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USC to House Archives of Behavior Therapy Pioneer

Psychotherapist Joseph Wolpe

The books, papers and tapes of the late Joseph Wolpe – a psychotherapist who helped revolutionize the treatment of mental disorders – have been added to the holdings of the USC libraries.

The South African-born Ameri-can psychiatrist helped usher in behavior therapy with his treatment to desensitize phobia patients by exposing them incrementally to images of their fears. In addition to establishing the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy and founding the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, he helped to develop assertiveness training as an approach to combating depression and other emotional problems.

But Wolpe is probably best known for urging his colleagues to view psychotherapy as an applied science in which the effectiveness of treatment is evaluated through controlled experiments.

“Today it’s hard to appreciate the kind of intellectual courage that Wolpe displayed by going against the zeitgeist of 1950s psychiatry and clinical psychology,” said Gerald C. Davison, a professor of psychology in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Editors of top-tier clinical journals now adhere to the kind of hard-headed empiricism that Wolpe urged on his peers more than 40 years ago.”

Wolpe’s materials are avail-able to scholars and researchers through the library’s department of special collections.

Wolpe is credited with helping to develop a new type of therapy in the 1950s and ‘60s. The techniques of behavior therapy – relaxation techniques, guided imagery and other scientifically validated exercises – were based on theories of learning derived from the classical conditioning research carried out by Ivan Pavlov and from the work of B.F. Skinner, John B. Watson and Andrew Salter.

A specialist in the study and treatment of neurosis, Wolpe produced scientific data that phobias are based on learned behavior, as opposed to repressed conflict, and can therefore be “cured” in far fewer sessions than needed in traditional psychotherapy. Wolpe’s influence can be felt in today’s managed care, which favors short-term, empirically supported treatments over long-term psychotherapy, said Davison, a longtime colleague of Wolpe’s.

Trained as a physician at Johannesburg’s University of Wit-watersrand, Wolpe developed an interest in mental health as a medical officer in the South African army during World War II. He was dissatisfied with the effects of electroshock therapy and other common treatments for shell shock.

Behavior therapy is based upon theoretical principles first developed in animal experiments. Wolpe, for example, found that cats could be cured of experimentally induced “neuroses.”

Based on this animal research, he developed a modality of treatment called “systematic desensitization” for people with phobias. In this procedure, fearful patients are exposed, while re-laxed, to images of what they are afraid of, beginning with the least distressing scene and moving gradually to the most fearsome. “Syste-matic desensitization markedly reduces or completely eliminates unrealistic fears in most patients in fewer than a dozen sessions,” Davison said.

Wolpe set forth his findings in the landmark 1958 book Psycho-therapy by Reciprocal Inhibition – one of the first scholarly challenges to the notion that scientific evaluation is irrelevant to psychotherapy – and contended that phobias are most effectively treated by confronting them directly.

In 1965, Wolpe established a behavior therapy unit at Temple University in Philadelphia. With a small group of scientifically oriented clinicians, he established the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy and founded the scholarly journal Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psy-chiatry and edited it from its in-ception in 1970 until his death last year. He also developed two measuring systems still in use today – the subjective anxiety scale and the fear survey schedule.

In addition to Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition (1958), major publications by Joseph Wolpe include Behavior Therapy Techniques: Guide to the Treatment of Neuroses; Theme and Variations: A Behavior Thera-py Casebook; The Practice of Behavior Therapy; and Life without Fear: Anxiety and Its Cure; as well as 700 journal articles.

Major awards he received include the American Psycholog-ical Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award, a Psi Chi Nation-al Distinguished Member Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award and Special Award from the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy.

After retiring from Temple University, Wolpe served as a distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine Univer-sity. Stella, his wife of 40 years, died shortly after the couple moved to Southern California in 1988; Wolpe married Eva Gyar-mati, a retired insurance underwriting manager, in 1996. He died of lung cancer in Los Angeles on Dec. 4, 1997.

Deeply committed to preserving her husband’s professional legacy, Eva Wolpe decided to give her husband’s books and papers to USC – partly because of Davison’s long-standing interest in her husband’s work and partly because of “the scientific orientation and high quality of the university’s clinical psychology program.” She was influenced, as well, by ties between the university and members of her extended family, which includes six USC alumni and a current student. Granddaughter Alyssa Weinstein will be a sophomore at the university next fall.

“I hope the students and scholars reading his archives will be motivated to continue his research and find solutions to yet-unsolved problems,” Eva Wolpe said.

Victoria Steele, head of special collections at Doheny Memorial Library, said the Wolpe archives consist of about 25 boxes of correspondence, research files and other documentation, copies of Wolpe’s books in their multiple translations, as well as video- and audiotapes of his lectures and some of his sessions with clients who agreed in advance to disclosure.

Highlights of the Wolpe archives include:

  • Wolpe’s reports on his pioneering “systematic desensitization” studies with cats.
  • Audiotapes of a successful 16-session treatment with an intensely phobic client who was socially paralyzed by fear of fainting in public.
  • Wolpe’s correspondence with Skinner and other luminaries of the behavior therapy field.
  • Videotapes of an extensive 1994 interview with Wolpe – an interview conducted by Davison, whose research in cognitive behavior therapy has been strongly influenced by Wolpe’s work
USC to House Archives of Behavior Therapy Pioneer

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