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Center for the History of Psychology

Wilhelm Trendelenburg

Wilhelm Trendelenburg (1877-1946)

Wilhelm Trendelenburg was born on the 16th of July in 1877 in Rostock. He was one of nine siblings in a traditional family of scholars. His grandfather, Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg (1802-1872) was a philosopher and was holding a professorship at the University of Berlin from 1833 onwards. Wilhelm’s father, Friedrich Trendelenburg (1844-1924) was a world-known surgeon and eponym of the Trendelenburg-test or the Tredelenburg-operation for varicose vein suffering amongst others. It was the family’s tradition that also the children entered an academic career. Thus, Wilhelm’s brothers Ernst, Paul and Ferdinand became a lawyer, a pharmacologist and a physician. Friedrich Adolf Albrecht Trendelenburg entered a career in administration and had one of the highest positions as director of the Prussian cultural ministry. Wilhelm Trendelenburg, as his father, dedicated his interest to the field of medicine and became a physiologist. He spent his time as an assistant after his studies in Freiburg with Johannes v. Kries who published the journal for psychology together with Hermann Ebbinghaus. Wilhelm Trendelenburg also spent some time as assistant with Ewald Hering in Leipzig. After his postdoctoral lecture qualification in 1904 Wilhelm Trendelenburg went to the universities of Innsbruck (1911), Gießen (1916), Tübingen (1917) and finally Berlin (1927). Due to the second world war Trendelenburg lost his oldest son Reinhard, who was professor of forestry in Munich, relatively early in 1941. His son died during a fight in Moscow. When the air attacks in Berlin were intensified, the family Trendelenburg also lost their house with all the valuable family memories. The Trendelenburgs went back to Tübingen where Wilhelm died on the 16th of March in 1946. Schittenhelm (1949) characterised Wilhelm Trendelenburg in his obituary as follows: “Trendelenburg was a man of unexceptionable characteristics and fully enthusiastic about his work. He also communicated this enthusiasm to his students. Teaching was what he wanted and something that brought him joy and fulfilment. He invested a lot of time into teaching through detailed preparations. He also drew attention to his students as individuals. He had a big heart and always time for anyone who asked him for advice; he was also always natural, never arrogant.”

Intelligence testing with monkeys

Although Trendelenburg’s scientific focus was on the operational physiology of the central nervous system, the physiological optics and also the physiology of the heart, he carried out psychological studies with animals at the end of his time in Freiburg. These studies can be seen as uninfluenced continuation and addition to Köhler’s experiments with apes:
“With our work, which aims to contribute to this problem, we do not rely on theoretical ideas in the first place, but were mainly keen to provide exact observations and to document the observed as exact as possible. We want to put back all questions related to how intelligence, insight and many related concepts are defined. These issues have been especially discussed since Köhler’s work. The occasionally chosen anthropocentric way of expression is only meant to serve the clarity of demonstration. If good observation material is at hand, it will be the psychological analysis’s task to judge the animals’ behaviour as ‘intelligent’, ‘insightful’ or as something different. Another possibility is to see everything from the point of view of v. UEXKÜLL’S ‘Merkwelt of animals’.” (Nellmann & Trendelenburg, 1926).

The studies carried out with different monkeys by Trendelenburg and his colleagues were documented by videotapes. We offer this video material in addition to Köhler’s videos which can be found on our website, too.

Armin Stock

Drescher, K. & Trendelenburg, W. (1927). Weiterer Beitrag zur Intelligenzprüfung an Affen (Einschließlich Anthropoiden). Zeitschrift für vergleichende Physiologie, 5, 613-642.
Nellmann, H. & Trendelenburg, W. (1926). Ein Beitrag zur Intelligenzprüfung niederer Affen. Zeitschrift für vergleichende Physiologie, 4, 142-200.
Schittenhelm, A. (1949). Wilhelm Trendelenburg in Memoriam. Zeitschrift für die gesamte experimentelle Medizin, 115, 1-6.
Schütz-Münster, E. (1950). Wilhelm Trendelenburg. Ergebnisse der Physiologie, 46, 6-21.

Wilhelm Trendelenburg: A contribution to intelligence testing of monkeys