Born in Vienna, Austria on February 7, 1870 and as a young child he contracted rickets which prevented him from walking until around the age of four. As a result of his illness Adler decided he would become a physician and, after graduating from the University of Vienna in 1895 with a medical degree, began his career as an ophthalmologist later switching to general practice.
Soon his interests turned toward the field of psychiatry, and in 1902 Sigmund Freud invited him to join a psychoanalytic discussion group. Meeting each Wednesday in Freud's home this group would eventually grow to become the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. After serving as President of the group for a time, Adler eventually left the group in part due to his disagreements with some of Freud's theories. While Adler had played a key role in the development of psychoanalysis, he was also one of the first major figures to break away and formed his own school of thought. He was quick to point out that while he had been a colleague of Freud's, he was in no way a disciple of Freud.
Adler founded the Society of Individual Psychology in 1912 and his theory suggested that every person has a sense of inferiority. From childhood, people work toward overcoming this inferiority and asserting their superiority over others. Adler referred to this as 'striving for superiority' and believed that this drive was the motivating force behind human behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. He was an early advocate in psychology for prevention and emphasized the training of parents, teachers, social workers and so on in democratic approaches that allow a child to exercise their power through reasoned decision making while co-operating with others. Today, his ideas and concepts are often referred to as Adlerian psychology.
Adler was influenced by the mental construct ideas of the philosopher Hans Vaihinger and the literature of Dostoevsky. While still a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society he developed a theory of organic inferiority and compensation that was the prototype for his later turn to phenomenology and the development of his famous concept, the inferiority complex.
Adler was a very pragmatic man and believed that lay people could make practical use of the insights of psychology. He sought to construct a social movement united under the principles of "Gemeinschaftsgefühl" (community feeling) and social interest (the practical actions that are exercised for the social good). Adler was also an early supporter of feminism in psychology and the social world, believing that feelings of superiority and inferiority were often gendered and expressed symptomatically in characteristic masculine and feminine styles. These styles could form the basis of psychic compensation and lead to mental health difficulties. Adler also spoke of "safeguarding tendencies" and neurotic behavior long before Anna Freud wrote about the same phenomena in her book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. From its inception, Adlerian psychology has always included both professional and lay adherents. Indeed, Adler felt that all people could make use of the scientific insights garnered by psychology and he welcomed everyone, from decorated academics to those with no formal education to participate in spreading the principles of Adlerian psychology.
While Adler had converted to Christianity, his Jewish heritage led to the Nazi's closing down his clinics during the 1930s. As a result, Adler emigrated to the United States to take a professor position at the Long Island College of Medicine. While on a lecture tour in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1937 he suffered a fatal heart attack. Shortly after his death his cremated remains were presumed lost before being discovered in 2007 at a crematorium in Edinburgh, Scotland. In 2011, 74 years after his death, Adler's ashes were returned to Vienna, Austria.