Despite lacking a bachelor's degree, Erikson served as a professor at prominent institutions, including Harvard, University of California (UC Berkeley), and Yale. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Erikson as the 12th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.
Erikson's mother, Karla Abrahamsen, came from a prominent Jewish family in Copenhagen, Denmark. She was married to Jewish stockbroker Valdemar Isidor Salomonsen, but had been estranged from him for several months at the time Erik was conceived. Little is known about Erik's biological father except that he was a non-Jewish Dane. On discovering her pregnancy, Karla fled to Frankfurt am Main in Germany where Erik was born on June 15, 1902 and was given the surname Salomonsen. She fled due to conceiving Erik out of wedlock, and the identity of Erik's father was never made clear.
Following Erik's birth, Karla trained to be a nurse and moved to Karlsruhe. In 1905 she married Erik's Jewish pediatrician, Theodor Homburger. Karla, and Erik's new stepfather Theodor, told Erik he was his real father, but Erik was not told the truth until late childhood, to which he remained bitter about the secret. In 1908, Erik Salomonsen's name was changed to Erik Homburger, and in 1911 Erik was officially adopted by his stepfather.
The development of identity seems to have been one of Erikson's greatest concerns in his own life as well as in his theory. As an older adult, he wrote about his adolescent "identity confusion" in his European days. "My identity confusion", he wrote "[was at times on] the borderline between neurosis and adolescent psychosis." Erikson's daughter writes that her father's "real psychoanalytic identity" was not established until he "replaced his stepfather's surname [Homburger] with a name of his own invention [Erikson]."The change in last name occurred as he started his job at Yale, and the "Erikson" name was accepted by Erik's family when they became American citizens. It is said his children enjoyed the fact they would not be called "Hamburger" any longer.
He was a tall, blond, blue-eyed boy who was raised in the Jewish religion. At temple school, the kids teased him for being Nordic; at grammar school, they teased him for being Jewish.
At Das Humanistische Gymnasium his main interests were art, history and languages, but he lacked interest in school and graduated without academic distinction. After graduation, instead of attending medical school, as his stepfather had desired, he attended art school in Munich (much to the likes of his mother and her friends), but soon dropped out.
From his late teens to about the age of 25 he chose to travel and do art for people he met. For children from prominent German families taking a "wandering year" was not uncommon. During his travels he often sold or traded his sketches to people he met. Eventually, Erik realized he would never become a full-time artist and returned to Karlsruhe and became an art teacher. It is through this time at his teaching job that Erik was hired by an heiress to sketch and eventually tutor her children. Erik worked very well with these children and was eventually hired by many other families that were close to Anna and Sigmund Freud.
Uncertain about his vocation and his fit in society, Erikson began a lengthy period of roaming about Germany and Italy as a wandering artist with his childhood friend Peter Blos and others. During this period he continued to contend with questions about his father and competing ideas of ethnic, religious, and national identity.
Psychoanalytic experience and training
When Erikson was twenty-five, his friend Peter Blos invited him to Vienna to tutor art  at the small Burlingham-Rosenfeld School for children whose affluent parents were undergoing psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud's daughter, Anna Freud.
Anna noticed Erikson's sensitivity to children at the school and encouraged him to study psychoanalysis at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, where prominent analysts August Aichhorn, Heinz Hartmann, and Paul Federn were among those who supervised his theoretical studies. He specialized in child analysis and underwent a training analysis with Anna Freud. Helene Deutsch and Edward Bibring supervised his initial treatment of an adult.
In 1933 he received his diploma from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. This and his Montessori diploma were to be Erikson's only earned academic credentials for his life's work.
In 1930 Erikson married Joan Mowat Serson, a Canadian dancer and artist whom Erikson had met at a dress ball. During their marriage Erikson converted to Christianity.
In 1933, with Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany, the burning of Freud's books in Berlin and the potential Nazi threat to Austria, the family left an impoverished Vienna with their two young sons and emigrated to Copenhagen. Unable to regain Danish citizenship because of residence requirements, the family left for the United States, where citizenship would not be an issue.
In 1936, Erikson left Harvard and joined the staff at Yale University, where he worked at the Institute of Social Relations and taught at the medical school.
