Sula Wolff (1924-2009)
Sula Wolff was a 20th century psychiatrist who helped found the field of child psychiatry in Britain.
Sula Wolff was born on March 1, 1924 in Berlin, Germany. Her father was briefly detained by the Nazis in 1933, and her family left Germany immediately thereafter. The family eventually settled in London.
Wolff enrolled in Oxford University in England, where she studied medicine. She graduated in 1947 with a specialty in pediatrics, and she worked at Whittington Hospital in London. In 1955, Wolff joined the staff of the Maudsley Hospital in London to complete her psychiatric training. Wolff spent time in Cape Town, South Africa with her husband, Henry Walton, before they accepted research fellowships in New York. In 1962, the couple relocated to Scotland where Wolff completed clinical training in child psychiatry and became a consultant for the Royal Hospital for Sick Children and research fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She was the first psychiatrist to receive a Medical Research Council Grant to study child psychiatry.
In 1969, Wolff published Children Under Stress: Understanding the Emotionally Disturbed Child, a book that highlights the importance of early diagnosis and treatment. The book has become something of a classic in the psychiatry community, along with her 1995 book, Loners, that follows the lives of several children who were almost completely friendless. She also helped to establish the Child Psychiatry Research Society with a small group of colleagues that studied treatment programs for children and adolescents with emotional difficulties.
Contribution to Psychology
Sula Wolff is recognized as one of the founders of British child psychology and psychiatry. Wolff was recognized by her colleagues for her remarkable skill at communicating with and understanding children; she emphasized using language that was nonstigmatizing and nonpathologizing when talking about and to children. Wolff spent much of her career studying the personality development of children, which she outlined in her 1989 book, Childhood and Human Nature: The Development of Personality.
Wolff had a longstanding interest in unusual or abnormal children. The book Loners follows the developmental trajectories of several socially withdrawn, eccentric children over 20 years. Wolff observed that these children’s psychological issues persisted in adulthood. She was one of the first child psychiatrists to demonstrate through her research that personality differences among children were not necessarily due to adverse life experiences but to constitutional differences.
Wolff referred to many of the children she studied as part of her research on loners as “schizoid,” though today, these same children would be identified with Asperger's syndrome, on the autism spectrum. Consequently, she contributed tremendously to early autism research and was recognized as an authority on autism and Asperger's.
- Graham, P. (2009, October 22). Sula Wolff obituary. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/society/2009/oct/22/sula-wolff-obituary
- Sula Wolff: Child psychiatrist who made pioneering advances in her field. (2009, November 2). The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/sula-wolff-child-psychiatrist-who-made-pioneering-advances-in-her-field-1813213.html
- Watts, G. (2009). Obituary: Sula wolff. The Lancet, 374(9703), 1740. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/199049994?accountid=1229
Last Update: 07-06-2015