Bärbel Inhelder (1913 - 1997)

by Jennifer C. Daly and Silvia Sara Canetto, Colorado State University

Who originated the concept of the formal operational stage?  Who conducted pioneering research on children’s understanding of space?  Who first applied genetic epistemology to investigations of mental retardation?  Likely, your reply to all of these questions is Jean Piaget. In fact, these extraordinary and renowned scientific contributions were made by Bärbel Inhelder. A Swiss psychologist, Inhelder was trained by, and collaborated with Piaget, but also had an independent and distinguished career of her own.  Records indicate that she initiated and independently developed the research that led to her original theories and findings. However, because she collaborated with Piaget in publishing some of her theories and research, her original contributions have come to be attributed to and subsumed under the name of her famous male teacher and collaborator.

Born on April 15, 1913, in St. Gall, Switzerland, Inhelder grew up as the only child of a German mother and a Swiss father (Gruber, 1998).  Her mother was a gifted writer and her father a zoologist. Of her earliest years, she narrated that she “created a language” all of her own, which she “spoke volubly at a very early age,” and only later learned the German language spoken in her community (Inhelder, 1989, p. 209). 

As was typical for women of her generation, Inhelder’s education initially focused on training to become a school teacher.  She eventually expanded her course of study to maintain the option of attending university.  During her high school years, she came across experimental psychology, which at first failed to capture her interest. At the time she loved Freud’s writings and was drawn to the literature on adolescence. In 1932, she moved to Geneva on “a one-year trial” basis to attend the Institut Jean Jacques Rousseau for university studies in psychology (Inhelder, 1989, p. 210).  There, she met Piaget who taught child psychology at the institute.

Under Piaget’s mentorship, Inhelder carried out an experiment on children’s perceptions of quantity conservation, later to become her first publication (Inhelder, 1936). In her biography, she mentioned that Piaget presented her operational thought findings at an invited lecture at Harvard University.  She hoped to make conservation the topic of her doctoral dissertation, but Piaget “had a different plan” for her (Inhelder, 1989, p. 213). He invited her to collaborate on the research project that was eventually published in the co-authored book Le développement des quantités chez l'enfant [The Child’s Construction of Quantities] (1941/1974).

Inhelder was awarded her doctorate by the University of Geneva in 1943. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the attitudes toward women at the time, her first post-doctoral position at the University of Geneva was as laboratory instructor (Gruber, 1998).  She eventually succeeded Jean Piaget as the chair of genetic and experimental psychology at the University of Geneva, a position she held from 1971 to 1983.  She held visiting professorships at several universities, including Harvard University, the University of Zurich, and the University of Aix-en-Provence. She was also president of the Swiss Psychological Society and the Society of French-Speaking Psychologists. By the end of her career, she had received eleven honorary doctorates (Gruber, 1998).

According to a recent biography, Inhelder’s unique scientific contributions include her work on “reasoning in mental retardation, space and the three mountains experiment, adolescent and formal operations, longitudinal methodology, mental imagery, learning, cross-cultural studies, strategies, and procedures” (Vonéche & Tryphon, 2001, p. xi).  Of these, perhaps most noteworthy is her theory of formal operations in cognitive development, an idea typically attributed solely to Piaget.  Other notable accomplishments include her application of cognitive development theory to understanding mental retardation and her cross-cultural studies (Gruber, 1998).  

Little is known of her personal life. As is perhaps not surprising for an accomplished scientist of her time, she neither married nor had children. Whether she had important personal relationships is unknown. Biographers describe her as a generous and engaged mentor.

Inhelder died on Feb. 16, 1997. She left a tremendous scientific legacy, including fourteen books, numerous articles and chapters and generations of students trained under her supervision.  This article  celebrates her enduring legacy as an original researcher, theorist, and international ambassador for psychology. We hope that this brief biography will help ensure that she will be recognized for her outstanding contributions to the science and practice of psychology. 


Gruber, H.E. (1990).  Bärbel Inhelder (1913- ).  In A. O’Connell & N. Russo (Eds.),  Women in psychology: A bio-bibliographic sourcebook  (pp.196-206). Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Gruber, H.E. (1998).  Bärbel Inhelder (1913-1997).  American Psychologist, 53, 1221-1222.

Inhelder, B.  (1936).  Observations sur le principe de conservation dans la physique de l’enfant. Cahiers de pédagogie expérimentale et de psychologie de l'enfant, 9, 1-16.

Inhelder, B.  (1943/1968).  Le diagnostic du raissonnement chez le débiles mentaux. Thèse, Université de Genève. Neuchâtel: Delachaux et Niestlé, 1943 (English transl.: The diagnosis of reasoning in the mentally retarded). New York: J. Day.

Inhelder, B. (1989).  Bärbel Inhelder.  In G. Lindzey (Ed.) A history of psychology in autobiography, Vol. 8 (pp. 209-243). Stanford, CA: Stanford University. 

Piaget, J ., & Inhelder, B . (1941/1974). Le développement des quantités chez l’enfant [The child’s construction of quantities] Neuchâtel, Paris : Delachaux et Niestlé

Vonéche, J. & Tryphon, A. (2001) Introduction.  In A. Tryphon & J. Vonéche (Eds.), Working with Piaget: Essays in honour of Bärbel Inhelder  (pp. xi-xiv).  Philadelphia, PA: Psychology.