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Salvador Minuchin

Argentinian physician, one of the founders of family therapy and of structural family therapy.

The eldest of three children born to the children of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Salvador Minuchin was born and raised in a closely knit small Jewish community in rural Argentina. His father had been a prosperous businessman until the Great Depression forced his family into poverty. In high school he decided he would help juvenile delinquents after hearing his psychology teacher discuss the philosopher Rousseau's ideas that delinquents are victims of society.

At age 18 he entered the university as a medical student. In 1944, as a student, he became active in the leftist political movement opposing the dictator Juan Peron who had taken control of Argentina's universities. He was jailed for three months. Upon graduation in 1946 he began a residency in pediatrics and took a subspecialty in psychiatry. In 1948, as Minuchin was opening a pediatric practice, the state of Israel was created and immediately plunged into war. He moved to Israel and joined its army where he treated young Jewish soldiers who had survived the holocaust.

In 1950 he came to the Untied States to study psychiatry. He worked with psychotic children at Bellevue Hospital in New York City as a part-time psychiatric resident. Minuchin also worked at the Jewish Board of Guardians where he lived in its institutional housing with 20 disturbed children. His training there was psychoanalytic, which did not seem compatible with his work with the children.

In 1951 Minuchin married Patricia Pittluck, a psychologist, and emigrated to Israel. There he co-directed five residential institutions for disturbed children. Most of them were orphans of the holocaust and Jewish children from Asia and the Middle East. Here he first began to work therapeutically with groups instead of individuals. Between 1954 and 1958, Minuchin trained at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychoanalysis in New York City. He went there because the Institute supported the ideas of Harry Stack Sullivan, who created interpersonal psychiatry and stressed the importance of interpersonal interaction. As he was training there, he began practicing family therapy at the Wiltwyck School for Boys, a school for troubled young people, or juvenile delinquents. Slowly, he began to feel that he needed to see a client's family. He felt that seeing them alone, as per psychoanalysis, was not an effective treatment technique.

Minuchin and a number of other professionals there began working as a team to develop approaches to family therapy. These youths and their families tended not be very introspective, so Minuchin and his team focused on communication and behavior, and developed a therapy form in which the therapist is very active, making suggestions and directing activities, for instance.

In 1965, Minuchin and his family (he now had two children) moved to Philadelphia, where he became, at the same time, director of psychiatry at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, director of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, and professor of child psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. During this time he began working therapeutically with children with psychosomatic illnesses. (Illnesses in which no physical basis for an illness can be found so the illness is attributed to psychological factors.) Research with these children and families indicated that family therapy could help these patients improve, and indicated maladaptive family patterns were partly to blame for these illnesses.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Minuchin became interested in the larger social world in which families are embedded. Thus he and his group started looking at communities and social service agencies, among other societal agents. In one project he and his colleagues, under an intensive program, trained minorities from the community to be family therapists.

During the 1960s, Minuchin and his colleagues, as well as a number of other groups, struggled to understand family dynamics. He explored what other family therapists and colleagues in the social sciences were doing, and drew on those that seemed to work. He found Gregory Bateson's systems theory (a system is comprised of interdependent parts that mutually effect each other) to go a long way in explaining family dynamics. Minuchin also drew on the ideas of Nathan Ackerman, a child analyst who began to look at the interpersonal aspects of the family unit, and the ways individual behavior relates to that unit. Minuchin believes these are perspectives that are complementary.

Very basically, structural family therapy uses short-term methods to alter the coalitions and alliances of family members, and by doing so, alter how they experience one another. Faulty family organization is responsible for causing family maladjustment.

In 1975, Minuchin retired from his position as director of the Philadelphia Clinic. He was Director Emeritus of the Clinic from 1975 through 1981. In 1981, Minuchin established Family Studies, Inc., in New York City, an organization to teach family therapists. Minuchin left the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia in 1983, when he joined New York University School of Medicine as a Research Professor. His wife is also a Research Professor there. He retired in 1996 and currently lives in Boston.

Minuchin has contributed to numerous professional journals and coauthored numerous books, many of which explore the effects of poverty and socials systems on families.

Marie Doorey

Further Reading

Allyn & Bacon Family Therapy Website http://www.abacon.com/famtherapy/

Foley, V. "Family Therapy." In Corsini, R.J., ed. In Encyclopedia of Psychology, 1st Ed., V. 2 New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984.

Goleman, Daniel. "Family Therapist Takes on Agencies." New York Times, (May 19, 1987).

Minuchin, Salvador, and Nichols, Michael. Family Healing: Tales of Hope and Renewal from Family Therapy. New York: The Free Press, 1993.

Writers Directory 2000, 15th Ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 2000.

Further Information

New York University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry. 550 First Avenue, New York, NY, USA. 10016.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists