Wolfgang Kohler

Researched and written by:  Donald F. Kneessi
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..


            Born in Estonia Wolfgang Kohler was only five years old when his family moved to Northern Germany.  He went to Tubingen, Bonn, and Berlin, and obtained his PhD from the University of Berlin in 1909 (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).

            In 1913, Kohler was invited by the Prussian Academy of science to study chimpanzees in Tenerife.  While in Tenerife, World War I had started, and Kohler stated that he could not leave Tenerife.  That started rumors that he might be a German spy and his research facility was a cover for espionage activities.  The rumors were started that he was a German spy based on his idiosyncratic interpretation of historical data.  It was also stated that he had a powerful radio transmitter in the attic of his house which he used to tell about allied ship movements.  This information was never found to be credible and was challenged by Kohler’s followers and by historians.  For the next seven years he studied the behavior of chimpanzees.  His work was published in The Mentality of Apes (1917).  He found his research to be interesting, but soon found himself getting bored with working with animals (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).

            In 1920, he returned to Germany and decided to sell his chimpanzees to the local zoo, but unfortunately due to the climate change the chimpanzees died.  After Kohler returned to Germany, he replaced Stumpf as professor of psychology at the University of Berlin. Kohl published a book called Static and Stationary Physical Gestalt (1920), which he suggested that Gestalt theory was a general law of nature that should be extended to all sciences (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).

            In 1925-1926, Kohler lectured at Harvard and Clark University.  In 1929, he published Gestalt Psychology, which talked about the Gestalt movement.  Kohler criticized Germany’s government, and even had a group of Nazi invade his lecture hall to try to get him to stop.  He even wrote an anti-Nazi letter to the Berlin newspaper talking about Jewish professors who had to give up their jobs because they were Jewish.  He was never arrested by the Nazi police.  In 1935, he finally decided to leave Germany and went to the United States (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).

            Kohler was the only non Jewish psychologist who ever protested against Germany and the Nazis.  He was not afraid to make his thoughts about them very public which could have cost him his life at a very early age. He was lucky that he was not thrown into a prison and killed off for the things he said about Germany and the Nazis (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).

            In the United States, Kohler taught at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and published a few books.  He was also edited the Gestalt journal Psychological Research.  In 1956, he received the distinguished scientific contribution award from APA and in 1959, became president of the APA (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).




Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2004). A History of Modern Psychology.

p. 367-369. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.



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