Anna Berliner (1888-1977)

by Rachel Uffelman, University of Akron*

Biography of Anna Berliner

The only woman awarded a PhD under Wilhelm Wundt, she was an expert in her time on the psychology of visual perception and one of the earliest psychologists to address cultural issues. She produced groundbreaking work in advertising and intelligence testing.  She studied psychology across three continents and escaped Nazi Germany, only to have her life end in a murder mystery.  Yet despite her wide array of activities, Anna Berliner has been largely overlooked in the history of psychology. 

Anna (Meyer) Berliner was born on December 21, 1888, in Halberstadt, Germany. She received a traditional Gymnasium education and pursued medical training in Freiburg and Berlin.  While in Berlin, she studied at the Berlin Psychological Laboratory, and her love for psychology was born.  In 1910, she married physicist Sigfrid Berliner, the brother of a childhood friend.  Sigfrid has taken a position at the University of Leipzig, and Anna decided to pursue the study of psychology there.  However, women were not permitted to study at Wundt’s famous laboratory, as the practicalities of having men and women working closely in dimly lit rooms “were complexities to be avoided” (Alpern, 1978, p.2). Berliner, however, was not to be deterred.  The way she came to study under Wundt is best described in her own words:

It was very simple.  In the beginning I studied only under Brahn in his special institute.  There were no restrictions in regard to lectures and seminars, and thus I was not too disappointed. One day after class when, as I had done rather frequently before, I looked at the equipment used during the lecture, the technical assistant asked me why I, who had so much interest, did not come to “our” Institute.  I replied that I understood they did not like women over there.  He answered that “we” have decided to go with the times.  Without any reply or losing time I turned around, went to the Institute and asked whether I could see his “excellency.”  This was the first time I talked to Wundt.  He was very pleasant, enquired about my background and when he heard about all the lab courses I had taken at Berlin and Leipzig he simply told me that there was no reason why I should not become a member.  (Berliner, 1959, P.7)

While studying at Leipzig, Berliner’s contact with Wundt was limited in time, but not in scope.  She attended his daily lecture, which covered many topics including experimental psychology, the history of philosophy, and his Volkerpsychologie (cultural psychology).  In January 1914, insisting, “I want to be your student, Master,” Anna Berliner successfully completed her doctoral examination and became the only woman to earn a PhD under Wundt.

Always she learned, Always she taught

Upon graduation, Anna and Sigfrid Berliner moved to Japan, due to limited opportunities for Jews in Germany.  Anna Berliner began learning the language and intricacies of the tea ceremony.  She also worked as a consultant to an advertising firm, applying her knowledge of visual perception to the psychology of advertising.  She generated many writings on Japanese culture during this time and became a  lifelong advocate for the Japanese people. 

When World War I broke out in 1914, Sigfrid Berliner was interned as an enemy alien and Anna Berliner was deported to the US.  She studied at Berkeley and Columbia, and published research on children’s judgments of beauty based on her study of the children at the Hebrew Orphans Asylum in New York City. In 1932, Anna and Sigfrid returned to Germany, but were forced to leave for the US in 1936 due to the rise of the Nazi Party.  In Chicago, Anna lectured on visual psychology at Northern Illinois College of Optometry and quickly became the chair and only member of the psychology department.  Her breadth of psychological knowledge is reflected in the courses she taught which included introduction to psychology, experimental psychology, statistics, perception, clinical psychology, personality, and projective testing, among others.  Anna Berliner was an early proponent of collaboration between the fields of psychology and optometry.  She applied the principles of visual psychology to various topics, working from the assumption that seeing is influenced by factors beyond the object of vision, such as physiological needs and the psychological field.  For example, a 1955 article discussed perceptual issues as they relate to the use of the Rorschach test. Here Berliner discussed form, color, and movement as they are understood from a perceptual, rather than clinical, perspective. 

Berliner was named a Lifetime Fellow of the International Council of Psychologists in 1963 and was honored with the Apollo Award, a high honor from the American Optometric Association, in 1971.  On May 13, 1977, at the age of 88, Anna Berliner was murdered in her home, where she lived alone.  The murderer, a 13-year-old boy, confessed a year later to committing the crime out of rage.  Anna Berliner displayed a lifelong proficiency as a teacher, and researcher, and applied psychologist.  In describing her, a colleague stated: “Always she taught.” She was willing to explain, challenge, even proofread, whenever her assistance was needed.  She was known on occasion to anonymously pay the tuition of students who could not afford it.  Although she did not think of herself as a crusader in the battle for women’s rights, she broke new ground by convincing Wundt to allow her to study at his Institute. Berliner taught by example.  Her high standards modeled good professional behavior and critical thinking for her students and colleagues.  An examination of her life’s work also leads to the statement: “Always she learned.”  She adapted her knowledge and skills to new situations, whether or not she chose those situations. She ably applied her understanding of psychology to new forums, such as advertising.  She willingly taught herself concepts in psychology with which she was unfamiliar, in order to be a better teacher.  Her life and work are summed up by her words: “An unused life is an earlier death.”  Clearly, she lived  and worked by this motto, and for it, deserves recognition as an important woman in the history of psychology.

References

Alpern, M. (1978, May 19). Speech given at Pacific University. (Berliner Papers, M50). Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron, Akron, OH.

Berliner, A. (1955). The Rorschach determinant in terms of visual psychology. The Optometric Weekly, 46, 13-20.

Berliner, A. (1959, January). Reminiscences of Wundt and Leipzig. (Berliner Papers, M50). Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron, Akron, OH.

 

*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 29, Number 2, Spring, 2002.  Appearing with permission of the author.