Hermann Ebbinghaus


Hermann Ebbinghaus : biography

January 24, 1850 – February 26, 1909

Prior to Ebbinghaus, most contributions to the study of memory were undertaken by philosophers and centered on observational description and speculation. For example, Immanuel Kant used pure description to discuss recognition and its components and Sir Francis Bacon claimed that the simple observation of the rote recollection of a previously learned list was “no use to the art” of memory. This dichotomy between descriptive and experimental study of memory would resonate later in Ebbinghaus’s life, particularly in his public argument with former colleague Wilhelm Dilthey. However, more than a century before Ebbinghaus, Johann Andreas Segner invented the “Segner-wheel” to see the length of after-images by seeing how fast a wheel with a hot coal attached had to move for the red ember circle from the coal to appear complete. (see iconic memory)

Ebbinghaus’s effect on memory research was almost immediate. With very few works published on memory in the previous two millennia, Ebbinghaus’s works spurred memory research in the United States in the 1890s, with 32 papers published in 1894 alone. This research was coupled with the growing development of mechanized mnemometers, or devices that aided in the recording and study of memory.

The reaction to his work in his day was mostly positive. Noted psychologist William James called the studies “heroic” and said that they were “the single most brilliant investigation in the history of psychology”. Edward B. Titchener also mentioned that the studies were the greatest undertaking in the topic of memory since Aristotle.

Professional career

After acquiring his PhD, Ebbinghaus moved around England and France, tutoring students to support himself. In England, he may have taught in two small schools in the South of the country (Gorfein, 1885). In London, in a used bookstore, he came across Gustav Fechner’s book Elemente der Psychophysik (Elements of Psychophysics), which spurred him to conduct his famous memory experiments. After beginning his studies at the University of Berlin, he founded the 3rd psychological testing lab in Germany (3rd to Wilhelm Wundt and G.E. Muller).Hermann Ebbinghaus. (1968). Retrieved from International Enclyclopedia of the Social Sciences: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Hermann_Ebbinghaus.aspx He began his memory studies here in 1879. In 1885, the same year that he published his monumental work, Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology,Ebbinghaus, H. (1913).. (H. Ruger, & C. Bussenius, Trans.) New York, NY: Teachers College. he was made a professor at the University of Berlin, most likely in recognition of this publication. In 1890, along with Arthur Konig, he founded the Psychological journal Zeitschrift für Physiologie und Psychologie der Sinnesorgane (The Psychology and Physiology of the Sense Organs).

In 1894, he was passed over for promotion to professor at Berlin, most likely due to his lack of publications. Instead, Carl Stumpf received the promotion. As a result of this, Ebbinghaus left to join the University of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), in a chair left open by Theodor Lipps (who took over Stumpf’s position when he moved to Berlin). While in Breslau, he worked on a commission that studied how children’s mental ability declined during the school day. While the specifics on how these mental abilities were measured have been lost, the successes achieved by the commission laid the groundwork for future intelligence testing.Thorne, B. M., & Henley, T. B. (2001). Connections in the history and systems of psychology. (2 ed., p. 207). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

At Breslau, he again founded a psychological testing laboratory. 

In 1902, Ebbinghaus published his next piece of writing entitled Die Grundzuge der Psychologie (Fundamentals of Psychology). It was an instant success and continued to be long after his death. In 1904, he moved to the Halle where he spent the last few years of his life. His last published work, Abriss der Psychologie (Outline of Psychology) was published six years later, in 1908. This, too, continued to be a success, being re-released in eight different editions.Thorne (p. 208) Shortly after this publication, on February 26, 1909, Ebbinghaus died from pneumonia at the age of 59.