’s work was focused on four areas. Adler was preeminently an educator. In 1926, he became a visiting professor at Columbia University, and in 1932 he became the United States’ first professor of medical psychology, teaching at the Long Island College of Medicine in New York. By then his visits to Vienna were...

(The entire section is 2,062 words.)