Mary Henle


Mary Henle was a professor of psychology at the New School and the last surviving second-generation Gestalt theorist. Her accomplished career belies the restrictions women generally faced during the same period in the field of psychology.

Born in 1913, Henle had the early advantage of parents who valued education and encouraged her to pursue her interests. Her mother, a physician, had graduated at the top of her class while her father – whose own scientific ambitions went unfulfilled – pursued self-education through extensive reading and adult education courses. (Fitting, then, that Henle would ultimately enjoy a long career at the New School, which had its beginnings as an institution for adult education.)

Her tertiary education began at Smith College in 1930 where she majored in French, graduating in 1934. She enjoyed her undergraduate psychology courses enough to then enroll in a Master’s program, also at Smith. In this Department Henle was first exposed to Kurt Koffka, a doyen of Gestalt psychology. [1] Gestalt psychology – to which Henle remained committed throughout her career – is an experimental school of psychology that emphasizes the mind as a global whole with self-organizing tendencies. [2] It provided the foundation for the study of perception and has its roots in phenomenology.

Henle went on to complete her PhD at Bryn Mawr in 1939. Following her PhD’s conferral, she took a research position at Swarthmore College where she undertook experimental work with Wolfgang Köhler, who was a visiting professor at the time, and central to the development of the Gestalt school. [3] A significant intellectual interlocutor and inspiration, Köhler edited Henle’s papers before she submitted them for publication. [4] The Swarthmore fellowship was followed by teaching positions at the University of Delaware (1941), Bryn Mawr (1942-1946), and Sarah Lawrence College (1944-1946). Teaching, rather than research, dominated these years, though the drafting of senior professors during the war years saw Henle run Bryn Mawr’s psychology department. [5]

In 1946, Solomon Asch, on the recommendation of Köhler, asked Henle to join the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research which included the Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer. Beginning as an assistant professor (1946-1948), she was promoted to associate professor in 1948 and full professor in 1954. The New School named her professor emeritus in 1983 and at that time bestowed on her an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

Henle published prolifically and is credited with making accessible the scholarship of the first generation of Gestalt psychologists. [6] Her work focused on the psychology of thinking, perception, experimental psychology, systematic psychology, and the history of psychology. In addition to her teaching, supervision and research responsibilities, Henle was involved with various professional bodies later in her career. She served as president of the Eastern Psychological Association (1981-1982) and of Divisions 24 (Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 1974-1975) and 26 (History of Psychology, 1971-1972) of the American Psychological Association (APA).

In a tribute in the journal American Psychologist, Michael Wertheimer of the University of Colorado at Boulder recalled Henle’s demand for academic rigor [7]:

Her devoted students revered – and feared – her. According to one informant… Mary looked like a little, gentle, quiet woman but tolerated no compromise with the highest standards. Students – and colleagues (including this writer) – quaked at her criticism and were thrilled when she liked something they produced. She was wonderfully difficult, stern in her allegiance to truth and clarity, and her worst criticism was “fuzzy thinking.”

Mary Henle died in 2007 at the age of 94. A file of her writings can be found in the New School Archives in the New School faculty vertical files collection.


[1] Wertheimer, Michael. 2008. “Mary Henle (1913-2007)”. American Psychologist vol. 63, no. 6, p. 557.

[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica (available online).

[3] Held, Lisa. 2010. “Profile: Mary Henle”. Psychology’s Feminist Voices (available online).

[4] Wertheimer, Michael. 2008. “Mary Henle (1913-2007)”. American Psychologist vol. 63, no. 6, p. 557.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Held, Lisa. 2010. “Profile: Mary Henle”. Psychology’s Feminist Voices (available online).

[7] Ibid.


Courtesy of the Archives of the History of American Psychology. via feministvoices. Web. Nov 3rd 2014.