Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Biography (1926-)

Swiss, American
psychiatrist, researcher

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, internationally renown psychiatrist, researcher,and writer in the field of thanatology (the study of death), is known primarily for her theory of the five stages in the dying process. Her revolutionaryapproach to death and dying was both compassionate and humane; it defied taboos and laid the groundwork for further study. Kübler-Ross is often givencredit for having imported the hospice concept to the United States from itsorigins in England.

The daughter of Ernst and Emmy (Villiger) Kübler, Elisabeth was the first-born of triplet girls. At birth Elisabeth and one of her sisters barely weighed two pounds, yet the triplets survived. Ernst Kübler, although conservative and a strict disciplinarian, enjoyed singing to his children and tookthem hiking in the mountains surrounding the family's retreat in Furlegi. These trips inspired in Elisabeth a deep reverence for nature and for all living things.

Although their brother's education was intended to prepare him to enter the business world, the girls were sent to local schools to prepare them for marriage. When Elisabeth developed a passion for science, however, she received nosupport her parents and pursued a post-secondary education on her own.

In Elisabeth's youth, the deaths of several individuals were instrumental indetermining the direction of her personal and professional life. These experiences with death intensified the belief that later became the focus of her philosophy that death is only a stage of life, and that the terminally ill should be allowed to confront death with dignity.

When Elisabeth learned that the Germans had invaded Poland in 1939, she longed to assist the Polish people in any way she could. To that end, she became involved with refugees sent to Swiss hospitals; joined the International Volunteers for Peace in 1945; and worked on the French-Swiss border and in Swedenbefore she was finally sent to Poland in 1948. In Poland, she worked at numerous jobs, including camp cook, gardener, carpenter, and nurse.

These experiences ultimately clarified Elisabeth's life purpose: to become ahealer of minds and bodies. In 1951 she entered the University of ZürichMedical School and began the journey that led her into the field of psychiatry. Believing in the mind-body connection, she viewed psychiatry as the perfect venue for her talents and interests.

Elisabeth Kübler graduated from the University of Zurich in 1957 and began working as a rural doctor in Switzerland. In 1958 she married Emanuel Robert Ross, a native New Yorker and fellow medical student to whom she remainedmarried for 11 years.

Kübler-Ross traveled to the United States with her new husband, and theyboth obtained internships at Community Hospital in Glen Cove, Long Island. Elisabeth then secured a three-year residency in psychiatry at Manhattan StateHospital in Ward's Island while spending a year at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. Patients with even the most severe illnesses seemed to respond to Kübler-Ross's compassionate approach. The indifferent and even inhumane treatment of patients in psychiatric hospitals appalled the young doctor, and the more freedom she was allowed in treating patients, the more successful results she achieved.

After the birth of their first child, the couple left New York City, and in 1962 they accepted positions at the University of Colorado School of Medicinein Denver. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was given a fellowship in psychiatry and the following year became an instructor at Colorado General Hospital. In 1965, the family, with their new daughter, moved to Chicago, where Kübler-Ross was appointed an assistant professor of psychiatry and assistant director of psychiatric consultation and liaison services at the University of Chicago Medical School.

Throughout her career, Kübler-Ross had been troubled by the widespread attitude of avoidance that prevailed in the care of terminally ill patients. Consequently, she began developing her own techniques for dealing with the dying and for allowing them to express their feelings. It was in Chicago that fame for her work in thanatology began. Although there were administrative pressures to suppress the attention her work received, she continued to work withnurses, sympathetic doctors, and priests to better counsel the dying. She held weekly seminars eventually canceled by the administration that attracted huge crowds. The administrative focus was on treating patients rather than ondiscussing death.

In her ground-breaking seminars, Kübler-Ross interviewed dying patientsbehind a one-way glass through which attendees could observe. Viewing death as the final stage of life, Kübler-Ross began to identify five stages inthe death process. These stages, universal to all patients she encountered, were: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Her research andfindings were set forth in her best-selling book On Death and Dying (1969), a book that became a standard resource for counselors, physicians, andlay persons.

Life magazine published an article on November 21, 1969, that exposedto the public for the first time the openness with which Kübler-Ross approached the issue of death with patients and described their open conversations with her. The public response was overwhelming and was a turning point inKübler-Ross's career. She decided to work exclusively with dying patients and their families.

In 1977 she founded "Shanti Nilaya" (Home of Peace), a healing center for thedying and their families in Escondido, California. She moved there from Chicago, and profits from her lectures and books funded the center. In 1990 she moved the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Center to her own 200-acre farm in Headwater, Virginia, where she succeeded in training professionals and laypersons to deal with the terminally ill until 1994. In 1986 Kübler-Ross attemptedto establish a hospice for babies with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), but after strong community opposition, she abandoned the idea.

In addition to her most influential work, On Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross is the author of 19 books on dealing with the dying process. Throughout her career, Kübler-Ross received numerous awards and recognitions for her selfless devotion to the cause of the terminally ill. She also co-founded the American Holistic Medical Association.

Recent Updates

August 24, 2004: Kubler-Ross died on August 24, 2004, at home in Scottsdale, Arizona, of natural causes. She was 78. Source: New York Times, August 26, 2004, p. B8(L).August 24, 2004: Kubler-Ross died on August 24, 2004, at her home in Scottsdale, Arizona, of natural causes. She was 78. Source: New YorkTimes, August 26, 2004, p. B8(L).

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