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Summary Article: Albert Ellis (1913-2007)
from Encyclopedia of Emotion

Albert Ellis, the American psychologist who is most famous for developing rational emotive behavior therapy, grew up in New York City, child to a traveling businessman and a homemaker. Ellis described both parents as emotionally cool and distant. Although his mother was home more than his father, she was often inattentive to-ward the children, spending a great deal of time sleeping or outside of the house. Ellis, who was the oldest, adopted a parental role with his younger brother and sister, waking them in the mornings and dressing them. Ellis had poor health as a child; he was hospitalized eight times between the ages of five and seven, with conditions that included kidney disease, a severe bacterial infection, and tonsillitis. Ellis's parents divorced when he was 12.

Ellis earned a BA in business from the City University of New York. His ventures in business were not successful, and he began to research and write about human sexuality. While working on this topic, his friends sometimes asked him for advice, and Ellis discovered that he enjoyed dispensing it. This led to an interest in clinical psychology. He entered Teachers College of Columbia University in 1942 and earned a PhD in clinical psychology in 1947. During his graduate education, Ellis had come to believe that psychoanalysis was the best form of psychotherapy and sought to enter psychoanalytic training. Psychoanalytic institutes would not accept students who did not possess medical degrees, but an individual analyst agreed to train him.

In Ellis's work with his patients, he found that those who saw him once a week were recovering as quickly as those who saw him nearly every day (psychoanalytic therapy requires daily treatment). This observation and other factors led him to become somewhat disenchanted with psychoanalysis, and he strove to develop a form of therapy that would work more quickly and efficiently. In 1955, rational therapy began. The focus was to show people that they create their own emotional pain by holding beliefs that are “irrational”—rigid, perfectionist, and self-defeating. Through rational therapy, an individual can learn to retrain her belief system. Rational therapy was the beginning of a new paradigm in psychotherapy: cognitive therapy. The paradigm shift began slowly, however. Ellis's first widely public presentation of rational therapy was at the American Psychological Association convention in Chicago in 1960. Although his talk was met with some interest, he also received a measure of scorn and even hostility from many psychologists and psychiatrists. The cognitive revolution in psychology began in full force some years later.

Ellis founded a psychotherapy training institute in 1959, the Institute for Rational Living (now the Albert Ellis Institute). Its primary focus was to hold workshops that would train other psychotherapists in rational emotive behavior therapy (formerly rational therapy). Ellis worked at the institute, training, conducting psychotherapy with clients, and writing, until his death. Ellis authored more than 75 books. He was awarded numerous honors, including the New York State Psychological Association's Lifetime Distinguished Service Award and the Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association in 1971. In a 1982 survey of American and Canadian psychologists, he was voted second most influential psychotherapist in history (Carl Rogers was first and Sigmund Freud was third).

In 2004 and at age 90, Ellis married Debbie Joffe, his third wife. Joffe, a psychotherapist and proponent of Ellis's therapy, supported and cared for him during the last years of his life. Ellis died on July 24, 2007, after an extended illness. He is survived by his wife and several nephews.

See also ABC model of emotional reaction, cognitive therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy.

Further Readings

Albert Ellis Institute Web site:

  • Web site: (Note: Reputedly, at the time of his death, Ellis no longer endorsed the Albert Ellis Institute. This Web site was created by friends of Ellis and explains some of Ellis's conflicts with the Institute.).
  • Ellis, A. (2010). All Out! Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Copyright 2010 by Gretchen M. Reevy

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