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Adler was an Austrian physician and psychiatrist born in the suburbs of Vienna on February 7,1870 (Ellenberger, 1970). He was the second son of six children of a Jewish grain merchant. Childhood illnesses of rickets and pneumonia at the ages of 4 and 5 left him weak and sickly. Adler was an average student, was very socially outgoing, and made friends easily. During his college years, his peer group was made up of socialist students (Hoffman, 1996; Uytman, 1967). He met Raissa Epstein, a Russian social activist during his college years. They married in 1897 and had four children: Valentine, Alexandra, Kurt, and Nelly. Alexandra and Kurt were to become psychiatrists in the United States and promoters of the Adlerian approach.

After receiving his medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1895, Adler practiced ophthalmology for a short period before switching to general medicine and then psychiatry (Hoffman, 1996). In 1898, at 28 years old, he wrote one of his first works on the medical conditions of tailors, in which he described the health and lifestyle of tailors within their unique environment, describing what was to become one of the main ideas in Adler's theory: a view of the individual as part of an integrated whole within the environment. In 1902, Adler was invited by Freud to join a weekly group to discuss the characteristics of psychopathology. Freud also invited Adler to join the Viennese Psychoanalytic Society, and later, Adler became the editor of the organization's newsletter (Milliren, Evans, & Newbauer, 2007).

Adler published several works that featured a form of social theory that ran counter to Freud's deterministic theory. A rivalry began to develop between the friends, and eventually Adler's direction toward a more social theory of development caused a rift with Freud. Contrary to popular belief, although Adler was a contemporary and professional associate of Freud, he was not a student of Freud (Milliren et al., 2007). He had never accepted Freud's theory that mental difficulties were caused primarily by sexual trauma or that dreams should be interpreted as attempts at sexual fulfillment. Adler suggested that Freud's description of sexual ideas should be taken metaphorically rather than literally. Freud felt that Adler and social theorists were wrong and that there was no real scientific evidence to support their theories. Adler began to view Freud as inflexible in his ideas, focused on power, and obsessed with sex and death. Freud also took issue with Adler's ideas about instinct. In 1907, Adler published his book, Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation (Adler, 1907/1917), which detailed the focus of his early work on organ disabilities and the compensatory responses of individuals. In 1911, his rift with Freud led to his resignation from the Society. Adler formed his own group called the Society for Individual Psychology.

In 1912, he published The Neurotic Constitution (Adler, 1912/1926), in which he discussed many of the main constructs of his theory (Uytman, 1967). The Vienna College of Professors rejected this work as being more similar to philosophy than medicine. Eventually, Adler turned to bringing individual psychology to the public through an educational model, not a medical model. His next book, Understanding Human Nature (Adler, 1927/1946), contained many of his lectures given at the Viennese Institute for Adult Education. In contrast to Freudian theory, Adlerian theory proposes that both the social and the internal realm are important to psychology. Adler was influenced by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. He believed that the drives for power and superiority contribute to human behavior. These drives are attempts to compensate for a sense of inferiority, or inferiority complex. Adler traveled and lectured for nearly 25 years presenting his ideas on social-oriented psychology to large groups of researchers, practitioners, and laypeople. He sought to overcome the superiority dynamic of a therapist, moving the theater of analysis from the couch to two chairs, promoting the idea of equality between the patient and counselor.

In 1914, Adler started the journal, The Individual Psychologist. That same year he edited a book, Healing and Education: Medical-Educational Papers of the Society for Individual Psychology (Adler & Furtmuller, 1914), moving him more into the field of education (Hoffman, 1996). Adler's work was interrupted by World War I; during this time he was a physician in the war and noted the war's destructive power on Vienna and its society. His views began to incorporate the concept of social interest as an approach to larger societal problems. In 1918 and 1919, during postwar time, he founded several child guidance clinics in Vienna and educational clinics in Austria for teachers, parents, and students. It was from this work that Adler pioneered another innovative form of therapy, the group therapy process. He began to integrate the concept of social interest into larger systems, such as education (specifically adult education), school reform, teacher training, and child guidance.

From 1921 forward, Adler was a frequent lecturer in Europe and in the United States, speaking at Columbia University and Long Island College of Medicine (Ellenberger, 1970). Adler's approach was popular worldwide, with many associations of individual psychology cropping up in several countries. In 1934, when Hitler came to power, the child guidance clinics were closed as fostering democracy. In 1937, Adler began a long series of lectures in several European countries: Belgium, France, England, Holland, and Scotland. He published Understanding Human Nature (Adler, 1927/1946), which presented the idea of social interest (King & Shelley, 2007), and he gave a series of lectures at Aberdeen University. His lecture series proved to be so popular that people had to be turned away. On May 28, 1937, during the lecture tour, Adler died in Scotland, of a heart attack. His daughter, Dr. Alexandra Adler, served as a substitute lecturer and finished the series after his death.

After Adler's death, his theory of individual psychology continued to flourish and evolve through the further work of Rudolf Dreikurs in the United States and many other enthusiasts worldwide. One of Dreikurs's major contributions was the continuation of Adler's child guidance clinics in the United States in the form of family education centers. Individual psychology remains strong today as a psychological theory more than 70 years after Adler's death. Various organizations promoting Adler's beliefs of mental and social well-being include the International Committee of Adlerian Summer Schools and Institutes and the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology.

Adler had an enormous effect on the counseling profession (Ellenberger, 1970). In counseling, Adlerians became innovators of many interventions used to prevent future problems with clients rather than limit treatment until after problems occur. Adlerian counseling strategies include encouraging and promoting a client's work toward the three life tasks of work, community, and love. Adler's ideas of inferiority complex, birth order, family constellation, and social interest are important concepts for Adlerian counselors. Adler's theory provides a social constructivist view of humans and is seen as the forerunner of humanistic psychology.

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