Dembo, Tamara (1902–1993)

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Dembo, Tamara (1902–1993)

Russian-born American psychologist, pioneer of psychological field theory and an important theorist in rehabilitation psychology, who developed a method of studying anger that emphasized the importance of understanding the context of each situation. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, on May 28, 1902; died in Worcester, Massachusetts, on October 17, 1993; University of Berlin, doctorate in psychology, 1930; never married.

Came to the U.S. to escape Nazism; taught and carried out research work at a number of American universities including Harvard, spending the final decades of her productive career at Clark University.

Born into a prosperous Russian-Jewish family in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1902, Tamara Dembo was diagnosed with a heart murmur as a young child. As a result, she spent many of her early years confined to her home and often to her bed. The irony is that she lived to be over 90 years of age and became one of the world's leading experts on the psychological problems of the handicapped. The experience of being treated as an invalid left an indelible mark on Dembo, causing her to accentuate the positive aspects in her own situation and the situations of others with various afflictions and handicaps. Among her earliest significant contributions to psychological theory was the idea of "asset-mindedness," the concept that after suffering serious injury some individuals were able to successfully rehabilitate themselves by focusing on the strengths they still possessed rather than on the problems and disabilities that set them apart from other human beings and from their earlier lives.

Tamara Dembo grew up in very comfortable circumstances in St. Petersburg (which became Petrograd in 1914 and Leningrad in 1924), but her world was radically transformed by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Civil war, famine, and increasing political repression made a normal life impossible for young Dembo, who left Russia never to return in the mid-1920s. Moving to Berlin, which had a large community of Russian emigrés, she enrolled as a psychology student at the University of Berlin. There, Dembo was fortunate to study with Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Lewin, and Max Wertheimer, professors who were making fundamental investigations in the emerging discipline of Gestalt psychology. Dembo was able to thrive intellectually in such an exciting atmosphere and in 1930 was awarded her doctorate in psychology by the University of Berlin. Within a year of graduation, in 1931 she published a classic article on the dynamics of anger. This article helped to advance research in the field, prompting Kurt Lewin to redirect his analyses of personal activities from the individuals themselves to the situations in which they were involved. More than a half-century after its publication, Dembo's study of anger continued to stimulate and enrich research into this area of investigation.

Dembo, who was frustrated professionally and increasingly alarmed by the political situation in Berlin, decided to immigrate to the U.S. to continue her career, several years before Adolf Hitler and his Nazi movement seized power in Germany. Energetic and brilliant, the refugee scholar was able to find her first position at Smith College as a research associate of one of her former Berlin mentors, Kurt Koffka. For the next decade, she found work at Worcester State Hospital, Cornell University, and the University of Iowa. Her publications continued to emphasize the idea that human behavior was largely determined by current situations rather than past history. In 1941, she was a co-author with Kurt Lewin and Roger Barker of an important study, Frustration and Regression: An Experiment with Young Children.

By 1945, Dembo had become director of a research project at Stanford University studying the best ways in which to assist in the psychological rehabilitation of people who had lost limbs or been blinded. Working with Gloria Ladieu Leviton and Beatrice Wright , Dembo created a new theoretical understanding of how people adjust to misfortune, focusing on the notion of devaluation that took place when misfortune struck. Dembo's pioneering research in rehabilitation psychology helped change attitudes toward the handicapped. At the time of her work in the 1940s and 1950s, most people regarded a person without legs as being profoundly handicapped. Not Dembo, who simply observed an individual who could not get upstairs. It was the stairs that were handicapping the person, and thus she became a forceful advocate for ramps and elevators, instructing an entire generation that the disabilities were in the environment rather than in the persons.

After teaching and carrying out further research projects at the New School for Social Research and at Harvard, Tamara Dembo accepted an offer in 1953 from Clark University to become part of a research team developing new methods for families to cope with the problems of children with cerebral palsy. After nearly a decade of intensive work, Dembo's team published a detailed report on their findings, which many observers regarded as opening up new grounds of psychological terrain. Dembo remained at Clark for the rest of her life, living on campus and making important research contributions. Always eager to share her rich store of life experiences, she became a cherished member of the Clark academic community. Her concept of "asset-mindedness" would be a powerful inspiration to teachers, researchers, and millions of handicapped individuals the world over.

In the final decades of her life, Dembo warned of the dangers the psychological profession faced due to its having helped to create and maintain relationships of social domination in the contemporary world. She hoped that in a future world that was more democratic and humane, the unequal relationship between experimenter and subject in psychological research would be reduced and even eliminated. Recalling the horrors she had personally lived through both in Russia and Germany, she repeatedly warned her colleagues of the dangers of establishing an uncritical and dependent relationship with the military, particularly in a democracy. Although she had lost friends and family to Stalin's gulag and the Nazi Holocaust, Tamara Dembo remained to the end of her life an essential optimist, convinced that human beings can create situations of trust and profound respect for one another. Despite her failing health, she continued to the last years of her life to conduct a series of exciting domashnye seminary (home seminars), inspiring and sharpening the professional skills of young students and mature colleagues alike. Much loved and highly respected, Tamara Dembo died in Worcester, Massachusetts, on October 17, 1993.


Kennedy, Randy. "Tamara Dembo, 91, Gestalt Psychologist Who Studied Anger," in The New York Times Biographical Service. October 1993, p. 1438.

Rivera, Joseph de. "Tamara Dembo (1902–1993)," American Psychologist. Vol. 50, no. 5. May 1995, p. 386.

Rosa, Alberto and James V. Wertsch. "Tamara Dembo and Her Work: An Introduction," in Journal of Russian and East European Psychology. Vol. 31, no. 6. November–December 1993, pp. 5–13.

Wertsch, James V. "In Memoriam," in Journal of Russian and East European Psychology. Vol. 31, no. 6. November–December 1993, pp. 3–4.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia