Aaron Beck, Jewish ‘father of cognitive therapy’, dies at 100

Dr. Aaron T. Beck, who revolutionized psychiatry by developing the field of cognitive behavioral therapy, died on November 1 at his home in Philadelphia.

Born on July 18, 1921, he turned 100 earlier this year.

Beck is known for having developed a transformative psychiatric approach to patients’ everyday behaviors. This cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) went against the Freudian emphasis on buried childhood traumas that had defined the field for the previous century. But it produced tangible results in improving the mood of patients, and today CBT is the most studied form of psychotherapy in the world.

Later in life, Beck also conducted groundbreaking research on schizophrenic patients, who had long been discarded by the psychiatric establishment.

“My biggest discovery was that patients were not really reporting what was important to them: how they interpreted or misinterpreted situations. People would be trained to make the corrections, ”he told the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent in 2017.“ Some of the behaviors that they recognized and were able to correct included depression, anxiety, suicide, and obsessive compulsive disorder. But, until recently, neither I nor my students had done research on schizophrenia, which supposedly would not respond to psychotherapy ”.

The Beck Depression Inventory, a 21-question self-inventory, was developed in 1961 and remains a leading test for measuring the severity of depression.

The medical website Medscape noted that Beck had written more than 600 academic articles and 25 books, ranking him as the fourth most influential physician of the last century.

“The father of cognitive therapy, Dr. Aaron Temkin Beck is considered one of the most influential psychotherapists in history and a pioneer in the field of mental health,” the publication wrote. “Dr. Beck’s early work on psychoanalytic theories of depression led him to the development of cognitive therapy, a new theoretical and clinical orientation,” based on the theory that maladaptive thoughts are the causes of psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression, which in turn cause or exacerbate physical problems’ symptoms.

Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, Beck was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He settled in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1950s to work at Valley Forge Army Hospital. He spent much of his career at the University of Pennsylvania, concluding as Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine and as director of the Aaron T. Beck Research Center for Psychopathology.

Beck is also credited with founding the Beck Initiative in collaboration with City of Philadelphia agencies. The initiative is a partnership between university researchers and physicians and the city’s managed behavioral health care system that works to ensure that consumers have access to effective mental health care.

At Beck’s funeral on November 3 at the Beth Hillel-Beth El Temple in Wynnewood, where he was a life member, his children praised their patriarch, known to loved ones as Tim.

The eldest son, Roy Beck, said he spoke to his father often, including every day from April 2020 until his death.

Roy Beck said his father was working on a role at the time of his death, despite being bedridden and too weak to move on his own.

“Most days when I asked him how he was doing, he said, ‘I had a good day,'” recalls Roy Beck.

“I have never retired because I love what I do,” Dr. Beck said in the 2017 Exponent article. “I am constantly aware of new discoveries and applications. So there hasn’t been any phase in my professional career where I wasn’t working on something new. “

His daughter, Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Alice Beck Dubow, said she went to her father’s house for lunch several years ago and began talking about one of Dr. Beck’s patients at Norristown State Hospital. The patient, who suffered from schizophrenia, had assaulted an assistant and had been imprisoned.

Norristown State Hospital, Pennsylvania (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Dr. Beck argued to his youngest son that each day the patient spent behind bars would erode the progress they had made. His daughter said a crime had been committed.

The psychiatrist saw his daughter’s point, but was still upset. Years later, Beck Dubow realized that his father was right.

“I should have taken special care,” she said, adding, “He fed my intellectual development.”

His other daughter, Dr. Judy Beck, followed her father into the field of cognitive behavioral therapy, founding the Beck Institute in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, with him in 1994.

Later in life, she noticed that he was particularly interested in a disease that he had overlooked: schizophrenia.

Aaron Beck recognized that his usual therapeutic approach, focusing on the negative habits and views of the patient, did not work with schizophrenic patients. Instead, he had to motivate them to focus on the times when they were in their prime.

Those affected by schizophrenia experience a feeling of disconnection. Making them feel like they could use their strengths to connect was vital, Judy Beck said.

Her father even told her that maybe she was wrong about cognitive behavioral therapy, her life’s work. Maybe he should have focused on people’s strengths all the time.

“It showed its flexibility,” he said.

Son Dan Beck did not plan to speak at his father’s funeral. He didn’t think he could sum up a 65-year relationship in a few minutes. But the morning of the service, he took a walk around Wynnewood and it occurred to him.

Dan Beck recalled that, given his father’s status, his young friends envisioned his home as a lively intellectual hall. But when they came, they did not find Freud himself arguing with Aaron Beck in the living room, he said.

Instead, the Becks were just a normal Philadelphia family. They even went to Wildwood every August for walks on the boardwalk.

Dan Beck’s first memory with his father was of him singing “Danny Boy”, throwing him into the air and catching him. The son burst out laughing each time. Now he does the same with his children.

During a difficult period in his 30s, Dan Beck often turned to his father for advice. “He said, ‘Just write down three things you want to do today, and as you do, cross them out,’” Dan recalled. “’Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will be fine. ‘

“He was right,” Dan Beck said. “It worked tomorrow.”

Aaron Beck is survived by his wife, Phyllis; the children Roy, Judith, Daniel and Alice; 10 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.


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