Birthday: September 9, 1890
Died At Age: 56
Sun Sign: Virgo
Born Country: Poland
Born in: Mogilno, Poland
Famous as: Psychologist
Spouse/Ex-: Gertrud Weiss (m. 1929), Maria Landsberg (m. 1917–1927)
father: Leopold Lewin
mother: Recha Engel Lewin
siblings: Hertha Putzrath
children: Daniel Lewin, Esther Agnes, Fritz Reuven, Miriam Lewin
Died on: February 12, 1947
place of death: Newtonville, Newton, Massachusetts, United States
Cause of Death: Heart Attack
education: Kaiserin Augusta Gymnasium 1905–1908, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Humboldt University of Berlin, University of Freiburg
Who was Kurt Lewin?
Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist, often referred as the ‘founder of social psychology’. Born into a Jewish family in Prussia and educated in Germany, he began his career as a Privatdozent at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. In spite of his lack of English knowledge, he soon became known in the USA for his innovative ideas and methods. As a result, he was able to migrate to the USA shortly after the Nazis captured power in Germany, teaching first at Cornell University and then at the University of Iowa and finally heading the Research Center for Group Dynamics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During his stay in the USA, he started working on social, organizational, and applied psychology and became known for his contribution to group dynamics, action research, T-groups. Although he died in 1947, a survey published in 2002, ranked him as twentieth century’s 18th-most cited psychologist.
Childhood & Early Years
Kurt Lewin was born on 9 September 1890 into a Jewish family in Mogilno, a small village in Prussia. His father, Louis Leopold Lewin, was the owner of a small general store in Mogilno. His mother, Recha Engel Lewin, also worked in the store.
Born second of his parents’ four surviving children, he had an elder sister called Hertha Putzrath (Lewin) and two younger brothers called Egon and Fritz. That apart, he had another elder sister called Alice, who died in infancy.
Although they were not wealthy, theirs was a close-knit, financially-secured middle class family. Raised in an apartment above the family store, he led a happy childhood, going to local schools and spending holidays in a farm, which was co-owned by his father.
In 1905, the family moved to Berlin, where fifteen years old Kurt was enrolled at the prestigious Kaiserin Augusta Gymnasium. Initially, he was not regarded as an outstanding student.
His interest in academics began to improve while studying Greek philosophy in the last two years at the Gymnasium, eventually graduating from there in 1909. In the same year, he entered the University of Freiburg, intending to study medicine. At that stage, his ambition was to become a country doctor.
He left the University of Freiburg after studying medicine for one semester, mainly because he disliked anatomy. Thereafter, he entered University of Munich with biology. But here too he did not complete his course, taking transfer to Royal Friedrich-Wilhelms University of Berlin in April 1910.
For one year at the Berlin University, he continued studying biology. But by the Easter semester of 1911, he became interested in philosophy, especially the philosophy of science. At this juncture, one of his professors suggested that he might find psychology interesting, a suggestion he thought worth considering.
In the 1911 summer semester, he entered the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin, eventually completing his doctoral work from there in 1914 under the guidance of Carl Stumpf, the director of its Psychology Laboratory. However, the degree was not conferred on him until 1916.
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In 1914, as the First World War broke out, Kurt Lewin joined the German army, eventually working his way up to the rank of lieutenant. But in 1917, he was wounded and hospitalized and while recovering from his wound, he published his first journal article, ‘Kriegslandschaft’ (War Landscape).
With the defeat of Germany in 1918, Lewin temporarily moved to Netherlands. But he shortly returned to Berlin, where he was appointed a Privatdozent at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin in 1921. After 1924, he began supervising doctoral candidates, many of whom were females.
In 1926, he served as a professor at the University of Berlin, a position he held till 1932. Very popular with his students, he taught both philosophy and psychology, adding diagrams and mathematical formula to his lectures. He also conducted experiments about tension states, needs, motivation, and learning.
By 1929, his papers began to be translated into English, making him known outside Germany. Also in the same year, he was invited to give lecture at the International Congress of Psychology, held at Yale University, USA. The lecture, given in German, was accompanied by visuals, making it much appreciated.
In 1930, he spent six months as a visiting professor at the University of Stanford. Also in 1930, several American students came to Berlin to work with him. Two of them, translated his articles into English, collection of which was republished in 1935 as ‘A Dynamic Theory of Personality’.
In 1933, with the rise of the Nazis, it became apparent that Jews could never flourish in Germany. In August, Kurt Lewin left for the USA, where he joined the School of Home Economics at the Cornell University, remaining with it until 1935.
In 1935, he accepted a position at the Child Welfare Research Station at the University of Iowa, where he remained until 1944. Although he was still struggling to learn English, he quickly became very popular with students, meeting them at informal gatherings every week.
At Iowa, he continued to undertake research in social process. From 1940 onwards, he became involved in researches linked to war effort, such as exploring the morale of the fighting troops and psychological warfare. He also worked on reorienting food habits, leading it away from foods in short supply.
He spoke regularly on minority and inter-group relations, wanting to establish a centre, which would concentrate on researching group dynamics. His dream came true when the Research Center for Group Dynamics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology was established in 1944. As founder director, he served the institution till his death.
Concurrently with working at Research Center, he also became involved with the American Jewish Congress in New York - the Commission on Community Interrelations. Working with this group, he soon pioneered the concept of ‘T Group’, initially articulated by J.L. Moren in 1914–15.
Kurt Lewin is best known for his book, 'Principles of Topological Psychology', published in 1936. In this work, he placed more importance on a person's transitory situation while analyzing his behavior. It contradicted earlier theories, which relied entirely on his past.
He is also equally known for coining terms such as ‘Action Research’. In his 1946 paper, 'Action Research and Minority Problems', he defined the former as "a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action”.
Family & Personal Life
In 1917, Kurt Lewin married Maria Landsberg, who taught English and German at a girls’ high school. They had two children; Esther Agnes (born 1919) and Fritz Reuven (born 1922). The couple divorced in 1927. Later, Maria moved to Palestine with the children.
In 1929, he married Gertrud Weiss, who later became a clinical psychologist in her own right. She published several papers including a handbook for student researchers in psychology. The couple had two children; Miriam (born 1931), and Daniel (born 1933).
On 12 February 1947, Lewin died of heart attack in Newtonville, Massachusetts. He was then 56 years old and many believe that it was his inability to bring his mother over to the USA and her death at a concentration camp in Poland, which caused his early demise.