A couple of summers ago I had the opportunity to travel with several colleagues from Southeast Missouri State University to visit FSU. No, I did not travel to Florida State University in Tallahassee, but Friedrich Schiller Universität in Jena, Germany. The purpose of the trip was to encourage student and faculty exchanges among different departments, but the trip to former East Germany also provided the intriguing possibility of visiting Leipzig—the place where psychology began as a science in Wilhelm Wundt’s laboratory at the University of Leipzig.
My quest to find a museum dedicated to Wundt began that summer and continued last semester when I found out that our Psi Chi president, Brian Harris, planned to study in Germany for a semester.
Martha: Brian—I’m so glad you’re going to Germany! What a great opportunity to travel and improve your language skills.
Brian: Yeah, I’m excited to go. I wanted to study in Germany because the opportunity to observe the cultures of Europe firsthand is very important to me. One can always read a book about life in these other countries, but I don’t believe that can convey a picture of life in a country as well as actually being and living there.
Martha: While you’re there, will you do something for me? I tried to find some sort of Wilhelm Wundt museum when I was in Leipzig a couple of years ago, but the only answer I got was that I could certainly check out books from the library about him. For some reason I couldn’t seem to connect to anyone who knew whether or not the university had a museum or special collection related to him. Ever since, I’ve been curious about whether German textbooks refer to Wundt as starting the scientific study psychology. Would you mind trying to find out how Wilhelm Wundt is described in German psychology textbooks while you’re over there?
Brian: Sure. You mean the university didn’t know anything about him?
Martha: Well, German friends of mine in Magdeburg tried to help me find out about him before we left for Leipzig. I think they called an office something like the chamber of commerce, and maybe a university information number, but the people they contacted seemed confused by the idea that there might be a museum for him.
[Over the summer Brian was able to e-mail me occasionally to let me know how the search for German psychology textbooks and a Wundt museum was going. He came back to Missouri during the summer.]
Martha: Tell me about your experiences searching for Wilhelm Wundt.
Brian: Well, when I arrived in Aachen, Germany, which is on the western border near the Netherlands and Belgium, I had no idea what to expect.
I was studying at a Fachhochschule—university of applied sciences—which has a different focus than the liberal arts universities. Because it is a well-known school in Germany, I expected the university to have a respectable psychology department. So I was going to talk with the professors and students there about Wundt. The university is well known for its technical and business departments, but it turns out the university did not to even have a psychology department.
Martha: So what did you do then?
Brian: Of course not having a psych department limited my options for speaking with individuals in Aachen who were interested in psychology. So, I looked into making the trek out to Leipzig, the fabled birthplace of psychology. I lived on the west side of Germany, however, and Leipzig is in the east. The train ride would take eight hours each way and cost 140 euros—roughly $150. So, that was out of the picture, too.
Martha: Oh yes, that’s right. Leipzig is in former East Germany, and you were on the western edge of former West Germany. That could get pretty pricey on a student budget. Tell me your quest to find Wilhelm Wundt didn’t end there.
Brian: Well, not being able to speak with anyone about psychology and not being able to go to Leipzig myself, I decided to stop by Mayersche Buchhandlung, the local bookstore. Mayersche had quite a collection of books on different psychology fields. They had everything from textbooks to The Idiot’s Guide to Psychology, in German of course. The actual textbooks were out of the question, because I didn’t have the space to lug those around half of Europe after classes got out.
Martha: Were you able to find any books that weren’t too expensive or heavy?
Brian: Sure. I read through some of the smaller books on introduction to general psychology—well, I read as much as I could in German. About half the books gave some kind of credit to Wundt, even though most of them just had a paragraph or so. Here are the books I finally picked for you, Psychologie, Eine Einfuhrung: Grundlagen, Methoden, Perspektiven and Orienteirung Psychologie: Was sie kann, was sie will.
Martha: Great! How much do I owe you?
