February 7, 1870, is the birthdate of Alfred Adler, the pioneering psychiatrist who coined the term “inferiority complex,” a profound and insightful thinker who dared to challenge Sigmund Freud. He invented his own school of therapy called Individual Psychology, but many of his insights and innovations have found their way into other schools across the therapeutic spectrum.
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Alfred Adler was born in Rudolfsheim, just west of Vienna. His father, Leopold Adler, was a Hungarian-born grain merchant; his mother was the former Pauline Beer.
As the second of six surviving children, Alfred had a happy and healthy youth, although one accompanied by significant trauma. While his father was supportive and loving, he is said to have felt rejected by his no-nonsense mother. Alfred suffered from rickets as a young child, and was thus very late in walking. Shortly before he turned 4, he was present when his younger brother Rudolf, in the bed next to his, died, of diphtheria.
The following year, when Alfred was sick with pneumonia, he overheard a doctor telling his father, “Your boy is lost.” These experiences are said to have made the child decide at a young age that he wanted to become a physician.
Alfred, who was talented enough musically that he was also encouraged to consider a career in opera, had a classical education at various Vienna gymnasia.
A doctor after all
In 1888, he entered medical school at the University of Vienna, receiving his degree in 1895.
During his studies, Adler was active in the socialist movement, and contributed articles to its journals. And though he did not remain politically active, he maintained a high level of social consciousness throughout life. Adler's first book, for example, “The Health Book of the Tailoring Trade,” looked not only at purely medical issues, but also at the social and economic factors that affected the health of professional tailors.
He also met his future wife, the Moscow-born Raissa Epstein, in the movement. A feminist, and extremely independent, Raissa was very close to Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia. They married in 1897, in a traditional Jewish ceremony, and went on to have four children together – and a tempestuous partnership.
In 1904, Adler and two of his children underwent conversion to Christianity in a Protestant church in Vienna. This decision doesn't seem to have been based on any notable religious conviction, nor does his professional or social advancement seem to have been stymied by his Jewish origins. He did, however, express his dislike of what he saw as Judaism’s exclusivity. He opened a private practice across from Vienna’s Prater amusement park, and began to see a wide range of patients, including employees from the circus across the road.
Postcard from Freud
In 1902, Adler received a postcard from Sigmund Freud, inviting him to be one of the five founding members of the Wednesday Evening Society, which evolved into the famed Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
For the next nine years, Adler was a regular and dominant presence at these meetings, and in 1910, he was even elected president of the society. By then, though, he had begun to express skepticism about some of Freud's theories, and in 1911 he left the group.
Adler was called up in 1916, and spent the final years of World War I as an army doctor. Following the war, he began to open what became a number of mental health clinics for children. He also began working in schools, meeting with groups of parents and teachers and doing family and community therapy.
Adler’s approach to human psychology always looked at people within their social contexts, and placed a far greater emphasis on the formative impact of relationships than on innate sexual drives. Feelings of inferiority, he believed, resulted from individual's high expectations of themselves coming up against a harsh reality.
Well before the German occupation of Austria, Adler saw his clinics closed because he was a Jew, and in 1932, he began the process of resettling in New York, where he received a position at the Long Island College of Medicine.
Alfred Adler died of a heart attack in Aberdeen, Scotland, on May 28, 1937, shortly before he was to deliver a lecture. He was cremated in Edinburgh, where his ashes remained unclaimed until 2007.