Susan Sutherland Isaacs (née Fairhurst) (1885–1948) was an English educational psychologist and psychoanalyst. She published studies on the intellectual and social development of children and promoted the nursery school movement.
Portraits of Susan Isaacs can be found in the National Portrait Gallery.
Susan was born on 24 May 1885, in Turton, Bolton, Lancashire, England. She was the daughter of William Fairhurst, journalist and Methodist lay preacher, and his wife, Miriam Sutherland. Her mother died when she was six years old. Shortly afterwards she became alienated from her father after he married the nurse who had attended her mother during her illness. She was an intelligent child and eager to learn but was frustrated by Primary School.
At the age of fifteen, Susan was removed from Bolton Secondary School by her father because she had converted to atheistic socialism; her father refused to speak to her for 2 years. She stayed at home with her stepmother until she was 22. She was first apprenticed to a photographer and then she began her teaching career as a governess for an English family.
In 1907, Susan enrolled to train as a teacher of young children (5 to 7-year-olds) at the University of Manchester. There, she transferred to a degree course and graduated in 1912 with a First class degree in Philosophy. She was awarded a scholarship at the Psychological Laboratory in Newnham College, Cambridge and gained a master's degree in 1913.
In 1914, she married William Broadhurst Brierley, a botany lecturer. A year later they moved to London where she became tutor to the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and, from 1916, lectured in psychology at the University of London. In 1922 she divorced Brierly and married Nathan Isaacs (1895-1966), a metallurgist who collaborated with Susan in her later work.
Susan also trained and practiced as a psychoanalyst after analysis by the psychoanalyst John Carl Flugel (1884–1955). She became an associate member of the newly formed British Psychoanalytical Society in 1921, becoming a full member in 1923. She began her own practice that same year. She later underwent brief analysis with Otto Rank and in 1927 she submitted herself to further analysis with Joan Riviere to get personal experience and understanding of Melanie Klein's new ideas on infancy. Isaacs also helped popularise the works and Klein as the theories of Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud. She was initially enthusiastic for Jean Piaget's theories on the intellectual development of young children, though she later criticised his schemas for stages of cognitive development, which were not based on the observation of the child in their natural environment, unlike her own observations at Malting House School.
Between 1924 and 1927 she was Head of Malting House School, Cambridge, an experimental school founded by Geoffrey Pyke, which fostered the individual development of children. Children were given greater freedom and were supported rather than punished. The teachers were seen as observers of the children who were seen as research workers. Her work had a great influence on early education and made play a central part of a child’s education.
In 1933 she became the first Head of the Child Development Department at the Institute of Education, University of London, where she established an advanced course in child development for teachers of young children. Her department had a great influence on the teaching profession and encouraged the profession to consider psychodynamic theory with developmental psychology.
Isaacs developed cancer in 1935 and struggled with ill health for the rest of her life. In 1937 she toured Australia and New Zealand, and after moving to Cambridge in 1939 she conducted the ‘Cambridge Evacuation Survey’ which studied the affect of evacuation on children. She was also awarded the CBE in 1948. She died from cancer on 12 October 1948.
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