Nathan Ackerman is widely acknowledged as a pioneer in the field of family therapy and is credited with developing the concept of family psychology. He was born in Bessarabia, Russia, on November 22, 1908. Ackerman and his family came to the United States in 1912 when he was only 4-years-old. He grew up during the age of anti-Semitism, the great depression, and World War II.
He attended the public school system in New York City, earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University in 1929 and his Doctor of Medicine degree from Columbia University in 1933. He did his internships at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and the Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, New York. At the Menninger Clinic, Ackerman was offered a staff position which he accepted and in 2 years rose to the position of Chief Psychiatrist at that clinic. During World War II, Ackerman lent his services to the Red Cross and by the end of the war he was offered the position of clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.
Contributions to the Profession
Ackerman is thought to be one of the pioneers of family psychology. He began his early training as a classical psychoanalyst. His interest in integrating insights related to the psychodynamic perspective into a group therapy session paved the way for what has evolved into modern day family therapy. He faced great struggles in challenging and changing the psychological zeitgeist of his times which was steeped in concepts and terminology of intrapersonal personality theories. Initially, Ackerman followed the Child Guidance Clinic model of having a psychiatrist treat the child while a social worker worked with the mother. However, within his first year of work at the Menninger clinic, Ackerman became a strong advocate of including the entire family when treating a disturbance in one of its members. He believed that the mental or physical health of one family member affected other family members, and that often the best way to treat the individual was to treat the family as a whole. He argued that families acted as a type of social unit and just like individuals go through developmental stages. He was particularly fascinated by intergenerational ties and the role emotions played within the family unit. For this reason, Ackerman insisted on the entire family receiving treatment, utilizing family systems therapy, and traditional psychodynamic therapy into his work as a psychiatrist. He was seen as a phenomenal therapist with a confronting and charismatic therapeutic style. He was seen as a high-affect therapist who can gain quick access to clients’ emotions and make things happen in the room.
He founded the Ackerman Institute in 1960, which to this day serves as a base for education, research, and clinical service for families and improving their mental health. Along with his colleague Don Jackson, Ackerman founded the first family therapy journal, Family Process, which is still the leading journal of ideas in the field today. Dr. Ackerman published multiple books such as Family Diagnosis: An Approach to the Preschool Child (1938), The Unity of the Family (1938), The Psychodynamics of Family Life (1958), Treating the Troubled Family (1966), and Family Process (1970). Nathan Ackerman served as the president of the Association of Psychoanalytic Medicine and was awarded the Wilfred Hulse Award and the Rudolph Meyer Award. He died in 1971.
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