Hermann Rorschach Biography

Psychiatrist (1884–1922)
Hermann Rorschach was a Swiss psychoanalyst who created the controversial Rorschach inkblot test to measure social behavior.

Who Was Hermann Rorschach?

Psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on November 8, 1884. He combined his interests in psychoanalysis and art to create the controversial Rorschach inkblot test, introducing the results of his findings in his 1921 work Psychodiagnostics. On April 2, 1922, his work came to an untimely end when he died of peritonitis at age 37 in Herisau, Switzerland.

Creative Upbringing

Hermann Rorschach was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on November 8, 1884. He lost his mother in 1897, when he was only 12 years old. Rorschach's father, who died just seven years later, was a local art teacher who encouraged the young Rorschach to express himself creatively. Psychiatrist and medical historian H.F. Ellenberger described the environment of Rorschach's upbringing as an "atmosphere of extraordinary intellectual, artistic and cultural concentration."

In high school, Hermann Rorschach was apparently so enamored of Klecksography—a Swiss childhood game of making pictures out of inkblots—that friends took to calling him "Klecks."

Education and Early Career

In 1904, Rorschach headed to the Académie de Neuchâtel, and he continued his medical studies at institutions in Bern, Zurich, Nuremberg and Berlin. After beginning a residency at a Swiss mental institution in Munsterlingen, he became involved with a Russian woman named Olga Stempelin, who became his wife in 1910. Two years later, he earned his medical degree from the University of Zurich.  

In 1913, Rorschach left his position at the mental institution and moved to Russia with his wife. The following year, he moved back to Switzerland and became a resident at Waldau Psychiatric University, while awaiting the arrival of his wife, who had been temporarily detained in Russia. By 1915, he had accepted a position as associate director of the Herisau Asylum.

Inkblot Test

In 1917, Rorschach became aware of Swiss psychiatrist Szyman Hens's studies using inkblot cards to analyze patients' fantasies. Rorschach was also influenced by his acquaintance and contemporary, Carl Jung, who was using word association tests to tap into the unconscious mind. Rorschach combined his interests in psychoanalysis and art to create his own controversial inkblot test. He was the first researcher to use inkblots to analyze how patients projected their own associations onto seemingly random stimuli.

Rorschach tested his system on 300 patients and 100 control subjects. The test was composed of 10 inkblot cards—half of them in color, half in black and white. Patients were shown one card at a time and asked to respond while Rorschach wrote down their answers. Afterward, Rorschach showed patients the cards again and prompted them to explain their answers. Rorschach evaluated test results based on the criteria of location, quality, content and conventionality, and used the data to draw conclusions about the patient's social behavior. In 1921, Rorschach introduced his findings in a book entitled Psychodiagnostics.

Death and Legacy

On April 2, 1922, Hermann Rorschach died unexpectedly of peritonitis, in Herisau, Switzerland. He was just 37 years old. In addition to his wife and two children, Rorschach left behind the longstanding legacy of his inkblot test.

German psychologist Bruno Klopfer soon picked up where Rorschach left off, improving the test's scoring system and popularizing projective personality tests.

In the 1960s, Rorschach's inkblot test was the most prominently used projective test in the United States; it ranked eighth in the list of tests used in U.S. outpatient mental health care.

While controversial and criticized for its shortcomings, the test is still used in jails, hospitals, courtrooms and schools, for issues such as establishing parental custody rights, determining parole eligibility and assessing children's emotional issues.

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