Personal Biography

Hugo Munsterberg, psychologist, was born in Danzig, Germany on June 1, 1863. His father, Moritz, was a merchant who bought and sold lumber. His mother, Anna, was an artist who continued her work while taking care of her four sons. The boys were encouraged in their love for books and music. The influence of this early artistic environment remained with him through his scholarly work. Not only did he play the cello, but he also wrote poetry. His passion for music and art influenced the development of his psychological theories. On August 7, 1887, he married Selma Oppler of Strassburg.


Munsterberg was described as a person with a keen sense of humor, a warm heart and a generous spirit. Although appearing to be a large and intimidating man, he was very reserved especially when dealing with students. He stood firmly in his own ideas while remaining tolerant of other views. He did not participate in much physical activity, but he had great energy and was said to always be thinking. He was logical and clear in his thinking and loved beauty in every form. As a lecturer he was convincing and was always able to keep the audience involved. In philosophy, he was an idealist, but in psychology he held two principles to be true. These principles were that the belief of causal law held for mental phenomena as they were correlated with physiological processes and when he considered the mental from the viewpoint of values he believed in freedom.



Hugo encountered internal turmoil with the outbreak of the first World War. A native to Germany, but loyal to the United States, Munsterberg felt he needed to make a choice. His loyalties to his Homeland outweighed his American loyalties and he became unconditionally allied with German beliefs concerning the war. This sentiment sent him into further turmoil in that he was shunned while at Harvard. A complete explanation of how he was treated while at Harvard can be read in his Obituary.


Above is a photograph of Munsterberg and his colleagues. The figure on the lower right is William James. Munsterberg is in the center. It is believed that Josiah Royce is next to James and that Gerorge Palmer is on the other side of Munsterberg.

The story in Hothersall states, "A painting over the stairway in Harvard's Emerson Hall shows William James, Josiah Royce, George Herbert Palmer, and a vacant chair. That chair was to have been occupied by Munsterberg, but his likeness was blocked out after his death (Roback, 1952, p. 208)" (Hothersall, p. 173-4). The implication is that Munsterberg was painted out because of his stand on Germany during WWI.

However, there is some indication that Munsterberg was not painted out, but rather that he had such definite opinions about how he should be painted that the artist did not include him in the painting. Below is a message from Nicole Barenbaum of the University of the South at Sewanee.

"It seems that two rumors are perpetuated in this account of the Harvard painting. Hothersall (1995) claims that Munsterberg "literally" disappeared from the painting, and he cites Roback's History of American Psychology (1952, p. 208) as his source. Actually Roback (1952) said this was a "story" that was circulating; he didn't say whether he believed it. In the second edition he added the following footnote: In a private communication (May 30, 1963) to the present author, Professor W. E. Hocking tells a different story. "The 'empty-chair' painting was definitely not 'painted out.' The point was that Winifred Rieber, who did the painting, and who carefully took private sketches of the four subjects, found Hugo very decided about how he should be painted--he had his own theories of aesthetics--and she felt that she couldn't reconcile them with her own, and so had to omit him." It is well and fortunate that we still have with us the sprightly nonagenarian; and his statement should scotch the rumor, which had spread even abroad, once and for all. (Roback, 1964, p. 228)


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