Brian: About 25 euros—that’s about $27 right now. I picked them for the outstanding intellectual content—and price may have played some part, because they were some of the cheaper ones. Look here on page 329 in Psychologie, Eine Einführung.
Martha: Yes, this looks familiar—even though I might have to look up a few words! "Wilhelm Wundt, der Begründer der akademischen Psychologie als eigenständiger Wissenschaft (von 1879 an leitete er in Leipzig das erste Psychologische Institute der Welt) . . ." Well that sounds pretty much like you would read in any of our intro psych textbooks.
Brian: Yes, look at what our own intro book says. "Thus, in 1879, Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), often described as the 'father of psychology,' founded the first psychological laboratory" (Westen, 1998).
Martha: Here’s another one. "On a December day in 1879, in a small room on the third floor of a shabby building in Germany’s University of Leipzig, two young men were helping a long-faced, austere, middle-aged professor, Wilhelm Wundt, create an experimental apparatus. . . . Thus began what many consider psychology’s first experiment, launching the first psychological laboratory, staffed by Wundt and psychology’s first graduate students" (Myers, 2004).
Brian: I’ve been looking for Wundt information on the internet, too.
Martha: Why don’t we look again while you’re here. What did you find on the web since you’ve been back?
Brian: I found one site that Dr. Donald Cousins, an associate professor of psychology at Rhode Island College, put together about Wundt. Actually it has information about tracing the history of psychology throughout Europe. We can get to it at www.ric.edu/dcousins/europsych. Wundt is listed right there on the people page.
Martha: Hmm. According to this there are three locations of Wundt artifacts in Leipzig.
Brian: Right, the Wundt Room at the Universität Leipzig, his gravestone in the Südfriedhof, a cemetery on the city’s south side, and the Wundt Eiche.
Martha: ". . . the so-called Wundt Eiche (Wundt oak), marking a particular location in Clara-Zetkin Park where Wundt regularly stopped to sit while on his daily walk. The oak commemorates the precision of Wundt’s daily routines. It has been said that one could set one’s watch by the passing by of Wundt each day."
Brian: Well, that gives us a few places to visit. What websites did you find?
Martha: I was finally able to find Wundt information on the Universität Leipzig website, through their psychology department. If we go first to the main website at www.uni-leipzig.de, we can click on the English version, but the psychology department is apparently only in German. That is www.uni-leipzig.de/~psycho/psy-hp-e.htm.
Brian: Wow! They have the history of psychology at the university beginning 300 years ago!
Martha: Right, it says the tradition of psychology at Leipziger Universität goes back to the ideas and work of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), Christian Thomasius (1655–1728), and Christian Wolff (1679–1754).
Brian: Wasn’t Leibniz a philosopher who had ideas similar to those of Descartes? I see Wundt is listed further down. He gets credit for beginning the first institute for the study of experimental psychology in 1879.
Martha: It looks to me like German and American textbooks describe Wundt similarly, but there are many German names included in their timeline that don’t show up in ours. Like theirs, though, our timeline goes much further back than Wundt. For example, Myers (2004) puts the beginning of the psychology timeline in the 300s B.C. with the ideas of Plato and Aristotle.
Brian: Rüdiger, Crusius, Jacob? Hey, I recognize Weber, and there’s Fechner! They taught at Leipziger Universität?
Martha: Looks like it. Did I tell you I heard from one of the Leipziger Universität psych faculty? I e-mailed Frau Doktorin Anneros Meischner-Metge to request information about Wundt. She said that the Wundt room has old experimental apparatus, Wundt’s books, class rosters with signatures of many students, and letters to and from Wundt. She said the room is available for free tours every day, but it is better to make contact by e-mail first, at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Brian: I’ll be sure to check that out next time I’m in Germany.
Martha: Me too, after I brush up on my history of psych first!
Myers, D. G. (2004). The history and scope of psychology. In Psychology (7th ed., p. 4). New York: Worth Publishers.
Westen, D. (1999). Psychology: The study of mental processes and behavior. In Psychology: Mind, brain, & culture (2nd ed., p. 10). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.