Wolf Wolfensberger, PhD, at NPI, c. 1964



Wolf Wolfensberger, PhD, at NPI, c. 1964




Wolf Wolfensberger, PhD, was born July 26, 1934 in Mannheim, Germany, and emigrated to the U.S. with his mother in 1950. Growing up in Germany during World War II, Dr. Wolfensberger witnessed the Nazi atrocities against persons with mental and physical disabilities. Deeply influenced by these experiences, Dr. Wolfensberger focused his career on psychiatry and community advocacy. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Siena College in Memphis, Tennessee, a master’s in psychology and education from St. Louis University in Missouri, and a doctorate in mental retardation research from George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Wolfensberger conducted a post-doctoral fellowship at the Maudsley Hospital in London, England.

Upon his return to the U.S. in 1964, Dr. Wolfensberger joined the team at the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute (NPI). While there, he focused on integrating persons with disabilities into the community, a principle known as normalization. His work led to the theory of social role valorization, which addresses the inequality faced by vulnerable groups. Dr. Wolfensberger worked closely with Frank J. Menolascino, MD, then clinical director of NPI and a pediatric psychiatrist. Together they championed the deinstitutionalization movement and developed one of the nation’s first community-based support programs for persons with disabilities. This program, the Eastern Nebraska Community Office of Retardation (ENCOR), is still active today under the name Duet , a developmental disability service provider.

Dr. Wolfensberger left NPI in 1971 to take a two-year training and consultation position with the National Institute on Mental Retardation in Toronto, Canada. He worked in this position to provide service reform across Canada. Dr. Wolfensberger went on to join the faculty of the School of Education at Syracuse University, and became the founding director of the Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry. Dr. Wolfensberger continued to conduct workshops and consultations all over the world, primarily focusing on the field of intellectual disabilities. His scholarship and teaching also evaluated the broader aspects of human service including poverty, aging, and mental health support. In 1999, Dr. Wolfensberger was identified as one of 35 people who most impacted the study of intellectual disabilities in the 20th century.

Dr. Wolfensberger passed away February 27, 2011, having spent a lifetime combating systems of oppression and providing support for those less fortunate. UNMC’s McGoogan Health Science Library is the repository for Dr. Wolfensberger’s vast collection, containing archival materials and artifacts as well as his extensive personal library of books related to psychiatry, disabilities, human services, and history.




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