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Wolfgang Kohler

Research professor Dartmouth College
1887 to 1967

Wolfgang Köhler who would become one of the leaders in the development of Gestalt psychology was born into a German family 21 January 1887 in Reval Estonia. His parents soon moved the family to Germany where his father was a schoolmaster. Köhler studied at the universities of Tübingen and Bonn. At the University of Berlin where he earned his Ph.D. (1909) Köhler studied psychology and physics under Karl Stumpf and Max Planck.

Beginning in 1910 Köhler joined Kurt Koffka at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt as subjects for Max Wertheimer’s experiments which became known as the phi phenomenon. The three men then worked on formulating a psychological theory they called Gestalt (“whole”) which dealt with the brain’s ability to perceive objects in their entirety.

Köhler left Frankfurt in 1913 to become the director of the anthropoid research station for the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. For the next six years he studied chimpanzees’ ability to solve problems. Research on perception both animal and human would form a significant part of the rest of his career.

Köhler returned to Germany in 1920. He was appointed acting director and then (as Carl Stumpf’s successor) professor and director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin where he remained until 1935. During the 1920s he cofounded the Psychologische Forschung (a Gestalt psychology journal) and spent 1925–26 as a visiting professor at Clark University in Worchester Massachusetts.

The 1930s brought more travel and then a life change. In 1934-35 Kohler was William James Lecturer at Harvard and in 1935 a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. That same year Köhler wisely left Germany after speaking out against the Nazi regime. He began teaching at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and became an American citizen in 1946. In 1955 he became a research professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Köhler was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1947 and president of the American Psychological Association in 1959. He was given the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1956 the Howard Crosby Warren Medal (a Society of Experimental Psychologists medal for outstanding achievement in experimental psychology) in 1947 and the German Society for Psychology’s Wilhelm Wundt Medal for distinguished achievement in psychology. He delivered his Gifford Lectures on “The Psychology of Physics” and “The Psychology of Values” in the late 1950s.

He was married twice and had four children. Köhler died in New Hampshire on 11 June 1967.

Among his many works in both German and English are The Mentality of Apes (1917; rev. 1921); Intelligence in Apes (1925); Gestalt Psychology: An Introduction to New Concepts in Modern Psychology (1929); The Place of Value in a World of Fact (1938; from William James Lectures delivered at Harvard in 1934); Dynamics in Psychology (1940; rev. 1965); Gestalt Psychology Today (1959); and The Task of Gestalt Psychology (1969).

Therese Boyd