Career Focus: Child development.
Clara Stern did not attend university and had no formal credentials in psychology or any other academic discipline. Nevertheless, her life took a course through which she made truly extraordinary contributions to the sub-discipline of child/developmental psychology.
Born into a wealthy family in Berlin in 1877, the 21-year-old Clara Joseephy chanced to encounter, while bicycling in the Grunewald section of the city, a man named William Stern and the two began a relationship that led to their marriage in 1899. William Stern was at that time a Privatdozent at the University of Breslau (now Wroclow, Poland), so it was there where the Sterns began their married life. On April 7, 1900, Clara and William welcomed into their arms the first of their three children, daughter Hilde. Son Günther would arrive in 1902, and a second daughter, Eva, was born in 1904. On the day of Hilde’s birth, William Stern recorded in handwriting his observations of what had unfolded. This act began a project that continued for 18 years, and would eventually comprise upwards of 5,000 handwritten pages of recorded observations on all facets of the development of each of the three children. For each child, a diary was begun with that child’s birth and was continued until that child reached puberty.
The steadily accumulating data in these diaries would provide the bulk of the empirical basis for two monographs in the sub-field of child/developmental psychology that the Sterns published jointly, with Clara as first author. The first of the two, Die Kindersprache (Children’s Speech), was published in 1907 (C. Stern and W. Stern, 1907), and is the primary basis for a prestigious honor that would be bestowed posthumously on Clara Stern at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Holland. There one can view the busts of nine individuals judged by a panel of distinguished scientists to have made extraordinary contributions to the discipline of psycholinguistics. The eight busts alongside that of Clara Stern are those of (in alphabetical order) Paul Broca, Karl Bühler, F. C. Donders, Roman Jakobson, Edward Sapir, William Stern, Carl Wernicke, and Wilhelm Wundt – all widely known and highly respected historical luminaries, and all males.
The second monograph co-authored by Clara and William Stern was titled Erinnerung, Aussage und Lüge in der ersten Kindheit (Recollection, Testimony, and Lying in Early Childhood), published in 1909. After reading an English translation of that work, published 90 years later, Stephen J. Ceci and Maggie Bruck remarked:
“To one working in this field today, the extent to which the Sterns’ thinking foreshadowed current debates is eerie. . . . [O]ne emerges from reading this century-old monograph with a tremendous respect for these fine scholars. Their reasoning was as complex as that which can be found in the best developmental journals today.” (Ceci and Bruck, in Stern and Stern, 1999, p. xii). Given Clara Stern’s enormous role in the accomplishment of the 1909 monograph, these comments by Ceci and Bruck must be understood as praise no less for Clara Stern than for her husband.
A third scholarly publication based primarily on the observations recorded in the Stern diaries was Psychologie der frühen Kindheit bis zum sechsten Lebensjahr (The Psychology of Early Childhood Up To the Sixth Year of Life). That work appeared in its first German edition in 1914, and in an English translation by Anna Barwell of the fourth German edition in 1924. Although William Stern was the sole author of that work, the fact that its contents were based largely on diary observations - nearly all of which had been recorded by Clara - meant that she was a major contributor to the work as well, even though she was not named as co-author.
William was highly cognizant and appreciative of Clara’s indispensable contributions to this and other works in child/developmental psychology. In his 1927 Selbstdarstellung (an intellectual autobiography), he remarked of Clara:
“[Her contributions were those of] a woman possessed of an intuitive, motherly understanding of what makes children tick, combined with an unerring observational objectivity and a prudent caution in the interpretation of what had been observed. Added to this was a lively writing style and an indefatigable diligence in the completion of a task once begun.” (Stern, 1927, quoted in Deutsch, 1994, p. 175; translation by author)
After the Stern family moved from Breslau to Hamburg in 1916, the diary project would continue for only two more years. At that point, with the baby/child diary of the youngest child, Eva, complete, Clara turned away from her scientific activities and dedicated herself fully to family life and to the support of her husband’s blossoming career (Deutsch, 1994). Alas, that career would come to a sudden halt when Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933. As a Jew, William Stern was dismissed from his faculty position at the University of Hamburg in April of that year, and the Sterns would be forced to emigrate. After a short stay in Holland, Clara and William Stern continued on to the United States, where William assumed a faculty position in the Department of Psychology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Following William Stern’s death in March of 1938, Clara decided to relocate to New York where she could be close to one of her sisters, two of her children (Hilde and Günther), and her grandchildren. During World War II, Clara assisted the U.S. war effort against her native Germany by translating into English materials that had been intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials. Clara Stern died in New York on December 8, 1945.
By James Lamiell (2016)
To cite this article, see Credits
By Clara Stern:
Stern, C., & Stern, W. (1907). Die Kindersprache (Children’s speech). Leipzig: Barth.
Stern, C., & Stern, W. (1909). Erinnerung, Aussage und Lüge in der ersten Kindheit (Recollection, testimony, and lying in early childhood). Leipzig: Barth.
Stern, C., & Stern, W. (1999). Recollection, testimony, and lying in early childhood (J. T. Lamiell, Trans.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books.
About Clara Stern:
Deutsch, W. (1994). Nicht nur Frau und Mutter: Clara Sterns Platz in der Geschichte der Psychologie (Not only wife and mother: Clara Stern’s place in the history of psychology). Psychologie und Geschichte, 3-4, 171-182.
Deutsch, W. (2002). Als Frau und Mutter für die Wissenschaft leben (Clara Stern: As wife and mother living for science). In Volkmann-Rau, S., & Lück, H. E. (Eds.), Bedeutende Psychologinnen: Biographien und Schriften. Weinheim und Basel: Beltz.