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Erik Erikson Biography (1902-1994)

By

Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson

Hope is both the earliest and the most indispensable virtue inherent in the state of being alive. If life is to be sustained hope must remain, even where confidence is wounded, trust impaired. --Erik Erikson

Best Known For:

Birth and Death:

  • Erik Erikson was born June 15, 1902.
  • He died May 12, 1994.

Childhood:

Erik Erikson was born June 15, 1902 in Frankfurt, Germany. "The common story was that his mother and father had separated before his birth, but the closely guarded fact was that he was his mother's child from an extramarital union. He never saw his birth father or his mother's first husband," reported Erikson's obituary that appeared in The New York Times in 1994.

His young Jewish mother raised Erik by herself for a time before marrying a physician, Dr. Theodor Homberger. The fact that Homberger was not in fact his biological father was concealed from him for many years. When he finally did learn the truth, he was left with a feeling of confusion about who he really was. This early experience helped spark his interest in the formation of identity.

His interest in identity was further developed based upon his own experiences in school. At his temple school, the other children teased him for being Nordic because he was tall, blonde, and blue-eyed. At grammar school, he was rejected because of his Jewish background. These early experiences helped fuel his interest in identity formation and continued to influence his work throughout his life.

Career:

When he finished high school, Erikson dabbled in art and spent some time traveling throughout Europe. At the suggestion of a friend, Erikson studied psychoanalysis and earned a certificate from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.

He also took a teaching position at a school created by Dorothy Burlingham, a friend of Anna Freud's. He continued to work with Burlingham and Freud at the school for several years, met Sigmund Freud at a party, and even became Anna Freud's patient. "Psychoanalysis was not so formal then," he recalled. "I paid Miss Freud $7 a month, and we met almost every day. My analysis, which gave me self-awareness, led me not to fear being myself. We didn't use all those pseudoscientific terms then -- defense mechanism and the like -- so the process of self-awareness, painful at times, emerged in a liberating atmosphere."

He met a Canadian dance instructor named Joan Serson who was also teaching at the school where he worked. The couple married in 1930 and went on to have three children.

Erikson moved to the United States in 1933 and was offered a teaching position at Harvard Medical School. He also changed his name from Erik Homberger to Erik H. Erikson, perhaps as a way to forge is own identity. In addition to his position at Harvard, he also had a private practice in child psychoanalysis. Later, he held teaching positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Yale, the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, Austen Riggs Center, and the Center for Advanced Studies of the Behavioral Sciences.

He published a number of books on his theories and research, including Childhood and Society and The Life Cycle Completed. His book Gandhi's Truth was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a national Book Award.

Contributions to Psychology:

Erik Erikson spent time studying the cultural life of the Sioux of South Dakota and the Yurok of northern California. He utilized the knowledge he gained of cultural, environmental, and social influences to further develop his psychoanalytic theory.

While Freud’s theory had focused on the psychosexual aspects of development, Erikson’s addition of other influences helped to broaden and expand psychoanalytic theory. He also contributed to our understanding of personality as it is developed and shaped over the course of the lifespan.

His observations of children also helped set the stage for further research. "You see a child play," he was quoted in his New York Times obituary, "and it is so close to seeing an artist paint, for in play a child says things without uttering a word. You can see how he solves his problems. You can also see what's wrong. Young children, especially, have enormous creativity, and whatever's in them rises to the surface in free play."

His son, Kai T. Erikson, is a noted American sociologist.

Select Publications by Erik Erickson:

  • Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
  • Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.
  • Erikson, E.H. (1975). Life History and the Historical Moment. New York: Norton.
  • Erikson, E.H. (1996). Dialogue With Erik Erikson. Richard I. Evans (Ed.), Jason Aronson.

Biographies of Erik Erickson:

  • Friedman, L. J. (1999). Identity's Architect; A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. Scribner Book Co.
  • Coles, R. (1970). Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work. Boston: Little, Brown.

Reference:

Erik Erikson, 91, Psychoanalyst Who Reshaped Views of Human Growth, Dies. (1994, May 13) The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/13/obituaries/erik-erikson-91-psychoanalyst-who-reshaped-views-of-human-growth-dies.html?pagewanted=all#

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