Dr. Albert Ellis, 93, Creator of Psychology’s Cognitive Revolution, Dies


July 24, 2007

Dr. Albert Ellis, the controversial psychologist who revolutionized the field of psychology when he created Rational Emotive Therapy in 1955, died at home on July 24, 2007. His wife, Debbie Joffe was with him. He was 93. He had been seriously ill for more than a year.

Dr. Ellis was born in Pittsburgh on September 27, 1913, and was raised in New York City. He received his M.A. (1943) and Ph.D. (1947) degrees in clinical psychology from Columbia University. He practiced psychotherapy, marriage and family counseling and sex therapy for over sixty years. He was the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy, the first of the now-popular cognitive therapies. In later years, he called his creation Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, REBT.

Recognizing the slowness and frequent ineffectiveness of Freudian psychoanalysis, Albert Ellis broke away from it in January 1953, calling himself a rational therapist. He presented REBT to the psychological community in 1955, starting a revolutionary paradigm shift in the way psychology thought about human problems and changing the way psychotherapy is practiced around the world.

REBT is a comprehensive approach to psychological issues and problems that deals with the emotional and behavioral aspects of human disturbance, and places emphasis on how people think. REBT reminds people that they control their own emotional destiny according to whether they think in healthy, rational ways or unhealthy, irrational ways. It teaches people how to forcefully analyze and change their self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. A major aspect of REBT is unconditional acceptance of self, others and life.

His influence extended into areas other than psychology, including education, politics, business and philosophy. He wrote extensively on the problems the world currently faces, such as terrorism and nuclear weapons.

Dr. Ellis received the highest awards from professional societies, including recently the New York State Psychological Association’s Lifetime Distinguished Service Award. In a 1982 survey, American and Canadian psychologists rated Albert Ellis as having more influence on psychology than Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung or B.F. Skinner. Psychology Today called him The Prince of Reason. The New Yorker Magazine reported that in the off-Broadway play “Trumbo”, Dr. Ellis was called “the greatest humanitarian since Gandhi.”

Until he fell ill at the age of 92 in May 2006, Dr. Ellis typically worked at least 16 hours a day, writing books in longhand on legal tablets, visiting with clients and teaching. Even while seriously ill, he continued to see students at the rehabilitation center where he was recuperating. He even taught from his hospital bed, giving his last two hour workshop to a group of students from Belgium who visited his hospital room on March 29. In addition to pneumonia, he had had a heart attack that morning, but he refused to cancel the meeting.

In his later years, Dr. Ellis also worked despite profound hearing loss. He was assisted in his work by his wife, Australian psychologist Debbie Joffe. She facilitated his workshops, contributing pertinent points in response to audience questions. Their outstanding rapport helped showcase Dr. Ellis’ famous and at-times irreverent humor, as together they taught the principles of REBT to large and small groups.

Humor was an important part of his philosophy and he applied it to his own life challenges, using himself as an example to teach people how to deal with serious adversities. He was also a writer of his unique rational humorous songs. He had said that if he was not a psychologist he would have enjoyed being a composer.

Dr. Ellis was also as one of the founders of the American sexual revolution. His ground-breaking 1958 book, “Sex Without Guilt,” created a national discussion leading to a change in the way people think about sexual experience. He wrote more than 75 books, 200 audio tapes and 1,200 articles. His autobiography will be published posthumously by Prometheus Press. Other books, including one on REBT and Buddhism, also await publication.

He held many important positions in the field of psychology, including chief psychologist of the state of New Jersey and adjunct professor at Rutgers and other universities. He had been the president of the Division of Consulting Psychology of the American Psychological Association and president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and several other professional boards.

In 1971, the American Humanist Association named Albert Ellis the Humanist of the Year.

In relation to religion and God, Albert Ellis called himself a probabilistic atheist, meaning it is impossible to be 100 percent certain there is no God. Many people considered him spiritual for his tireless contributions to others. In later years, he wrote and spoke about similarities between REBT and aspects of Buddhism, with both philosophies teaching unconditional acceptance of life.