Erikson continued to deepen his interest in areas beyond psychoanalysis and to explore connections between psychology and anthropology. He made important contacts with anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Ruth Benedict. 
Erikson said the development of thought derived from his social and cultural studies. In 1938, he left Yale to study the Sioux tribe in South Dakota on their reservation. After his studies in South Dakota he traveled to California to study the Yurok tribe. Erikson discovered differences between the children of the Sioux and Yurok tribe. This also marked the beginning of Erikson's life passion of showing the importance of events in childhood and how society affects them.
In 1939 he left Yale, and the Eriksons moved to California, where Erik had been invited to join a team engaged in a longitudinal study of child development for the University of California at Berkeley's Institute of Child Welfare. In addition, in San Francisco he opened a private practice in child psychoanalysis.
While in California he was able to make his second study of American Indian children when he joined anthropologist Alfred Kroeber on a field trip to Northern California to study the Yurok.
Erikson is also credited with being one of the originators of ego psychology, which stressed the role of the ego as being more than a servant of the id. According to Erikson, the environment in which a child lived was crucial to providing growth, adjustment, a source of self-awareness and identity.
Erikson won a Pulitzer Prize and a US National Book Award in category Philosophy and Religion for Gandhi's Truth (1969), which focused more on his theory as applied to later phases in the life cycle.
In Erikson's discussion of development, rarely did he mention a stage of development by age but in fact did refer to a prolonged adolescence which has led to further investigation into a period of development between adolescence and young adulthood called emerging adulthood.
Erikson's theory of personality
Favorable outcomes of each stage are sometimes known as virtues, a term used in the context of Erikson's work as it is applied to medicine, meaning "potencies". Erikson's research suggests that each individual must learn how to hold both extremes of each specific life-stage challenge in tension with one another, not rejecting one end of the tension or the other. Only when both extremes in a life-stage challenge are understood and accepted as both required and useful, can the optimal virtue for that stage surface. Thus, 'trust' and 'mis-trust' must both be understood and accepted, in order for realistic 'hope' to emerge as a viable solution at the first stage. Similarly, 'integrity' and 'despair' must both be understood and embraced, in order for actionable 'wisdom' to emerge as a viable solution at the last stage.
The Erikson life-stage virtue, in order of the eight stages in which they may be acquired, are:
Hope, Basic trust vs. basic mistrust--This stage covers the period of infancy, 0-18 months, which is the most fundamental stage of life. Whether the baby develops basic trust or basic mistrust is not merely a matter of nurture. It is multi-faceted and has strong social components. It depends on the quality of the maternal relationship. The mother carries out and reflects their inner perceptions of trustworthiness, a sense of personal meaning, etc. on the child. An important part of this stage is providing stable and constant care of the infant. This helps the child develop trust that can transition into relationships other than parental. Additionally, they develop trust in others to support them. If successful in this, the baby develops a sense of trust, which "forms the basis in the child for a sense of identity." Failure to develop this trust will result in a feeling of fear and a sense that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable.
Will, Autonomy vs. Shame--Covers early childhood around 1-3 years old. Introduces the concept of autonomy vs. shame and doubt. The child begins to discover the beginnings of his or her independence, and parents must facilitate the child's sense of doing basic tasks "all by himself/herself." Discouragement can lead to the child doubting his or her efficacy. During this stage the child is usually trying to master toilet training. Additionally, the child discovers their talents or abilities, and it is important to ensure the child is able to explore those activities. Erikson states it is essential to allow the children freedom in exploration but also create an environment welcoming of failures. Therefore, the parent should not punish or reprimand the child for failing at the task. Shame and doubt occurs when the child feels incompetent in ability to complete task and survive. Will is achieved with success of the stage. Children successful in this stage will have "self-control without a loss of self-esteem." 
Purpose, Initiative vs. Guilt--Preschool / 3-5 years. Does the child have the ability to do things on their own, such as dress him or herself? Children in this stage are interacting with peers, and creating their own games and acitvities. If allowed to make these decisions, the child will develop confidence in their ability to lead others. If the child is not allowed to make certain decisions the sense of guilt develops. Guilt in this stage is characterized by a sense of being a burden to others, and will therefore usually present themselves as a follower. Additionally, the child is asking many questions to build knowledge of the world. If the questions earn responses of critic the child will also develop feelings of guilt. Success in this stage leads to the virtue of purpose, which is the normal balance between the two extremes.
