UNMC McGoogan Library receives unique collection on care of mentally disabled

Will become valuable resource for students, scholars and other health professionals

The McGoogan Library of Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center has received a large research collection from the estate of the late Wolf Wolfensberger, Ph.D. (1934-2011).  A psychologist, Wolfensberger was a world-renowned expert on the care of the mentally disabled. 

He was a faculty member and researcher at the former Nebraska Psychiatric Institute (NPI) at UNMC from 1964 to 1971 and an early promoter and organizer of community services for the mentally disabled.  A 1971 article in the Omaha World-Herald called Wolfensberger “one of the prime movers in Nebraska’s development of services for the mentally retarded.”  In 1999, he was selected by representatives of seven major mental retardation organizations as one of 35 individuals worldwide who had the greatest impact on mental retardation in the 20th century.

Born in Mannheim, Germany, Wolfensberger immigrated to the United States with his family in 1950.  As a young man growing up during World War II, he witnessed and was profoundly influenced by Nazi atrocities against mentally and physically disabled persons. He studied philosophy at Siena College in Memphis, Tenn.; received a master of arts in clinical psychology at St. Louis University; and a Ph.D. in psychology from Peabody College for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University) in Memphis, where he specialized in mental disabilities and special education.

Through his research work and passionate advocacy, Wolfensberger influenced disability policy and practice in the United States and worldwide through his development of social role valorization. SRV is a response to the universal phenomenon of societal devaluation, in which certain groups or classes of people are far more likely to be subjected to systematic discrimination, rejection, and negative stereotypes.  Persons with mental disabilities are especially vulnerable to social devaluation.

Wolfensberger worked at Muscatatuck State School, Campbell, Ind.; and interned at the E. R. Johnstone Training Center, Bordentown, N.J.  From 1962-1963, he completed a one-year National Institute of Health research fellowship at Maudsley Hospital in London.  From 1963-64, Wolfensberger was the director of research at Plymouth State Home and Training School, Northville, Mich.

He was a mental retardation researcher at the former NPI at UNMC from 1964 to 1971.  From 1971 to 1973, he was a visiting scholar at the National Institute on Mental Retardation in Toronto and then served as director of the Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry at Syracuse University.  Wolfensberger was a professor emeritus at Syracuse.

Much of  Wolfensberger’s work was concerned with ideologies, structures and planning patterns of human service systems, especially concerning persons with intellectual disabilities and their families.  A prolific researcher, he authored or co-authored more than 40 books and wrote more than 250 book chapters and articles.  His best known books include “The Principle of Normalization,” and “Changing Patterns in Residential Services for the Mentally Retarded.” His writing has been translated into 11 languages.

Nancy Woelfl, Ph.D., director of the McGoogan Library, characterized the Wolfensberger collection as “a unique, one-of-a-kind resource without parallel in the academic world.” 

“What makes this collection so significant,” Dr. Woelfl said, “is that it was not merely accumulated but built by an expert who consciously selected every item in it. It also includes Wolfensberger materials contributed by Syracuse University. The result is a single, definitive resource for students, scholars, and human service professionals who work with the mentally disabled.”

The Wolfensberger collection includes books, archival materials and artifacts. The collection will be sorted, organized and processed over the next several months and will then be available for use by researchers.  It is housed in the Special Collections Department at the UNMC McGoogan Library of Medicine.

Through world-class research and patient care, UNMC generates breakthroughs that make life better for people throughout Nebraska and beyond. Its education programs train more health professionals than any other institution in the state. Learn more at unmc.edu.


Tom O'Connor
UNMC Public Relations
(402) 559-4690 (office)
(402) 650-7063 (cell)

John Schleicher
UNMC McGoogan Library of Medicine
(402) 559-7094
(402) 559-7094