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Remembering Albert Ellis, a giant in American psychology - and a TC alum

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Albert Ellis

Albert Ellis, who died on July 24th, was one of the towering American figures in psychology. He was the founder of Rational-Emotive Therapy, which offers a more active, direct approach to treating psychological disorders than traditional psychoanalytic models.

The following brief biographical sketch of psychologist Albert Ellis, who passed away this week at the age of 93, was written by Barry Farber, Professor of Psychology and Education 

Albert Ellis (Ph.D., ’47), who died on July 24th, was one of the towering American figures in psychology. He was the founder of Rational-Emotive Therapy (later, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, or REBT), which offers a more active, direct approach to treating psychological disorders than traditional psychoanalytic models. Ellis’ approach provided an early foundation for what is now the most commonly practiced psychotherapeutic modality, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

At the time of his death, Ellis was President Emeritus of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1913 but raised in New York City, Ellis received his doctorate in clinical psychology from TC, where he learned psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapy, the predominant theoretical orientation at that time. He practiced within that modality for several years following graduation. However, he grew increasingly skeptical about the efficacy of this way of doing therapy, believing it to be too time-consuming and too focused on intellectual understanding rather than true behavior change. By late 1953, Ellis had stopped calling himself a psychoanalyst and begun developing a therapy that emphasized the need to directly challenge self-defeating thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

In 1965, he was one of three therapists (Carl Rogers and Fritz Perls were the other two) who interviewed a volunteer patient, “Gloria.” These interviews were filmed and became the basis of one of the most widely viewed training tapes (“Three Approaches to Psychotherapy”) of the 20th century. On many Friday nights for nearly 30 years, Ellis would interview, at the Albert Ellis Institute, several volunteers from the audience. He was not only smart and innovative in his clinical work and presentations but also invariably cynical, provocative, humorous and irreverent.

On September 26, 2002, Ellis educated and entertained the TC community with a combined lecture and workshop. A day short of his 89th birthday at the time, Ellis traced his career (including his graduate work at TC and what he described as “a long and useless” stint as an analysand!), gleefully explained his repudiation of psychodynamic theory and the establishment of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, fielded questions from the audience and energetically led the capacity crowd in Horace Mann auditorium in renditions of many of his famous rational-emotive songs. He started with this parody of the Yale Whiffenpoof Song: “I cannot have all of my wishes filled/Whine, whine, whine! I cannot have every frustration stilled/ Whine, whine, whine!” Three brave students then volunteered for their own personal therapy sessions with Ellis.  These brief, but enlightening, glimpses of REBT in action showed the modality’s founder to be as quick-witted and remarkably direct as ever in his therapeutic posture.  He also pointed out, with characteristic bluntness, that most psychotherapists would never dare to have their work scrutinized in such a venue.  At day’s end, the faculty of the clinical psychology program, which had sponsored the event, presented Ellis with a birthday cake and led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to this distinguished alum.  

In 2003, the American Psychological Association named Ellis the second most influential psychologist of the 20th century, second only to Carl Rogers (another TC alum; the great existential psychologist Rollo May was yet another).  In 2005, Ellis published his 78th book, The Myth of Self Esteem, was published. Among numerous career honors, Dr. Ellis served as President of the Division of Consulting Psychology of the American Psychological Association (APA), as a member of the APA’s Council of Representatives, and as a Fellow and President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex.

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