On his 90th birthday, Dr. Ellis listened to congratulatory messages from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush. In honor of the occasion, he was given a white silk scarf that had been blessed by the Dalai Lama.

In 1959, Albert Ellis established the Institute for Rational Living, a non-profit organization with the mission to advance and popularize REBT and to provide low-cost counseling to the public. In 1964, he used his personal funds to purchase a six-story mansion on 65th Street in Manhattan. This building housed what came to be called the Albert Ellis Institute.

He lived frugally in an apartment on the top floor, supporting the institute’s mission by donating all his personal income to the institute’s operation. For almost 50 years, the world’s most famous living psychologist took only a $12,000 a year salary for himself, plus living accommodations and a promise of lifetime medical care. He could have been a millionaire many times over had he kept the income from his best-selling books and thousands of therapy sessions.

In 2004, after Dr. Ellis experienced a life-threatening medical crisis, the board of trustees of the Albert Ellis Institute said his medical expenses had become too great and they stopped paying for the at-home nursing care that allowed him to continue working full time. Dr. Ellis had always saved and wisely invested a portion of his small earnings. This cushion of funds was used to pay for his medical care.

In July 2005, the board of trustees barred him from using institute facilities for his popular Friday Night Workshops for the public, which had been a Manhattan fixture for more than four decades. Ellis responded by relocating his workshops and conducting them in exile in a rented building, aided by his wife Debbie Joffe. In front of standing-room-only crowds, they gave live demonstrations of REBT with audience volunteers.

The direction the Albert Ellis Institute will take in the future remains unresolved. Despite Dr. Ellis’ strong preference that the institute promote Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy as its sole mission, REBT is now only one of several approaches offered by the organization that bears his name.

In October 2005, Dr. Ellis sued his own institute after its trustees voted by a narrow margin to remove him from the board and to suspend him from all professional duties.

In a stunning decision, the Supreme Court for New York County returned Dr. Ellis to the Board of Trustees in January 2006, with the judge calling the actions taken against Dr. Ellis by the other trustees “disingenuous” and “offensive and contrary to our fundamental process of democratic and legal procedure, fair play and the spirit of the law.”

Despite the judge’s ruling, the board of trustees prevented Dr. Ellis from any meaningful participation in running the Albert Ellis Institute and his professional duties were not restored.

Fans and professional colleagues used the Internet to create a spontaneous international network of support for Dr. Ellis and REBT. Fansites, discussion forums and Web sites were created in his honor. The trustees of the Albert Ellis Institute then claimed trademark rights to the “Albert Ellis” name, threatening to sue his advocates and supporters for trademark infringement.

Dr. Ellis rejected the Institute’s trademark use of his name, calling the current Institute “fake” and likening its Trustees to “pirates” who plundered his life’s work.

Also left unresolved at the time of Dr. Ellis’ death is a breach- of-contract lawsuit seeking repayment of Dr. Ellis’ medical expenses, ownership of his extensive archives and return of the $20 million Albert Ellis Institute mansion in Manhattan through imposition of a constructive trust.

Dr. Ellis believed the current institute that bears his name no longer represented his life work and mission. Friends and supporters intend to keep REBT alive and vital, as he created it. He suggested they do this by using his philosophy in their own lives to promote personal peace and happiness and by teaching REBT to other people. He remained dedicated to the principles of liberty, justice and freedom.

Dr. Ellis is survived by his wife, Debbie Joffe. He embarked on his third marriage at age 90, surprising many people. He said that after several years of friendship, he wanted to marry Debbie because she was the kindest and most giving woman he had ever met, and also the most dedicated to practicing the principles of REBT. He told his supporters that although he’d had several great love affairs in his long life, he loved Debbie Joffe more than any other woman he had ever lived with or loved before.

Debbie personally cared for her husband continuously during the time of his serious illness, seldom leaving his bedside and making it possible for him to continue teaching, promoting REBT and engaging in work he loved, even when he was bedridden and suffering discomfort.

Dr. Ellis is also survived by several nephews.

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