Susan Sutherland Isaacs

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Susan Sutherland Isaacs (née Fairhurst) (18851948) was an educational psychologist and psychoanalyst from the United Kingdom. She published studies on the intellectual and social development of children and promoted the nursery school movement.

Early life and education

Susan Sutherland Fairhurst was born in Turton, Bolton, Lancashire, United Kingdom on 24 May 1885. Susan’s mother died 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 became further alienated from her father through conversion to atheistic socialism, which continued until he died when Susan was twenty-four.

She was an intelligent child and eager to learn but was frustrated by Primary School and only attended Bolton Secondary School for three years until 1900. She was first apprenticed to a photographer and then she began her teaching career Morocco as a governess for an English family. She returned a year later to train as an infant school teacher at Manchester University. She was encouraged to enter graduate school and obtained a first-class degree in philosophy in 1912. After Manchester she spent a year as a research student at the Psychological Laboratory in Newnham College, Cambridge, which led to her life interest in psychology.


She was a lecturer at Darlington Training College, 1913-1914 and then lectured in logic at Manchester University, 1914-1915.

In 1914 Fairhurst married Willam Broadhurst Brierley, a botany lecture. 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 with her later work.

Isaacs also trained and practiced as a psychoanalyst after analysis by the psychoanalyst John Carl Flugel, (1884–1955). She became associate member of the newly formed British Psycho-Analytic Society in 1921, becoming a full member in 1923. She later when under 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 help popularised the works and Klein as the theories of Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud. She was initial 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 Pike, 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. The school collapsed as Pike interfered with Susan management of the school. Her work had a great influence on early education and made play a central part of a child’s education.

Between 1929 and 1940 she was an 'agony aunt' under the pseudonym of 'Ursula Wise', replying to readers' problems in several child care journals, notably The Nursery World and Home and School.

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 an CBE in 1948. She died from cancer on 12 October 1948.


  • Introduction to Psychology, Methuen Press, (London, 1921)
  • Nursery Years, Routledge, (London, 1929).
  • The biological interests of young children, (1929)
  • The Intellectual Growth of Young Children, Routledge and Kegan Paul, (London, 1930)
  • Behaviour of Young Children, Routledge & Sons (London, 1930)
  • The psychological aspects of child development, Evans with the University of London, Institute of Education, (London [1930]) (First published as Section II of the 1935 volume of the Year Book of Education).
  • The children we teach: seven to eleven years, University of London, Institute of Education, (London, 1932)
  • The Social Development of Young Children: A Study of Beginnings, Routledge and Kegan Paul, (London, 1933).
  • Child Guidance. Suggestions for a clinic playroom, Child Guidance Council (London, 1936)
  • The Cambridge Evacuation Survey. A wartime study in social welfare and education. Edited by Susan Isaacs with the co-operation of Sibyl Clement Brown & Robert H. Thouless. Written by Georgina Bathurst, Sibyl Clement Brown [and others], etc, Methuen Press (London, 1941).
  • Childhood & After. Some essays and clinical studies, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, 1948).
  • Troubles of children and parents, Methuen Press, (London, 1948)

Primary sources

Collections of Susan Isaacs personal papers can be found in the Archives of the Institute of Education, University of London, (Ref: DC/SI) [1]; the Archives of the British Psychoanalytical Society (Ref PE/ISA)[2]; and the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS) Archive Centre [3]. Portraits of Susan Isaacs can be found in the National Portrait Gallery [4].


  • Gardner, Dorothy E M, Susan Isaacs Methuen Press, (London, 1969).
  • Hall, J S, 'Psychology and schooling: the impact of Susan Isaacs and Jean Piaget on 1960s science education reform', History of Education, Volume 29, Number 2, 1 March 2000 , pp. 153-170.
  • Smith, Lydia A H, To understand and to help: the life and work of Susan Isaacs, 1885-1948, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, (London, 1985).
  • "Isaacs [née Fairhurst], Susan Sutherland". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. 2004. 
  • ‘Dr Susan Isaacs’ obituary from National Froebel Bulletin, No. 54 (Nov, 1948) p1.
  • ‘Susan Isaacs and the psychology of child development’ from Wooldridge, A Measuring the mind: psychological theory and educational controversy in England, c.1860-c.1990, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge, 1994).

External Links

See also