Frederick “Fritz” Perls, MD

A Biography…


Fritz Perls, M.D. and his wife Laura were the original creators of Gestalt Therapy.

Perls was born in 1893 in Germany, earned his medical degree in 1926, and then worked at the Institute for Brain Damaged Soldiers in Frankfurt. Here he was influenced by Kurt Goldstein; gestalt psychology, a branch of academic psychology; and existential philosophy. Gestalt psychology, in opposition to associationist psychology, posited that human beings perceive instinctively in wholes or patterns rather than building up their percepts in bits and pieces. Perls was also influenced by Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich, and eventually became a psychoanalyst himself.

Fritz and Laura, who were Jewish, realized early on that Germany was becoming rapidly infected by Nazism and more and more dangerous for Jews. They left Germany in 1933, first going to the Netherlands, later to South Africa, where they set up a psychoanalytic institute. But they gradually became dissatisfied with Freudian analysis, believing it to be too intellectual and ineffective, not dealing with the whole person and not understanding the importance of oral aggression in human development. They began to revise Freudian theory, based on gestalt psychological principles and existential philosophy. The outgrowth of this revision was the book Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: A Revision of Freud's Theory and Method (1946).

In the late 1940's, they moved to New York City, where they joined a community of artists and intellectuals versed in philosophy, psychology, medicine, and education. Several years of collaboration with members of this group resulted in the training of the first generation of Gestalt therapists, a comprehensive formulation of the theory, methodology, and practice of Gestalt Therapy and the book Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (1951). The co-authors were Ralph Hefferline, a psychology professor at Columbia University and the well-known writer, Paul Goodman. This book is considered the Gestalt Therapy "bible" and is still relevant for its theoretical and philosophical sophistication.

Fritz moved to California in 1960 and joined the Esalen Institute in 1964, where he began conducting training workshops for therapists. He quickly began to achieve international fame for his unorthodox, brilliant, confrontational style; his emphasis on present-centeredness, body awareness and sensory experience; and his de-emphasis of the intellecualizing style of much psychoanlaysis and psychotherapy of the time. Laura stayed in New York City, where she continued to practice and train therapists in the fundamentals of Gestalt Therapy.

During the latter 60's Fritz wrote his autobiography In and out the garbage pail (1969) and the book Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1969). He eventually left Esalen but continued to conduct training groups at Lake Cowichan, British Columbia. He died in 1971, in Chicago.

Gestalt Therapy