Go to main content
History of Psychology Centre

Charlotte Wolff – Pioneering Research

08 February 2021 | by History of Psychology Centre

Who was Charlotte Wolff and why is her life and research something to remember during LGBTQ History Month?

Twenty six years ago an eighty-eight year old German Jewish refugee Charlotte Wolff died in London and her partner Audrey Wood, contacted The British Psychological Society to tell us that Dr Wolff had left her research papers and copyright of her publications to the Society.

The papers were accepted and now form part of BPS History of Psychology Centre collections.

And, ten years later, on the centenary of her birth, an educational establishment Berlin was renamed in her honour.

Born in Riesenburg in 1897 the second child of a Jewish grain merchant, the family later moved to Danzig (now Poland), Wolff studied medicine in Freiburg later transferring to Berlin to complete her studies.

Whilst in Berlin Charlotte Wolff not only became friendly with many intellectuals including Walter Benjamin, but had an affair with a married childhood friend (“Lisa”) who Wolff described in her autobiography as the “love of her life”.

After qualifying in 1928 Wolff began work in Berlin Health Insurance Association in the ante-natal, maternal and infant care service and also provided counselling and family planning services to women in the working classes.

In 1933 after Hitler came to power Wolff was told that being Jewish meant she would lose her job.

The gestapo is known to have visited her home, and this pushed Wolff to move to Paris where she lived with the journalist Helen Hassel.

After three years in France and with the help of Aldous and Maria Huxley Wolff emigrated again, this time England.

Unfortunately she was not able to practice medicine in France nor initially in England and so made a living out of chirology – personality assessment based upon the study of hands – her archive contains many prints and drawings of the hands of her eminent acquaintances and clients (including Virginia Woolf and Wallis Simpson) and her chirological research resulted in the publication of several books between 1936 and 1945.

Although given temporary registration in 1941 to practice psychotherapy it was not until 1952 that Wolff was finally fully registered as a doctor in Britain and could again practice as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist.

Her research diversified into studies of sexuality – a request by the Probation Service to interview some girls who had arrested for soliciting, some of whom were lesbians “opened her eyes to certain psycho-social conditions and also to some aspects of homosexuality”1. It was through a mutual contact in the probation service in the 1950s that Wolff met Audrey Wood, a midwife, who was to become her partner for the next thirty years.

In 19672 Wolff contacted the Albany Trust3 to help her recruit candidates for a research project into lesbianism and bisexuality, “Love between Women”, which was published in 1971 followed by a second edition in 1973.

Some participants were or had been married, so, although they identified as lesbian, they had engaged in bisexual behaviour, and this led Wolff to start a new research project exploring bisexuality again approaching the Albany Trust for participants but also contacting the Beaumont Trust and advertising in Gay News, Sappho4, Spare Rib and Time Out.

The resulting book-length study Bisexuality, was published in 1977, and in a second, expanded edition in 1979 she stated;

"Society has categorised people according to their sexual orientation, and has never understood that there is only human sexuality with manifold expressions.

It has given heterosexuality pride of place, and has made other sexual orientations look ugly... only in a bisexual society can human beings get rid of the sexual compartments in which they are entrenched, and 136 understand that we are all in the same boat, only in different attire5"

It was these works on lesbianism and bisexuality which led to an invitation by Ilse Kokula of L.74 (Lesbos 74) to return in 1979 to Berlin for the first time since 1933 to lecture on these works.

The Wolff archive shows her significant networks and exchanges of ideas during this important period in the campaign for LGBTQ+.

Charlotte Wolff’s final book, published just before her death in 1986 was a biography of Magnus Hirschfeld, a German gay and transgender rights activist who was persecuted by the Nazis.

Just as Wolff wished for Hirshfield’s work and ideas to be better known, we remember Charlotte Wolff during this LGBTQ+ History Month and particularly her desire to encourage understanding and fight prejudice against sexual minorities.

Although her researches should be read and understood within the historical and cultural context in which they were created there is still a lot to be understood from this unique window particularly into the lived experiences of the lesbian and bisexual communities fifty years ago.

The Wolff collection was a major donation to the History of Psychology Centre and the archive is particularly lucky in having obtained the material.6


References

1 Charlotte Wolff Hindsight 1980 page 206

2 Toni Lee Brennan “Charlotte Wolff’s contribution to psychology and to the history of sexuality”. Dphil Thesis University of Surrey 2011 page 14

3 The Albany Trust, founded in 1958 to complement with counselling services and public education initiatives the work of the Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS)

4 Wolff was a founding member of Sappho but fell out with members who were “hostile to psychiatrists”. Cited in Brennan (2011) page 97.

5 Cited in Brennan (2011) Page 136

6 BPS Annual Report 1987 page 17

Topics

Top of page