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Bärbel Inhelder

Bärbel Inhelder

Bärbel Inhelder. Photo: Jean Mohr

Bärbel Inhelder, born April 15, 1913 in St Gallen, Switzerland, was the only child of Alfred Inhelder, a teacher of natural sciences at the Rorschach Teacher's College and of Elsa Spannagel, a very cultivated German born woman. After her elementary school, she enrolled in Rorschach Teacher's College. After graduation, in 1932, she went to Geneva, to study at the well-known Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau, under Claparède, Bovet and Piaget. From the very first year she was associated to Piaget's research, first as a student, then as a volunteer assistant (1932-1938). Her experiment on the dissolution of sugar task led to the publication of her very first article Observations sur le principe de conservation dans la physique de l'enfant. (1936).
In 1938 she returned to St Gallen, where she set up the first Educational Testing Service of the Canton, while working on her doctoral dissertation. She graduated in 1943 (The diagnosis of reasoning in the mentally retarded, Inhelder 1943/1968 ). When she was called back in Geneva, she was appointed first as a director of studies then as a full professor (1948) and continued her collaboration with Piaget which resulted in the publication of numerous articles and books, such as The child's construction of quantities (Piaget & Inhelder, 1941/1974), The child's conception of geometry (Piaget, Inhelder & Szeminska, 1948/1960), The child's conception of space (Piaget & Inhelder 1948/1967), to mention the best known ones. 

J. Piaget et B. Inhelder à Temple University en 1971.

During the fifties, while Piaget was getting more committed to genetic epistemology, Bärbel Inhelder centered her interests on the functional aspects of knowledge construction. While studying the development of the experimental method in children and adolescents, with a team of young and talented researchers, she discovered the stage of formal operations (The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence, Inhelder & Piaget, 1955/1972). From 1953 to 1955 she participated in a series of conferences organized by the Mental Health Division of WHO, with such eminent scholars, as Konrad Lorenz, Margaret Mead, John Bowlby, René Zazzo, Erik Erikson, Julian Huxley and Jean Piaget. The proceedings of these conferences were published by Tanner & Inhelder Discussions in Child Development, Tanner & Inhelder, Vol I 1956; Vol II & III,1958; Vol IV, 1960). After this date, she received several invitations to lecture in the USA, where she had the privilege to meet a number of American scholars in psychology. Some of them became close friends, with whom she continued corresponding until the end of her life.
Between 1960-1970, she went on collaborating with Piaget in the domains of mental imagery and memory (Mental imagery in the child: a study of the development of imaginal representation, Piaget & Inhelder, 1966/1971; Memory and intelligence, Piaget & Inhelder, 1968/1973). In 1961 she was invited at the Center of Cognitive Sciences, newly created by Jerome Bruner at Harvard University. Not being able to take a complete sabbatical year's leave, she remained there four months only. Her stay was very fruitful both at the professional and personal levels. In 1968 she was elected full professor at Ratcliff College of Harvard University, a prestigious and interesting post, that she eventually refused because of her commitment to Geneva and to Piaget. It was about this time that she started working on learning and cognitive structures, together with Mimi Sinclair and Magali Bovet. The resulting book (Learning and the development of cognition, Inhelder, Sinclair, Bovet, 1974) was published at the same year in French and English and generated several criticisms and discussions as well as replications of the experiments reported in the book.
During the seventies, she directed an intercultural research project in West Africa, using Piagetian tasks to study the development of Baoulé (Ivory Coast) children. After Piaget's retirement in 1971, she took over his chair in experimental and genetic psychology, until 1983, when she retired from teaching, , in which Howard E. Gruber succeeded her, but not from scientific work. During that time, with a new team of young assistants she undertook experimental work on children's strategies in problem solving, which resulted in Le cheminement des découvertes de l'enfant (1992), her last book. 

B. Inhelder et J. Piaget aux Archives, 1978. Photo: Mayor

In 1974 she created the Jean Piaget Archives Foundation, a research and documentation center, aiming at gathering all of Piaget's publications as well as all researches that he inspired. She worked there first as director and then as Chair of the scientific committee.
During her long an productive scientific life, Bärbel Inhelder was awarded several scientific distinctions and prizes, as well as a dozen of honorary degrees from various universities all over the world.