A Short Biography
By Jane Manaster
Alfred Adler was born near Vienna on February 7, 1870. His father was a middle-class Jewish grain merchant and his mother was a housewife. He had an older brother and sister and four younger siblings. This unremarkable family, in the indirect ways Adler later posited, led Adler to formulate important theories. Destined to become one of the century’s leading social scientists, the founder of a provocative and widely accepted school of psychology, he drew on his family to illustrate the concept of social interest and the significance of birth order. He recognized the justness of equality for women. Above all, he recognized in the frail, fearful boy he himself had been the key to his theory: an individual strives toward a personal goal; his attempts to overcome his inadequacies should be a healthy means of fulfilling life. In the 1870s the Jews of Vienna had a choice of where they might live: either in voluntary ghettoes, which Adler’s father declined; or in primarily Gentile neighborhoods. During the periodic waves of anti-Semitism which swept the country during Adler’s formative years, his family enjoyed peace, for the old cliché, “Some of my best friends are Jews,” was seemingly respected. According to Carl Furtmüller, “early experiences made him unable to feel the difference between Jews and Gentiles as something personally important.”
His physical health in childhood has been described fully. Early rickets “impeded his movements and made him heavy during his childhood.” “A mild form of spasm of his vocal cords . .. caused a feeling of inferiority.” This latter he apparently conquered and as a schoolboy he had a “strong interest in classical and popular music … a good, strong, dependable voice and a good gift for delivery.” A brush with death due to pneumonia at about the age of 4 made him resolve to become a doctor. Such stories, over time, tend to sound apocryphal, but their importance cannot be shrugged off in that they undoubtedly contributed as the basis of his theory.
Apparently no record exists of his interaction with teachers at die Vienna Medical School. He was influenced by the internist Hermann Nothnagel, who told his students, “If you want to be a good doctor, you have to be a kind person.” Even more, Adler took to heart Nothnagel’s dictum, “the physician must always look at the patient as a whole, not as an isolated organ or an isolated ailment. . . the emotional influence of the physician on the patient must be taken into account.”
Upon graduation, Adler established a medical practice in Vienna in 1895, near the Prater, a large amusement park in a lower middle-class section of the city. Among his patients were many who worked at the Prater restaurants, as well as waiters, acrobats and artists whose livelihood depended on bodily skills. Their ailments exposed physical weaknesses and helped Adler to develop his theory of overcompensation. In the same way he had had a physical voice problem which he overcame to sing heartily, so many of his amusement park patients had physical inadequacies which they overcame and utilized them to make a career.
During his student days Adler was only peripherally involved with the political movement sweeping the country. His involvement came through friends who took him along to political meetings rather than through strong personal enthusiasm. His disinterest in racial or religious differences “immunized him against nationalism.” He participated in the excited gatherings more as a listener than as a speaker. During those days he was sometimes seen at the meetings with a Russian student, Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein.
He married Raissa Epstein in 1897 and the following year his first child, Valentine, was born. A second daughter, Alexandra, was born in 1901, his son Kurt in 1905, and finally his daughter Nellie in 1909.
His practice was successful, in part because of his disarming manner. “He administered science to his patients as if it were as simple as scrambling eggs.” When there was a popular term to describe a technical condition, he chose to use it. But he was haunted when he was unable to heal a patient’s disease. As he searched for the reasons for his patients’ persistent pains and illnesses he was steered away from medical practice and into the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and eventually a philosophical position which spanned the social sciences.
The meeting of Adler and Freud was catalytic to psychology and psychotherapy. Adler felt attracted to Freud’s Dream Theory and had the courage to proclaim it, as he “hated prejudice and hackneyed opinions.” In 1902 Adler was invited to be one of four people to form Freud’s circle, meeting weekly in Freud’s home to discuss work and philosophies, and especially the problems of neurosis. This evolved to become the Psychoanalytic Society. Adler was the first among them to show an active interest in the problems of education.
In 1910 Adler was made the president of the Vienna branch of the International Psychoanalytic Association. In October 1910 the publication Zentralblatt für Psychoanalyse was founded, with Adler and Wilhelm Stekel as co-editors and Freud as editor-in-chief. The good spirit did not prevail as Adler continued to develop his own theory. The following summer Freud wrote the publisher that either he or Adler must leave. Adler resigned. He also withdrew from his office as president of the Vienna organization.
It was not long after the break that Adler moved from his office on the Praterstrasse and essentially gave up his practice as a family physician. He began to specialize exclusively in psychiatry. The split between Adler and Freud became irrevocable in October 1911 when Freud declared, at a meeting of the Psychoanalytic Society, that any affiliation with the society formed by Adler would be incompatible with the membership of the group. Adler left, with nine others who were disenchanted with Freud, and formed the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research. In 1912 Adler gave his society the name by which it first became known, the Society for Individual Psychology.
