In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • A Family Science:The Baby Biography in Imperial Germany
  • Amanda M. Brian (bio)

Around the turn of the twentieth century, scientifically minded men and a few women in Germany, as elsewhere in Western Europe and North America, scrutinized the very youngest members of society, for they believed that children were the key to deciphering the entire process of human development and were the crucial site for producing highly functioning adults. Researchers recognized an important investigative tool in the human child, who under their scientific gaze yielded a vast amount of developmental information. Early developmental psychologists often combined raising their children and practicing scientific research, ultimately rooting normal child development in the bourgeois homes where infants could—and should, they emphasized—be closely monitored by observant parents and staff. In this essay, I elucidate the "baby science" of such innovators in Germany in the field of developmental psychology as William Preyer (1841-1897), who published in 1882 one of the most important works in developmental psychology, Die Seele des Kindes (The Mind of the Child), and the husband and wife team William Stern (1871-1938) and Clara Stern née Joseephy (1878-1945), who coauthored in the early twentieth century two monographs that went on to define the field, Die Kindersprache (Children's Language) and Erinnerung, Aussage und Lüge in der ersten Kindheit (Recollection, Testimony, and Lying in Early Childhood).1 Preyer's and the Sterns' twinned capacities as parents and scientists complicated the pursuit of objective knowledge and their objectification of research subjects.2 The focus of research became blurry as everyone in their developmental laboratories, their households, was revealed to be under scientific scrutiny.

Preyer wrote in the preface to his well-known work, "It is hard to discern and to decipher the mysterious writing on the mind of the child. It is just that which constitutes a chief problem of this book."3 To scientific observers like Preyer and the Sterns, the child's mind, which was both imprinted by previous generations, [End Page 403] i.e., nature, and impressed by the child's milieu, i.e., nurture, was rendered legible. More specifically, Preyer and then the Sterns adopted a case study approach, the so-called baby biography, to chart some of the first developmental timelines. The baby biography was, in fact, a favored method for study in Europe as developmental psychology became a distinct academic field in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.4 It can be seen as an expression of modernity itself.

In reviewing baby biographies from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century, contemporary psychologists have pointed out that a "model of progress permeat[es] developmental psychology."5 Developmental psychologists found the literary genre of biography perfectly suited to expressing progressive phases of growth in the child, demonstrating the mutual constitutiveness of aesthetic and scientific modernism in fin-de-siècle Europe.6 Moreover, the baby biography was a product of modern visuality in which subjective and objective modes of observation were held in tension. As scholars in such fields as literature and art history have argued, modernism did not see the eclipse of an objective model of perception: optical inventions, like photography, seemed to "extend . . . powers of objective observation," even as fiction and art offered "a uniquely subjective point of view."7 William Preyer and William and Clara Stern maintained that their methods of observation were scientifically rigorous, meaning objective, yet they subjectively concluded that their own children charted the developmental norm.8

As they explained, the baby biography method was quite demanding. They were not to casually watch their children for their own pleasure but were to obsessively observe their subjects for the sake of research.9 (Pleasure, nevertheless, seeped into their studies, as we shall see.) Literary scholar Lennard J. Davis has argued that obsession, which was cultivated in science, came to define what it meant to be modern: "Science is the single-minded study of humans, and, in turn, being human in modern life is becoming single-minded and obsessive in relation to life, work, and sexuality. It is for this reason that the case study, soon to become the 'truest' way of knowing a person, will find...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 403-418
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.