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Center for the History of Psychology

Wolfgang Koehler

Wolfgang Köhler was born on Friday the 21th of January in 1887 in Reval (Estonia), today’s Tallinn. Six years later, in 1893, his family moved to Germany and he grew up in Wolfenbüttel. After studying philosophy and natural sciences in Tübingen, Bonn and Berlin from 1905-1909, he was awarded a doctorate in 1909 with a tone-psychological work under Carl Stumpf. Afterwards, in 1909, he was assistant of Friedrich Schumann in Frankfurt who had followed Karl Marbe. Karl Marbe himself had taken the Külpe-professorship in Würzburg. During Köhler’s time as an assistant from 1910 till 1913 he met Kurt Koffka and worked with Max Wertheimer who examined the Phi-Phenomenon.
Due to a reference of Carl Stumpf, Wolfgang Köhler was appointed to being the director of the “Anthropoidenstation” of the Prussian academy of sciences at Tenerife in 1914. At this time he was only 27 years old and still relatively inexperienced in the field. Stumpf possibly saved Köhler’s life by appointing him to Tenerife. It might have been coincidence, it might also have been on purpose, as the first world war was on the horizon and Köhler would have had to join the army. Due to the war Köhler could not return to Germany before 1920. In 1922 Köhler became the successor of Carl Stumpf and director of the Psychological Institute in Berlin. There he developed amongst others the Berlin school of the “Gestaltpsychologie” together with Max Wertheimer, Kurt Lewin and Carl Duncker. He stayed in this position until 1935 and then left Germany after he had, as far as possible, opposed the nationalistic developments in Germany by standing up for threatened and traced scientists. After the second world war Köhler was elected as president of the American Psychological Associaction in his chosen home country USA. He died at the age of 80 on the 11th of June in 1967 in New Hampshire.

Research in Tenerife

Wolfgang Köhler used his years in Tenerife by showing for the first time that chimpanzees do not only learn by trial and error, but also through insight in cause-effect relationships. He showed this with ingenious, but still simple experiments. This insight alone was already quite impressive in the early 20th century, but the full impact of these findings was produced by Köhler using the technology of filming which was still relatively new back then. By his films, he confirmed his findings impressively. The Adolf- Würth –Centre possesses a copy of Köhler’s original recording. This recording could recently be preserved and digitalised.  We aim to provide this material to science as well as to the interested public.


Wolfgang Köhler: Intelligence testing of great apes