Isaacs, Susan (1885–1948)

The child-development theorist, educator, and psychoanalyst Susan Sutherland Fairhurst Isaacs, born in 1885, was the youngest of fourteen children, left school at fourteen, trained as a teacher, and in 1912 gained a philosophy degree from Manchester University. After a year doing research at the Psychological Laboratory, Cambridge, she lectured at Darlington Training College (1913–1914) and in logic at Manchester University (1914–1915). Between 1924 and 1927 she was head of Malting House School, Cambridge, an experimental school that fostered and observed the individual development of children, allowing extensive free play. From this experience she wrote several of her major works, which became classics of educational psychology, including Intellectual Growth in Young Children (1930) and Social Development in Young Children (1933). Two other important books were The Nursery Years (1929) and The Children We Teach (1932), about children from ages seven to twelve, followed by Psychological Aspects of Child Development (1935).

Isaacs trained and practiced as a psychoanalyst. In 1933 she became the first head of the Department of Child Development at the Institute of Education, University of London, where she established an advanced course in child development for teachers of young children. Between 1929 and 1940 she was also an "agony aunt" under the pseudonym of Ursula Wise, replying to readers' problems in child care journals. She married twice, first to William Brierley and second (in 1922) to Nathan Isaacs. Some of her papers are in the archives of the Institute of Education, London, and more material relating to her psychoanalytic practice and theory is at the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Isaacs was a brilliant teacher, expositor, and clinician. Her most substantial theoretical contribution came out of her reconciliation between observational psychology and her recognition of the role of powerful forces of LOVE, FEAR, and hate in the minds of very young children. In the controversial discussions that shaped psychoanalysis in Britain she aligned herself with MELANIE KLEIN, believing that child analysis was possible and that the work of psychoanalysis was essentially conducted in the transference relationship between analyst and analysand, revealing the role of the unconscious. In Isaacs's words, "There is no impulse, no instinctual urge or response which is not experienced as unconscious phantasy" (1952, p. 83). She goes on to emphasize the importance of fantasy itself as a mechanism for dealing with the power of emotions: "phantasy soon becomes also a means of defence against anxieties, a means of inhibiting them and experienced in phantasies which give them mental life and show their direction and purpose."

Isaacs published widely in popular magazines and spoke frequently on the radio to spread ideas about the normalcy of anxiety, night terrors, behavioral manifestations of the unconscious at work, and the concept of child development being emotional and social as well as physical. She encouraged PLAY as a means of learning about the world and dealing with unconscious forces and set herself against the debilitating effects of mass educational testing. Generations of teachers in training were also encouraged to understand healthy emotional development as an end to their work.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology.


Gardiner, Dorothy. 1969. Susan Isaacs. London and Toronto: Methuen.

King, Pearl, and Ricardo Steiner. 1991. The Freud-Klein Controversies, 1941–45. London: Tavistock/Routledge.

Steiner, Ricardo. 1989. "Activities of British Psychoanalysts during the Second World War and the Influence of their Interdisciplinary Collaboration on the Development of Psychoanalysis in Great Britain." International Review of Psychoanalysis 16.