Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Biographical Sketch of Alfred Adler

[adler photograph]

Alfred Adler was born in Vienna, Austria on February 7, 1870. During the early decades of this century he originated the ideas which, to a large extent, have been incorporated in the mainstream of present-day theory and practice of psychology and psychopathology.

The second of six children, Adler spent his childhood in the suburbs of Vienna. He remembered that when he was about 5 years old, gravely ill with pneumonia, the physician told his father that he doubted the child would recover. It was at that time that Alfred decided he wanted to become a doctor so that he might be able to fight deadly diseases. He never changed his mind, and in 1895 he acquired his M.D. degree at the University of Vienna.

He was very close to his father and remembered his repeatedly saying to him during their walks through the Vienna woods, "Alfred, do not believe anything." When one realizes how in later life Adler always challenged statements unless he felt they could be accepted without reasonable doubt, his vivid recollection of this somewhat unusual admonition of his father is understandable. Another childhood recollection that stood out in his memory, and which he liked to tell to children having difficulty with their school work, recalled an occasion when a teacher had suggested that his father take Alfred out of school and apprentice him to a cobbler, since he never would graduate anyway. His father only scoffed at the teacher and expressed his disapproval of him to his son. At the time Alfred, having lost interest in school, had failed in mathematics. He now decided to show the teacher what he could do: in a short time he became first in his class in mathematics and never again experienced any difficulties in his studies.

In 1898, at age 28, Adler wrote his first book, which deals with the health conditions of tailors. In it he sets forth what later was to become one of the main tenets of his school of thought: the necessity of looking at man as a whole, as a functioning entity, reacting to his environment as well as to his physical endowment, rather than as a summation of instincts, drives and other psychologic manifestations.

In 1902, when Adler was one of the few who reacted favorably to his book on dream interpretations, Freud sent him a hand-written postcard suggesting he join the circle which met weekly in Freud's home to discuss newer aspects of psychopathology. At that time Adler had already started collecting material on patients with physical handicaps, studying both their organic and psychologic reactions to them. Only when Freud had assured him that in his circle a variety of views, including Adler's, would be discussed did Adler accept the invitation.

Five years later, in 1907, Adler published his book on organ inferiority and its compensation. From then on, the difference between Freud's and Adler's views became steadily more marked. Adler had never accepted Freud's original theories that mental difficulties were caused exclusively by a sexual trauma, and he opposed the generalizations when dreams were interpreted, in each instance, as sexual wish fulfillment. After prolonged discussions, during which each of the two men tried to win the other over to his point of view--attempts doomed to failure from the start-- Adler left Freud's circle in 1911 with a group of eight colleagues and formed his own school. After that, Freud and Adler never met again.

In 1912 Adler published his book, The Neurotic Constitution, in which he further developed his main concepts. He called his psychologic system "Individual Psychology," a term which is sometimes misunderstood. It refers to the indivisibility of the personality in its psychologic structure. His next book, Understanding Human Nature, which comprises lectures given at the Viennese Institute for Adult Education, is still on the required-reading list of some American high schools.

After returning from war duty in 1918, Adler founded several child guidance clinics in Vienna. These were soon visited by professionals from abroad, stimulating the development of similar clinics in other countries.

In 1926 Adler was invited to lecture at Columbia University, and from 1932 on he held the first chair of Visiting Professor of Medical Psychology at Long Island College of Medicine. During these and the following years he spent only the summer months, from May to October, in Vienna, and the academic year lecturing in the States. His family joined him there in 1935.

Adler's lectures were overcrowded from the beginning, and he communicated as easily with his audiences in English as he did when using his native German tongue. He was in Aberdeen, Scotland, to deliver a series of lectures at the University when, on May 28, 1937, he suddenly collapsed while walking in the street and died from heart failure within a few minutes.

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