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Helena Wladimirna Antipoff (1982 - 1974)

by Pelin Gul

Helena Wladimirna Antipoff was born to a wealthy aristocratic Russian family on March 25, 1892, in Grodno, Belarus, which was then a province of the Russian Empire. Due to the social unrest and the revolution that was about to occur in Russia, her family moved to Paris. There, Antipoff attended the University of Sorbonne, and in 1911 obtained a bachelor’s degree in science. During her studies in Sorbonne, she attended Pierre Janet’s and Henri Bergson’s lectures on psychology, igniting her interest in the subject. Upon her graduation, she interned at the Alfred-Binet Laboratory under the supervision of Theodore Simon, assisting in the ongoing research measuring the intellectual ability of school-aged children (Campos, 2012).

Enthusiastic about the field of psychology, she went to Geneva, Switzerland, to study with the psychologist Edouard Claparède who was a pioneer in the area of children’s learning.  She received her training at the Institute of Jean Jacques Rousseau (IJJR) from 1912 to 1916 where she obtained a diploma in educational psychology. At Claparède’s invitation, Antipoff then joined the team at the IJJR and devoted herself to research on intelligence testing and children’s learning. She acquired extensive knowledge of the “Active School” methods — an approach which emphasized the autonomy and creativity of children in their process of learning basic skills (Campos, 2001).

In 1916, she left Geneva and moved back to Russia to take care of her father who was seriously injured in the world war. Despite the social and political instability that followed, she decided to stay in Russia until 1924 (Campos, 2001).  During her stay in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg), she became acquainted with the directions taken by Soviet Psychology under the influence of the historical-cultural approach. In 1918, she married the journalist and writer Victor Iretzky and in 1919 she had a son, Daniel Iretzky Antipoff, who later became a famous agronomist and an educator (Campos, 2001)

Antipoff published articles on the results of her investigation of children’s cognitive capacities in 1924.However, the articles were severely criticized by the Soviet regime, claiming that they demonstrated the superiority of upper-class children over working-class ones in standardized tests (Campos, 2001). Although Antipoff interpreted the results as indicating that the scope of the tests were bounded by the cultural constructs of the upper-class.

Because of the restricted freedom of expression in Soviet Russia and her husband’s exile to Berlin, Antipoff fled to Germany in 1925. A year later, Antipoff and her husband separated, and she went back to the IJJR in Geneva as Claparède’s assistant, and a Professor of Child Psychology. There, she published articles on children’s process of learning about and interacting with their environment (Campos, 2011).

In 1929, Antipoff accepted an invitation to prepare Brazilian teachers at the newly established Teachers College in Belo Horizonte. Once there, she also started a research program studying the interests, ideals and cognitive development of school children at the Teachers College Laboratory of Psychology — one of the first laboratories of psychology established in the country (Campos, 2001). For her first published report in 1930, Antipoff designed a questionnaire for fourth graders, dealing with their preferred tasks at home and at school, preferred toys and books, adult models, and plans for the future. She compared these results with those obtained in Germany, Switzerland, United States and Moscow, and revealed the impact of social and cultural environment in shaping children’s inner trends (Campos, 2001).

After several successful renewals of her initial contract at the Teachers College, Antipoff decided to permanently stay in Brazil. She conducted other studies concerning the mental development of children in Belo Horizonte public schools at the Teachers College Laboratory of Psychology during the 1930s (Campos, 2001). She criticized Binet’s definition of intelligence as a “capacity to solve new problems through thought” (Claparède, 1933; as cited in Campos, 2001, p. 145) as well as intelligence tests for imperfectly measuring the intellectual ability. For her, intelligence was “a more complex product shaped by the actions of several agents, besides innate intellectual dispositions and biological growth, the combination of character and social environment in which a child grows up, as well as the pedagogical action, education and instruction to which a child is submitted both at home and at school” (Antipoff, 1931; as cited in Campos, 2001, p. 145).