Competence, Industry vs. Inferiority--School-age / 6-11 years. Child comparing self-worth to others (such as in a classroom environment). Child can recognize major disparities in personal abilities relative to other children. Erikson places some emphasis on the teacher, who should ensure that children do not feel inferior. During this stage the child's friend group increases in importance in their life. Often during this stage the child will try to prove competency with things rewarded in society, and also develop satisfaction with their abilities. Encouraging the child increases feelings of adequacy and competency in ability to reach goals. Restriction from teachers or parents leads to doubt, questioning, and reluctance in abilities and therefore may not reach full capabilities. Competence, the virtue of this stage, is developed when a healthy balance between the two extremes is reached.
Fidelity, Identity vs. Role Confusion--Adolescent / 12-18 years. Questioning of self. Who am I, how do I fit in? Where am I going in life? The adolescent is exploring and seeking for their own unique identity. This is done by looking at personal beliefs, goals, and values. The morality of the individual is also explored and developed. Erikson believes, that if the parents allow the child to explore, they will conclude their own identity. If, however, the parents continually push him/her to conform to their views, the teen will face identity confusion. The teen is also looking towards the future in terms of employment, relationships, and families. Learning the roles they provide in society is essential since the teen begins the desire to fit in to society. Fidelity is characterized by the ability to commit to others and acceptance of others even with differences. Identity crisis is the result of role confusion and can cause the adolescent to try out different lifestyles.
Love, Intimacy vs. isolation--This is the first stage of adult development. This development usually happens during young adulthood, which is between the ages of 18 to 40. Dating, marriage, family and friendships are important during the stage in their life. This is due to the increase in the growth of intimate relationships with others. By successfully forming loving relationships with other people, individuals are able to experience love and intimacy. They also feel safety, care, and commitment in these relationships. Those who fail to form lasting relationships may feel isolated and alone.
Care, Generativity vs. stagnation--The second stage of adulthood happens between the ages of 40-65. During this time people are normally settled in their life and know what is important to them. A person is either making progress in their career or treading lightly in their career and unsure if this is what they want to do for the rest of their working lives. Also during this time, a person is enjoying raising their children and participating in activities, that gives them a sense of purpose. This is one way of contributing to society along with productivity at work and involvement in community activities and organizations. If a person is not comfortable with the way their life is progressing, they're usually regretful about the decisions that they have made in the past and feel a sense of uselessness.
Wisdom, Ego integrity vs. despair--This stage affects the age group of 65 and on. During this time an individual has reached the last chapter in their life and retirement is approaching or has already taken place. Ego-integrity means the acceptance of life in its fullness: the victories and the defeats, what was accomplished and what was not accomplished. Wisdom is the result of successfully accomplishing this final developmental task. Wisdom is defined as "informed and detached concern for life itself in the face of death itself." Having a guilty conscience about the past or failing to accomplish important goals will eventually lead to depression and hopelessness. Achieving the virtue of the stage involves the feeling of living a successful life.
On ego identity versus role confusion--ego identity enables each person to have a sense of individuality, or as Erikson would say, "Ego identity, then, in its subjective aspect, is the awareness of the fact that there is a self-sameness and continuity to the ego's synthesizing methods and a continuity of one's meaning for others". Role confusion, however, is, according to Barbara Engler, "the inability to conceive of oneself as a productive member of one's own society." This inability to conceive of oneself as a productive member is a great danger; it can occur during adolescence, when looking for an occupation.
Erikson married Canadian-born American psychologist Joan Erikson in 1930 and they remained together until his death.
Their daughter, Sue Erikson Bloland, "an integrative psychotherapist and psychoanalyst", described her father as plagued by "lifelong feelings of personal inadequacy". He thought that by combining resources with his wife, he could "achieve the recognition" that might produce a feeling of adequacy.
The Eriksons had three children, the eldest of whom is the sociologist Kai T. Erikson. Erikson died on 12 May 1994 in Harwich, Massachusetts. He and his wife are buried in the First Congregational Church Cemetery in Harwich.
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