Alfred Adler was born February 7, 1870 in a suburb of Vienna, second of seven children. His decision to become a physician was influenced by illnesses he had suffered as a child, and by the death of a younger brother. In 1895, Adler graduated with a degree in medicine from the University of Vienna Medical School. He married Raissa Timofejevna Epstein, a Russian student in 1897. They had four children: Valentina, Alexandra, Kurt and Cornelia. Adler was actively committed to social reform and wrote many articles on the subject. Among his writings, his first professional publication was a medical monograph on the working conditions and health of tailors. He was very concerned with the need to bring medical care to the very large working-class, and was also openly committed to promoting women’s rights, education and the social responsibility of physicians.
In 1902, Sigmund Freud invited Adler to join a small discussion group of Viennese physicians, which became the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Although Adler was active in the Society including holding positions as president and co-editor of its journal, he did not consider himself a disciple of Freud. Adler’s humanistic theory of motivation differed distinctly from Freud’s biological view and in 1911 Adler – and a dozen or more supporters of his theory, resigned from the Society. Adler then formed the Society for Free Analytic Study, which in 1914, he renamed the Society for Individual Psychology, the title clearly demonstrating there was no affiliation with Freud or relationship to his theory.
Adler first called his theory “Comparative Individual Psychology” since he wished to do justice to the individuality of human beings. He renamed the theory Individual Psychology, as it is known to this day.
In 1912, Adler explained his theory of Individual Psychology and his innovative concepts in his monumental work, The Neurotic Constitution. This seminal book is about abnormal process in personality. It is a descriptive, phenomenological, precise perspective of how and why psychopathology develops and is maintained. This work of Adler contains the foundation for holistic and social psychology.
During WWI, Adler spent three years in military-hospital service.
He was particularly concerned about the collective madness of war. His perceptions and opinions were included in an article he contributed to a publication Violence and Non-Violence: A Handbook of Active Pacifism in which he wrote: “War is not the continuation of politics with other means, but the greatest social crime against the solidarity of humanity.”
After the war Adler’s concept of Gemeinschaftsgefuehl, translated as social interest or social feeling, as well as his concept of common sense, became central aspects of his theory of Individual Psychology.
Convinced that early intervention and school involvement were critical for psychologically healthy child development, in 1919, Adler opened a child guidance clinic in Vienna and lectured at the Pedagogical Institute. Most probably, he was the first psychiatrist to apply mental health concepts to the school environment.
By 1927, there were 22 clinics in Vienna, all staffed by his pupils. Working with parents, children, teachers, doctors and social workers, he discussed and demonstrated his innovative, practical and well known family therapy process. Adler’s ground-breaking work in child guidance drew professionals from all over Europe and abroad to study firsthand how clinicians and teachers were helping children with emotional problems.
By now, Alfred Adler was a well known public figure, having established his theory of Individual Psychology, creating child guidance principles and practices, developing guidance centers on the Continent and in the United Kingdom. He was an international speaker and a best selling author whose lectures and books attracted mass audiences.
By the middle of the nineteen-twenties, the International Journal of Individual Psychology had been founded and was published consistently until 1937. It resumed publication after WWII. Between 1914 and 1933, Adler published more than a dozen books, including:
- The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology
- Problems of Neurosis: A Book of Case Histories
- The Science of Living
- The Problem Child: The Life Style of the Difficult Child
- What Life Should Mean to You
- Religion and Individual Psychology
- Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind
- Cooperation Between the Sexes.
At 56, in 1926 Adler came to the United States and traveled within the country lecturing and teaching at leading universities. Adler and his theories were very well received. Adler’s Understanding Human Nature a psychological self-awareness book written for the general public was a huge success and rapidly sold over 100,000 copies.
With the rise of Nazism in Austria, Adler settled in America permanently in the early nineteen-thirties.
On May 28, 1937 while on an extensive European lecturing trip, Alfred Adler suddenly died of a heart attack in Aberdeen, Scotland. He was 67.
Alfred Adler is described by those such as Rowena and Heinz Ansbacher who worked with him and edited many of his writings, as a physically stocky man with swift movements, a soft voice, friendly manner and piercing eyes. He was a very open, social and hospitable person who loved the arts, particularly music and enjoyed singing. In his therapeutic relationships he was gently disarming, accepting and encouraging.