In 1932, Antipoff founded the Pestalozzi Society in collaboration with a group of educators, doctors, intellectuals and philanthropists to guide and treat children with mental disabilities. Antipoff encouraged the use of non-derogatory words such as exceptional to describe this population, instead of using the words such as abnormal, subnormal or subhuman. When questioned about this, she replied that: “We are devoted to de-emphasizing the labels that were used in our first publications, such as abnormal children, imbeciles, and idiots. They are so very pejorative. Don’t you think?” (Antipoff, 1975; as cited in Block, 2007, p.187)

In 1937, Antipoff left the Teachers College. However, she decided to stay in Brazil for the rest of her life.  In the years following, she worked to expand educational opportunities in rural Brazil. After receiving her Brazilian citizenship in 1952, Antipoff found a position as a professor of Educational Psychology in the School of Philosophy, Humanities and Sciences at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Campos, 2012). She contributed to the education of the first generations of Brazilian psychologists, and helped initiate the legal regulation of the profession (Campos, 2012).

As a researcher and an educator of children with mental disabilities for a period of over 45 years, Antipoff significantly contributed to the development of a national model for special education and support services for disabled people in Brazil (Campos, 2012). She advocated social and educational inclusion at a time when individuals with disabilities were being sterilized, persecuted, imprisoned and even killed in other countries. Today, her work is achieved and carried out in the Helena Antipoff Foundation in Brazil.  In recognition of her accomplishments, the former governor of Minas Gerais, Milton Campos said: “She planted ten thousand seeds in our wilderness. All teachers and students whose lives she touched will now continue her work” (Pestalozzi Association of Niteroi, n.d., para. 19).

Selected Works By 

Antipoff, H. (1928). L'evolution et la variabilite des fonctions motrices [Evolution and variability of motor functions]. Archives de Psychologie, 21, 1-54. 

Antipoff, H. (1930). Ideais e interesses das criancas de Belo Horizonte e algumas sugestoes pedagogicas [Ideals and interests of Belo Horizonte schoolchildren and some pedagogical suggestions] (Boletim 6). Belo Horizonte, Minas Geraus, Brazil: Secretaria do Interior do Estado de Minas Gerais.

Antipoff, H. (1931). O desenvolvimento mental das criancas de Belo Horizonte [The mental development of Belo Horizonte schoolchildren] (Boletim 7). Belo Horizonte, Minas Geraus, Brazil: Secretaria de Educacao e Saiide Publica.

Antipoff, H. (1944). Como pode a escola contribuir para a formacao de atitudes democraticas? [How can schools promote the development of democratic attitudes?]. Revista Brasileira de Estudos Pedagogicos, 7(1), 26-45.

Antipoff, H. (1966). Educacao dos excepcionais e sua integracao na comunidade rural [The education of exceptionals and their integration to the rural community]. Boletim da Sociedade Pestalozzi do Brasil, 31, 7-18.

Selected Works About

Antipoff, D. (1975). Helena Antipoff: Sua vida/sua obra [Helena Antipoff: Her life/her work]. Livraria José Olympio Editora, Rio de Janeiro.

Block, J. (2007). Institutional utopias, eugenics, and intellectual disability in Brazil. History and Anthropology, 18(2), 177-196.

Campos, R. H. F. (2001). Helena Antipoff (1892-1974): A Synthesis of Swiss and Soviet psychology in the context of Brazilian educational system. History of Psychology, 4(2), 133-157.

Campos, R. H. F. (2012). Helena Antipoff: A quest for democracy and human rights with the help of psychological science. In W. E. Pickren, D. A. Dewsbury, & M. Wertheimer (Eds.), Portraits of pioneers in developmental psychology (pp. 51-65). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Pestalozzi Association of Niteroi (n.d.). Helena Antipoff. Retrieved from

This was originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the APA. Appearing with permission of the author.
Date created: 2013