Frederick (Fritz) Perls, Founder of Gestalt Therapy

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Frederick Salomon Perls (Fritz Perls), his wife Laura, Paul Goodman, and others founded the Gestalt School of Psychotherapy.

Name: Frederick Salomon Perls

Birth Date: July 1893 – March 1970

Job Functions: Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist

Fields: Psychiatry

Known For: Gestalt Therapy


Born in Berlin in the late nineteenth century into a middle class family, Frederick Salomon Perls was interested in theatre. Affectionately known to friends and colleagues as Fritz, Perls decided to study medicine when he enrolled into college in 1913. The First World War interrupted his study and he enlisted to serve until the war ended in 1918. Perls continued his studies immediately after the war, received his MD in 1921, and decided to focus on psychiatry.

Fritz Perls Русский: Фредерик Перлз עברית: פרי...
Fritz Perls Русский: Фредерик Перлз עברית: פריץ פרלס (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perls was a great admirer and follower of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic technique, and was also influenced by Wilhelm Reich’s Orgonomic psychotherapy. However, at the same time, Perls became more intrigued by Gestalt psychology. In the 1920s and 1930s, Perls began to move away from the classic Freudian model to create a more holistic approach to therapy. During that time, Perls had also continued his education in psychotherapy in Berlin, Vienna and Frankfurt, and it was during his time studying in Frankfurt that he met his future wife Laura. The two were married in 1930 and had two children.

In 1933, husband and wife fled Germany during the Nazi regime to the Netherlands and then Johannesburg, South Africa. Over the years, Fritz and Laura Perls developed their ideas which morphed into Gestalt psychotherapy. Gestalt psychotherapy was a combination of the works of Freud and Wilhelm Reich, psychodrama, existentialism and Gestalt psychology. In 1942 while living in South Africa, Perls book Ego, Hunger and Aggression: A Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method was published. The book was not received with critical acclaim, and was republished in England in 1946 and received less interest than what the Perls had expected.

From 1942 to 1946, Fritz Perls served in the South African Army as a psychiatrist, and was ranked as an army captain. In 1946, the Perls’ lived in Canada briefly, and then went to New York City in 1948. They continued their work with Gestalt therapy. Fritz Perls co-authored a book Gestalt Therapy with Raiph Hefferline and Paul Goodman, which was published in 1951. Initially, the book was not taken very seriously, but in the years to come, Gestalt Therapy attracted a larger following.

In 1952, the Perls founded the Gestalt Therapy Institute in New York City, which was run by Laura. “Their novel technique in therapy was to face the patient, in contrast to the typical Freudian technique of sitting behind a reclining person. The face-to-face positioning permitted the therapist to direct the patient’s attention to movements, gestures, and postures so the patient could strive to gain a fuller awareness of his or her immediate behaviors and environment.”

The Perls believed that their techniques allowed patients to gain insights into how their thoughts and behaviours are used to deflect attention from important psychological issues and learn to recognize the presence of issues from the past that affect their current behaviour. Their aim was for the patients to experience feelings, not to gain insights in to the reasons for them as was the case with psychoanalysts. As they involved Gestalt therapy, Laura favoured more direct, physical contact and movement, while Fritz favoured a symbolic rather than a physical contact.

In 1964, Perls became resident psychiatrist at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. At the Esalen Institute, Perls organized and conducted dream workshops, seminars and training courses with Jim Simkin. According to Perls, “the different parts of a dream are fragments of the human personality. To become a unified person without conflicts, one must put the different fragments of the dream together. The Gestalt approach to learning about oneself through dreams lies in a concerted attempt to integrate one’s dreams, rather than seeking to analyze them.”

Fritz Perls worked in California until he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1969 where he started a training community for Gestalt therapists. In March 1970 after conducting a workshop in Massachusetts, Perls underwent surgery in Chicago when he suffered from heart failure and died at age 76.

Laura Perls survived her husband by 20 years. She was the mainstay of the Gestalt therapy movement and headed Gestalt Therapy Institute in New York City for almost 40 years. Laura Perls died of complications from a thyroid condition in July 1990 in Pforzheim, West Germany. She was an unacknowledged contributor to the early books by her husband that formulated the approach.

Writings by Fritz Perls 

  1. Ego, Hunger and Aggression: A Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method, Knox (Durban, South Africa), 1945, revised edition published as Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: The Beginning of Gestalt Theory, Vintage, 1969.
  2. (With Ralph F. Hefferline and Paul Goodman) Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, Julian Press, 1951, reprinted, Crown, 1977.
  3. John O. Stevens, editor, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Real People Press, 1969.
  4. In and Out the Garbage Pail, Real People Press, 1969.
  5. The Gestalt Approach & Eye Witness to Therapy, Science & Behavior Books, 1973.
  6. John O. Stevens, editor, Gestalt Is: A Collection of Articles About Gestalt Therapy and Living, Real People Press, 1975.
  7. (With Patricia Baumgardner) Gifts From Lake Cowichan [and] Legacy From Fritz (the former by Baumgardner, the latter by Fritz Perls), Science & Behavior Books, 1975.

Recordings include: Gestalt Therapy and How It Works, Big Sur, 1966, and Dream Theory and Demonstration, Big Sur, 1968.

Why Frederick Salomon Perls’ Contribution Matters

Today, Gestalt is recognized as one of several standard approaches to modern therapy.

Gestalt therapy demonstration by Fritz Perls 1/2

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Gestalt therapy demonstration by Fritz Perls 2/2

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Works Cited/Referenced

International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences

Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology

The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained

The New York Times, July 18, 1990, “Laura Perls, 84, Dies in Germany; Founder of

Gestalt Psychotherapy”

Fritz Perls website

Contemporary Authors Online

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