Margaret Gruter, Founder

In 1981, Margaret Gruter founded the Gruter Institute for Law & Behavioral Research as a forum for scholars and practitioners to explore scientific findings about the human mind and human nature and to consider how this information relates to a wide range of legal and social issues. Frustrated by the borders between academic disciplines, Margaret sought out intellectuals interested in investigating new ideas across disciplines. 

From a very young age until her death in 2003, Margaret Gruter was motivated by a deep   desire to understand the meaning of justice. A native of Germany, she was a liberal arts student steeped in the ethics and philosophies a classical education provided in the 1930s when Hitler’s 12-year regime of terror took hold and destroyed lives. During these extremely difficult times, she was classified as “unreliable” and suffered persecution by the Nazis. Witnessing the atrocities of Hitler’s regime and at the same time knowing first hand many extraordinary people risking their lives to save others, she wondered: how could humans, made up of the same apparent biological composite, be in some cases so evil and in some cases so good? She felt compelled to examine the underlying roots of fairness, justice, and ethics.

Shortly after World War II broke out, she began law school at the University of Heidelberg, where, after many tumultuous years, she received her doctor of jurisprudence in 1944.

After working as a translator for the American military in Heidelberg during the early post war years, she immigrated to the United States in 1951 with her husband, who worked as a doctor in rural Ohio. Overseeing a medical clinic and observing patients with neurological issues, she became increasingly interested in biology and human behavior. 

In 1969, Margaret and her family moved to California, where she resumed her study of law in her early 50s, this time at Stanford University Law School. Her interest in biology led her to contacts in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. In the process, she met Jane Goodall, whose studies of chimpanzees became instrumental in Margaret’s research. In 1972, she met renowned ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who encouraged her attempts to make connections between the study of law and behavioral biology. 

In founding the Institute, Margaret  was guided by the realization that law, at its most basic level, is an attempt to regulate human behavior. And if seeking to channel human behavior, it makes sense to understand both the biology and environmental influences on human behavior (nature and nurture). Yet in her experience, very little attention had been paid in the legal academy to understanding the biology underlying human behavior – to understanding what law is “up against.” She further understood that information is power and thus even where a behavior has robust biological underpinnings, but is an undesirable behavior, more information is useful to improving law and society.  

A woman of exceptional drive, supreme intellect and accomplished business acumen, she was uniquely able to pioneer the bridging of the gap between law and the behavioral sciences. Her vision has continued over four decades, as the Gruter Institute continues to catalyze the exchange of ideas between disciplines as a means of solving today’s challenges.