Obituary: Jerome Frank, MD

By Glenn Treisman, MD

[Spring 2005; Vol. 31, No. 3; Pg 8, 13-14]


It is with great sadness that I report the loss of Dr. Jerome Frank, one of the great psychiatrists of the twentieth century. No simple obituary can capture the diversity of contributions Dr. Frank made to our field. He was a man of many letters, graduating summa cum laude from Harvard University in 1930, earning his Doctorate in the Psychology Department in 1934, and then graduating from the Medical School cum laude in 1939. He spent his working life in the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where he was first considered an outstanding student of Adolf Meyer, and later an outstanding teacher.

His work came at a time when psychiatry was in tremendous disarray, suffering from internecine struggles for power between competing psychoanalytical and psychotherapeutic points of view. Institutions suffered from nearly religious psychotherapeutic orthodoxy but were dramatically different in their interpretation of what that orthodoxy should be. As a clinician scholar, Dr. Frank scientifically studied psychotherapeutic methods, tenets, and claims and synthesized a coherent “comparative anatomy” of the various approaches. His book, “Persuasion and Healing,” is probably the most influential book of its kind. It describes the claims of psychodynamic psychotherapy and integrates the research in the field through the 1960’s. More importantly, his work synthesizes the types of patients and approaches that every student of psychotherapy must know and understand.

Dr. Frank’s work had a profound impact on the field in two important ways. The first was to help heal the schism which had developed between various academics centers, allowing improved conversations and forward movement in the field. The second accomplishment was to liberalize thinking about psychotherapeutic treatment and to allow the orthodox psychoanalytical community to foster the development of new types of psychotherapy, including the Self-psychology movement, family therapy, supportive psychotherapy, and sub-specialty types of therapy. The impact of “Persuasion and Healing on the field of psychiatry reflects Dr. Frank himself. The book gently persuades one to reconsider nearly every assumption in a clearer and more scientific light. The book, now in the third edition, feels in no way dated and still seems revolutionary when one reads the first edition.

Dr. Frank was also a leader in his commitment to physicians playing an important role in furthering the greater good of society. He was instrumental in founding the Physicians for Social Responsibility and was an active crusader against nuclear armaments, for human rights, and for a humanistic approach to medicine.

Another important contribution of Dr. Frank’s was his role as a passionate teacher and mentor. His gentle but steady encouragement of his students helped generations of them develop successful and productive careers. In this role, Dr. Frank was a faculty member at Johns Hopkins from 1940 onwards. He was a professor for most of his life, and even after retirement, he remained an active Emeritus Professor heavily involved in the supervising and teaching of residents and young faculty. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have had him as a supervisor find his words and suggestions returning to us over and over again. The recipient of many awards himself, Dr. Frank’s students often remembered him when receiving awards. When Irvin Yalom received the prestigious Oscar Pfister prize from the American Psychiatric Association, he thanked his mentor, Dr. Jerome Frank who had been the first recipient of this award.

Lastly, Dr. Frank must be remembered as a person who had a well-rounded life and taught much by example. In 1948, he married Elizabeth (Liza) Kleeman. She has remained his life long companion and survives him along with four children and six grandchildren. His son, David, lives in Boston and teaches at the distinguished Roxbury Latin School. His daughter, Deborah, is a Professor of Pediatrics at Boston University and lives in Boston. His daughter, Emily, is the Associate Dean of Student Affairs at The Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and his daughter, Julia, lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University and the co-author of the third edition of “Persuasion and Healing”.

On March 14, 2005, the field of psychiatry lost one of the twentieth century’s great thinkers. Dr. Jerome Frank will be missed by his family, his students, his patients and his friends. He has left behind a lasting legacy through his classic work and his influence on the entire field through both his own research and that of his students.