Photograph of psychoanalyst Susan Isaacs in 1933

Susan Sutherland Isaacs

Early life

In her lifetime Isaacs was admired for her intellectual gifts, and she excelled as a writer and teacher, but as a child she suffered some serious hardships. The second youngest of eight children, she was born Susan Fairhurst on 24th May 1885, near Bolton in Lancashire, to skilled working class parents. Her father, William Fairhurst, was a saddler, a man of strong principles and ideals, who became a local journalist and lay Methodist preacher. Her mother, Miriam Sutherland, was a milliner, also intellectual and musical. But when Susan was six her mother died, and her father soon remarried. Family relationships deteriorated, and as a teenager she developed rebellious ideas, stating that she was now an agnostic or an atheist, and a socialist – whereupon her father removed her from school, remarking, “If education makes women godless, they are better off without it.” Susan then adopted her dead mother’s surname, in preference to her father’s.

A vocation develops

It was not until the age of 23 that she was able to return to education, to enrol for a two-year non-degree course at Manchester University. Here her outstanding intellectual gifts were recognised, and she was admitted to a full honours course in philosophy, later graduating with first class honours. From Manchester she went on to Newnham College Cambridge, where she undertook research into the psychology of children and spelling. By now the basis of her life’s vocation was forming – child development and the related matter of nursery and infant education. She was strongly influenced by the nascent theories of child-centred education, and held a lifelong conviction that children’s inborn curiosity and creativity must be nurtured.

She took up a post at Darlington Teacher Training College, and in 1914 married William Brierley, a botanist, moving with him to London. Their marriage ended in 1918; he later married another distinguished analyst, Marjorie Brierley. By the age of 34, Isaacs’ career had still not taken off. She became interested in psychoanalysis and had some brief treatment with J.C. Flugel in 1920, then travelled to Vienna in the hope of treatment with Freud. Finding that this would not be possible, she had to settle for three months’ analysis with Otto Rank. On her return to London she began attending meetings of the newly founded British Psychoanalytical Society (BPAS), becoming an Associate Member in 1921. She published her first book, An Introduction to Psychology (1921), intended for non-specialists and including some central psychoanalytic ideas.

Meanwhile, teaching a Workers’ Educational Association class on psychology, she met Nathan Isaacs, whom she married the following year.

In 1923 she became a full member of the BPAS. She published her first psychoanalytically informed paper, ‘A Note on Sex Differences from the Psychoanalytic Point of View’ (Brierly, 1923), and started to develop a psychoanalytic practice with adult and child patients.

The Malting House School

In the following year, 1924, a young City trader called Geoffrey Pyke set up a progressive school for young children in Cambridge, soon to become famous as the Malting House School. He appointed Susan Isaacs as its first principal. The school was to be run on child-centred principles, with few constraints and plenty of opportunity for children to explore their environment; teachers would be there to answer questions, not primarily to instruct. Melanie Klein’s views on the importance of sexual enlightenment on intellectual development were influential, and Klein visited the school in its first year, while on a visit to Britain to lecture at the BPAS.

Before long the school ran into difficulties. Some were financial – Pyke went bankrupt in 1929 – while some were due to complex relationships that had formed, some of which were sexual. Malting House seems to have closed amidst acrimony between the main players, and Pyke himself had a serious breakdown. Susan and Nathan Isaacs moved back to London. Here, she worked on the detailed observations she had made at the school. The resulting book, Intellectual Growth in Children (Isaacs, 1930a), sets out her ideas on how children learn from their own observations and experiences. At this time she also published critical evaluations of the work of Jean Piaget, who had visited the school in its early days.

Meanwhile, Melanie Klein had arrived in London in 1926. Disagreement over her approach to child analysis was being voiced, especially by Anna Freud in Vienna and some of her followers in London. Susan Isaacs joined Klein’s circle and, when she decided to undertake a more formal personal analysis, she chose Joan Riviere as her analyst. She completed her formal training in 1938.

‘The Nature and Function of Phantasy’

Presented in 1943 as a pivotal contribution to the ‘Controversial Discussions’, Isaacs’ paper ‘The Nature and Function of Phantasy’ spelled out a new and wider definition of phantasy (differentiated from ‘fantasy’ to specify its unconscious nature). Isaacs built on Klein’s clinical insights to construct a conceptual framework for the study of emotional and cognitive development. In a break with Freudian tradition, she claimed that phantasy was present from the beginning of life. In fact, emanating from earliest bodily experience, phantasies are seen as rudimentary thought processes, from which will spring object relations, language and self-awareness.

Aspects of the argument she made include:

  • The transference situation is almost entirely a construct of unconscious phantasy.
  • External realities are progressively woven into the texture of phantasy. And progressively elaborated. But the source of phantasy is internal, in the instinctual impulses.
  • Phantasy is taken to represent the subject’s psychic reality (not mere wish fulfilment). The inner world has a continuous reality of its own.
  • ‘There is no impulse, no instinctual urge or response which is not experienced as unconscious phantasy’, she claims.

Isaacs continued to write on early child development, and her book The Nursery Years was published in 1929, remaining in print until 1971. In it she emphasised the centrality of play for learning, and the innate curiosity of the child. Using the pen name ‘Ursula Wise’, she also began an influential regular advice column in the magazine Nursery World. Her books were based on observations she’d made at the Malting House School, but always underpinned by psychoanalytic understanding.

In 1933 Isaacs was appointed Director of the newly established Department of Child Development at the Institute of Education in London, and within six years she had built up an international reputation for the department.

In 1935 she developed breast cancer, but continued to teach and write, including an important paper on fatherless children, 1948(b), and another influential one about children’s homes, their treatment there, and corporal punishment.

Her temperament was said to be wise, knowledgeable, witty and intelligent – but very controlled.

In 1946 Isaacs’ health deteriorated. She had had further treatment for the breast cancer in 1941, and now had to undergo yet more, this time for a perforated duodenal ulcer. After this she struggled with disability, pain and deteriorating eyesight.

In 1948 she was awarded a CBE for services to education. She also published Childhood and After: Children and Parents – their Problems and Difficulties, and a collection of her Ursula Wise columns. She died on 12th October of that year, aged 63.

Jill Boswell, 2016

Photograph reproduced by kind permission of the Archives of the British Psychoanalytical Society.

Key publications

1921 Isaacs, S. Introduction to Psychology. Methuen Press.

1929 Isaacs, S. Nursery Years. Routledge.

1929 Isaacs, S. The Biological Interests of Young Children.

1930 Isaacs, S. The Intellectual Growth of Young Children. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

1930, Isaacs, S. Behaviour of Young Children. Routledge.

1932, Isaacs, S. The Children We Teach: Seven to Eleven Years. University of London. Institute of Education.

1933 Isaacs, S. The Social Development of Young Children: A Study of Beginnings. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

1935, Isaacs, S. The Psychological Aspects of Child Development. Evans in association with the University of London.

1936 Isaacs, S. Child Guidance. Suggestions for a Clinic Playroom. Child Guidance Council.

1941 Isaacs, S. (ed.) 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]. Methuen Press.

1948 Isaacs, S. Childhood and After. Some essays and clinical studies. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

1948 Isaacs, S. Troubles of children and parents. Methuen Press.

1952, Isaacs, S. ‘The Nature and Function of Phantasy‘. In Riviere, J (ed.), Developments in Psycho-Analysis. Hogarth Press.