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Joseph Wolpe

South African-born American psychiatrist who made significant contributions to behavior therapy.

Joseph Wolpe's groundbreaking work as a behaviorist was grounded in his belief that behavior therapy was as much an applied science as any other aspect of medicine. He is probably best known for his work in the areas of desensitization and assertiveness training, both of which have become important elements of behavioral therapy.

He was born on April 20, 1915 in Johannesburg, South Africa, to Michael Salmon and Sarah Millner Wolpe. He grew up in South Africa and attended college there, obtaining his M.D. from the University of Witwatersrand. When the Second World War began, he joined the South African army as a medical officer. He worked in a military psychiatric hospital, and witnessed soldiers who were suffering from what would today be called post-traumatic stress syndrome. At the time, it was known as "war neurosis," and Wolpe and his colleagues first tried to treat the problem with drug therapy. The results were marginally helpful, however, and Wolpe decided to work on finding more effective means for dealing with the problem.

He came up with the concept now known as desensitization. Reasoning that much of our behavior, both good and bad, is learned, there was no reason why it could not be unlearned. Wolpe's initial experiments were with cats. These animals were given mild electric shocks accompanied by specific sounds and visual stimuli. Once the cats knew to equate the unpleasant shock with these images or sounds, the images and sounds created a feeling of fear. By gradually exposing the cats to these same sights and sounds—with food being given instead of shocks—the cats gradually "unlearned" their fear.

Those who suffer phobias—whether rational or unfounded—know that exposure to the object of fear can be crippling. Modern desensitization techniques include teaching patients relaxation techniques and gradually rehearsing stressful situations, until the patient is finally able to handle the fear-inducing objects.

Sometimes, as Wolpe found out, the problem may not be fear of the object per se, but a negative association coming from another source. In one instance, Wolpe tried to desensitize a woman to an inordinate fear of insects. The usual methods did not work; then Wolpe found out that the woman's husband, with whom she had not been getting along, was nicknamed for an insect. The key then was to work on the marital problems. Once these had been dealt with, the woman's phobia gradually disappeared.

Wolpe's research also led to assertiveness training. As with desensitization, it requires a gradual move into new behaviors. People who have trouble asserting themselves are very much like phobics in that they fear confrontation and conflict, anger in others, and rejection. Assertiveness training gives them the framework to build their confidence, relax in formerly stressful situations, and conquer their fear.

Perhaps Wolpe's most important contribution to psychiatry was that he managed to combine two seemingly disparate disciplines. Many psychologists and psychiatrists felt that methods based in applied science lacked the humanistic touch they felt was so important when dealing with people. What Wolpe did was show that effective, compassionate therapy could be combined with empirical methods in a way that used both to their best advantage. Among his writings, his books Pyschotheraphy by Reciprocal Inhibition (1958) and The Practice of Behavior Therapy (1969) are considered classics in behavior therapy studies.

After the war, Wolpe worked at the University of Witwatersrand; later, he moved to the U.S., where he initially taught at the University of Virginia. In 1965, he became a professor of psychiatry at Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia, a post that he held until 1988. During this time, he also served as director of the behavior therapy unit at the nearby Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute. He served as the second president of the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy, from which he received a lifetime achievement award.

Wolpe retired in 1988 and moved to California. Once he had settled in California, however, his retirement did not last long. He began lecturing at Pepperdine University and continued until a month before his death. He was married twice. His first wife, whom he married in 1948, was Stella Ettman. She died in 1990, and he married Eva Gyarmati in 1996. He had two children and three stepchildren. Lung cancer claimed Wolpe's life on December 4, 1998.

George A. Milite

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Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists