Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Psychologist Aaron T. Beck created the field of Cognitve Therapy.
Born in 1921, Aaron T. Beck is a Rhode Island native. After graduating from Brown University and Yale Medical School, Dr. Aaron Beck settled in Pennsylvania. After extensive research and development of new ways to look at issues in psychology and psychiatry such as suicide, depression, and addiction, he is considered one of the most influential figures in cognitive therapy. Beck began working at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954, where he is a professor of psychiatry and the president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research.
Born on July 18, 1921, Aaron Temkin Beck was raised in Providence, Rhode Island. His mother, Elizabeth Temkin, married his father, Harry Beck, in 1909. The youngest of five children, Aaron Beck notes that his mother was quite depressed prior to his birth due to the loss of two of her children. Beck was born two years after his only sister died of influenza. In Aaron T. Beck, it is noted that he believed himself to be a replacement child for his sister. Beck says he takes joy in the idea that, even at a young age, he was able to cure his mother’s depression. After graduating first in his high school class, Beck attended Brown University as an undergraduate. Although his majors were English and Political Science, Beck did not allow himself to be fenced in by course requirements and took classes in a plethora of subjects while at Brown. As editor of the Brown Daily Herald, Beck kept himself busy by adding other odd jobs to his schedule to subsidize his tuition. Not sure of his career path, he decided to apply for medical schools because of his interest in the subject and organic chemistry. After graduating magna cum laude from Brown in 1942, he attended Yale Medical School. Though he entered Yale with an interest in psychiatry, he soon lost that interest upon taking his first psychoanalytic class. “I thought it was nonsense. I could not really see what it fitted,” said Beck about the subject in his biography, Aaron T. Beck. Even after graduation Beck was still undecided on his specialty. After receiving input from his family, he decided to take an internship at the Rhode Island Hospital where he studied neurology as a specialty. Beck became involved in psychiatry when he was required to take part in a six month psychiatry rotation due to low numbers of psychiatry students. After the rotation was over, Beck decided to continue in the field, still being enamored with the ease to which psychoanalytic theory answered questions about disorders. Marjorie Weishaar quotes Beck talking about his fascination for the subject: “They could understand psychosis, schizophrenia, neuroses, and every single condition that came in…And psychoanalysis also held out the promise that it could cure most people’s condition, so I found that very provocative.” During his internship, Aaron Beck met Phyllis Whitman. She was a student at the Hillel Foundation, the girls’ school at Brown University. The couple married on June 4, 1950, in Providence. Phyllis proved to be a perfect match for her husband’s strong work ethic and intelligence; she completed a law degree while raising their four children. She served as a superior court judge in Pennsylvania. Now their daughter Alice also serves as a Pennsylvania judge, and the two are the first mother-daughter judge pair in Pennsylvania history. After some years of practicing psychoanalytic theory, the lack of structure and scientific evidence proved to be insufficient for Dr. Beck. As he began to separate from the traditional practice, he slowly gained interest in what is now known as Cognitive Psychology. His colleague, Ruth Greenberg, believes that psychoanalysis did not fit Beck’s personality and, therefore, he had to create his own path. Greenberg said, “He is extremely goal oriented. He wants to be the authority. On the other hand he is anxious to equip patients to be their own authority…As a clinician he is extremely non-authoritarian. He’ll very often be seen on tapes to be almost humble with patients.” Cognitive Therapy has since formed into a practice of psychology where one’s thoughts and schemas (beliefs about situations) in turn affect one’s behavior and life. Unlike Freud’s psychoanalysis, where the cause of such disorders is believed to be unconscious, cognitive psychology’s approach is that once these schemas are confronted through therapy and home works, they can be changed and cease to disrupt one’s life. Beck took a position at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954 in the psychiatry department, which is where he developed the depression research clinic. Beck began to work more intensely on his cognitive approach to depression, and in 1961, he developed the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). The BDI is one of the most widely used and referenced scales of depression. It is a 21 item scale that uses a Likert scale to determine the severity of depression symptoms. Even though the scale is now revered as one of the most well constructed scales and useful, those in the psychiatric department at Penn did not receive the idea so well. Beck says he remembers an underwhelming interest in the project. In 1967, Beck became an associate professor; however, he only received a one year extension on his depression grant and lost his convenient campus office. Working from home turned out to be just what Beck needed, and he produced his first book, Depression: Clinical Experimental and Theoretical Aspects. From here his work at the University of Pennsylvania began to pick up, and in 1971 he was awarded full professor status. In the early 1970s, a period known as the “cognitive revolution” occurred in the field of psychology. He was suddenly invited to give lectures on his research in cognitive psychology across Pennsylvania and New York. During the cognitive revolution, the main focus of psychology began to shift away from psychoanalytic and toward a more academic based approach. Even behaviorists began to incorporate models that not only included outward observable behavior, but thought processes and beliefs as well. This school of psychology is now known as cognitive-behavioral therapy, of which Beck is often referred to as the father. Beck has produced a multitude of publications on subjects ranging from depression, suicide, relationships, anxiety, and many other topics. Depression, his first research interest, has probably received most of his devotion. In Scientific Foundations of Cognitive Theory and Therapy of Depression, Beck and co-author David Clark discuss the foundation and principles of the cognitive approach to depression. Beck describes this approach: “The cognitive theory of depression adopts a schema-based information-processing paradigm of human functioning as evident from theoretical assumptions [presented later in the book].” This publication and several others, such as Cognitive Therapy of Depression, Depression Causes and Treatment, have outlined the procedures and clinical practices of depression in therapy. Beck has also written many books on other subjects. In the book Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse Beck addressed the pervasiveness of substance abuse and how it can be treated cognitively. Within cognitive approach, he outlines two specific substance abusers in his cognitive model of addiction: “general” users who use a variety of drugs, and “specialists” who are addicted to one specific drug. In his book Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse Beck relates abuse to the effect it has on easing or distorting ones thoughts using examples such as, “If I use coke, my bad thoughts go away,” or “People like me better when I am drunk.” Throughout the book, steps of setting goals for the abuser, addressing beliefs and schemas, and managing life problems that may influence the substance abuse are outlined with cognitive approaches. Today, Aaron T. Beck is the president of the non-profit organization The Beck Institute of Cognitive Therapy and Research at the University of Pennsylvania. His daughter Judy is the director at the institute. Beck has earned numerous honors and awards including the Heinz Award for ‘The Human Condition,’ the Sarnat Award from the Institute of Medicine, honorary degrees from Brown University and Assumption College, and he is the only person to have been given awards from both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association. He presently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife of 57 years, Phyllis.
Depression: Causes and Treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.
Cognitive Therapy and Emotional Disorders. International Universities Press, 1975.
Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999.
Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
“Suicidal Wishes and Symptoms of Depression.” Psychological Reports 33 (1973): 770.
“A New, Fast Therapy for Depression.” Psychology Today 10 (1977): 94-102.
“Alcohol Abuse and Eventual Suicide: A Five to Ten Year Prospective Study of Alcohol Abusing Suicide Attempters.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 50 (1989): 202-209.
“Cognitive Approaches to Schizophrenia. Theory and Therapy.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 1 (2005): 577-606.
Beck, Aaron T., Fred D. Wright, Cory F. Newman, and Bruce S. Liese. Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse. New York: Guilford Press, 1993.
Clark, David A., and Aaron T. Beck. Scientific Foundations of Cognitive Theory and Therapy of Depression. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993.
Dozois, David A. J., Keith S. Dobson, and Jamie L. Ahnberg. “A Psychometric Evaluation of the Beck Depression Inventory-II.” Psychological Assessment 10.2 9 (1998): 83-89.
The Beck Institute. “The Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research” Dr. Aaron T. Beck’s Biography. Jan. 1999. 5 Feb. 2008. <>http://www.beckinstitute.org/>.
Weishaar, Marjorie E. Aaron T. Beck. London: Sage, 1993.