While there were many who integrated Adler’s theories with their own, allowing him no word of credit Adler himself generously acknowledged those whose work influenced him. In 1911 the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger published “The Philosophy of As IF in Berlin. The following year Adler’s book “The Neurotic Character” commended “It was good fortune which made me acquainted with Vaihinger’s ingenious ‘Philosophy of As If … a work in which I found the thoughts familiar”.
While Freud maintained exclusiveness among his followers, and imposed a formality upon his patients, who were bound to lie down and have their therapist be a silent and invisible presence behind them, Adler started immediately on another tack. His group practiced neither the initiation rites nor the oaths of allegiance that Freud had used. Adler’s followers were encouraged to introduce a guest to the meetings—a guest who might be qualified by interest, experience or ability to become a member. Similarly, Adler, in his professional encounters with patients, sat facing them, the two in comfortable chairs so that the treatment had an almost social ambience. This, Adler was convinced, made it easier for the patient to accept facts about himself which might be unpleasant or difficult.
In 1915 Adler was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. He served as a physician, at first in a Vienna hospital, then in the Polish province of Austria, and finally back in Vienna. During . these years he further developed his system, discovering from his insightful watching of the war casualties, with the many neurotics among them, the paramount importance of social interest. He realized with absolute clarity that “one should not be content to cure mental illnesses, but one should make every effort to prevent them”.
The end of the war heralded his involvement with the new political regime. He served on the local Workers’ Committee, which carried out minor administrative functions on behalf of the Socialist-Democratic Party, and was able to attend to his special interest in educational activities.
One of the principal objectives of the first Austrian Republic was school reform, and in this new climate Adler received permission to establish his first child guidance clinic in Vienna in 1922. He included the child’s parents and teacher as well as an interested audience during each session. His original intention with the clinics was to help teachers who had difficulty coping with “backward” children, now that the 70-year-old law requiring primary education for all had become a reality. Yet he realized the need to help the children themselves, and by the end of the 1920s, thirty-two clinics in Vienna were conducted by schools and parent-teacher associations under the direction of Alfred Adler. There were additional clinics in Germany.
He delivered regular lectures at the Volksheim, an adult education center. He also lectured as a faculty member of the Pedagogical Institute, the_ Vienna teacher training college.
The number of his followers continued to grow. Gone were the days when they could gather for weekly discussions at his apartment. In the evenings, the social meeting place became the Café Siller, overlooking the Danube channel, where Adler, after a long day of counseling, lecturing and attending to his clinics, would have friendly talks until the late hours.
In 1926 he acquired a house at Salmannsdorf, a suburb of Vienna, by all accounts a substantial residence with spacious grounds. Here he hosted the visits of many eminent Austrian and foreign colleagues and students.
As the year drew to a close he made his first trip to America. He lectured at the New School for Social Research and the Community Church in New York. He visited and spoke across the country at Harvard, at Brown in Rhode Island, in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and several schools in California. In Chicago 2,500 applications to attend his lecture for teachers had to be turned down.
It was then, in his mid-fifties, that he felt the need to master the English language, and accordingly he took daily lessons until he felt confident to deliver lectures. As Carl Furtmüller explained, “Shunning this task because his English was not perfect would have been in his opinion one of those pretexts which neurotics use to excuse their avoidance of real solutions to life’s problems.” As he was spending increasing periods each year in the United States, undaunted by advancing years, he learned to drive an automobile at the age of 60.
His 60th birthday, at his request, was not made a public celebration. He was in New York for this occasion, and none of his family was able to be present. Starting the day as usual, he was unaware that many of his friends had planned a party for him. Through a frantic quest in the midst of Prohibition, they managed to find Rhine wine, and the festivities got under way. His birthday was also celebrated by a special issue of the International Zeitschrift für Individualpsychologie.
Appointed as a visiting professor at Columbia University in 1929, Adler consolidated his American migration when, in 1932, he was called to the first chair of Medical Psychology in the United States at Long Island Medical College.
In 1934 the Austrofascists overthrew the Austrian Republic. One of their first acts was to abolish school reform and any programs involved with it. Adler’s clinics were closed. In 1935, Adler and his wife formally left Vienna to reside at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York. Soon after moving, he launched the Zeitschrift in English as the International Journal of Individual Psychology.
Adler continued to work with no sign of a slowing pace. In the spring of 1937, he traveled to Europe and started on a round of lectures and meetings. He enjoyed several weeks of vigorous work, of meetings with friends. Late in May he went to Scotland. On May 28, shortly before he was due to lecture in Aberdeen, he took a walk along the streets near his hotel. He collapsed from a heart attack and died in the ambulance taking him to the hospital.
Copyright © 2005 International Association of Individual Psychology