Legendary psychiatrist Aaron Beck dies at 100
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Legendary psychiatrist Aaron Beck dies at 100

Beck was considered "one of history’s most influential psychotherapists and a pioneer in the field of mental health."

Dr. Aaron T. Beck
(Photo courtesy of James J. Craig, c/o of Beck Institute)
Dr. Aaron T. Beck (Photo courtesy of James J. Craig, c/o of Beck Institute)

Dr. Aaron T. Beck, who revolutionized the field of psychiatry, died on Nov. 1 at his home in Philadelphia. Born on July 18, 1921, he reached 100 earlier this year.

Beck is known for developing a psychiatric focus on the day-to-day behaviors in patients. This ran counter to the Freudian emphasis on childhood traumas.

“My major discovery was that the patients were not really reporting what was important to them — the way they interpreted or misinterpreted situations. People would be trained to make the corrections,” he said in a 2017 Jewish Exponent article. “Some of the behaviors they recognized and were able to correct included depression, anxiety, suicide and obsessive-compulsive disorder. But, until recently, neither I nor my students had done research on schizophrenia, which supposedly would not respond to psychotherapy.”

The Beck Depression Inventory, a 21-question self-inventory, was developed in 1961 and remains a leading test for measuring the severity of depression.

A few years back, Medscape noted that Beck had authored more than 600 scholarly articles and 25 books and ranked him as the fourth-influential medical practitioner within the past century.

“The father of cognitive therapy, Dr. Aaron Temkin Beck is considered one of history’s most influential psychotherapists and a pioneer in the field of mental health,” the publication wrote. “Dr. Beck’s early work on psychoanalytic theories of depression led to his development of cognitive therapy, a new theoretical and clinical orientation, ‘based on the theory that maladaptive thoughts are the causes of psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression, which in turn cause or exacerbate physical symptoms.’”

A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Beck settled in Wynnewood, a suburb of Philadelphia, in the mid-1950s to work at Valley Forge Army Hospital. He spent much of his career at the University of Pennsylvania, concluding as an emeritus professor in the Department of Psychiatry of the Perelman School of Medicine and as director of the Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center.

Beck also is credited with founding the Beck Initiative in collaboration with City of Philadelphia agencies. The initiative is a partnership between university researchers and clinicians and the city’s behavioral health managed care system that works to ensure that consumers have access to effective mental health care.

At Beck’s funeral on Nov. 3 at Beth Hillel-Beth El, his children eulogized their patriarch, known to loved ones as “Tim.”

Oldest son Roy Beck said he talked to his father often, including every day from April 2020 to his death.

In his 90s, Tim told his son he was reading a biography of President and Union Army Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

“He said he just didn’t know enough about that time period,” Roy Beck said.

Later, Roy Beck said his father was working on a paper at the time of his death, despite being bedridden and too weak to move for himself.

“Most days, when I asked how his day went, he said, ‘I had a good day,’” Roy Beck recalled.

“I’ve never retired because I love what I’m doing,” Aaron Beck said in the 2017 Exponent article. “All the time I’m on to new discoveries and applications. So there hasn’t been any phase in my professional career where I wasn’t working on something new.”

Judge Alice Beck Dubow of the Pennsylvania Superior Court said she went over to her father’s house for lunch several years ago and began discussing one of his patients at Norristown State Hospital. The patient, who suffered from schizophrenia, had assaulted an aide and been incarcerated.

Aaron Beck argued to his youngest child that every day the patient spent behind bars would erode the progress they’d made. His daughter said a crime had been committed.

The psychiatrist saw his daughter’s point, but he was still upset.

Years later, Beck Dubow realized that her father was right.

“There should have been extra care,” she said, adding that, “He nurtured my intellectual development.”

Dr. Judy Beck followed her father into the cognitive behavioral therapy field, founding the Beck Institute in Bala Cynwyd with him in 1994.

Later in his life, she noticed that he took a particular interest in an illness he had overlooked: schizophrenia.

Aaron Beck recognized that his usual therapeutic approach — focusing on a patient’s negative habits and views — didn’t work with schizophrenic patients. Instead, he had to motivate them to focus on times when they were at their best.

Those afflicted with schizophrenia suffer from a feeling of disconnection. It was vital to make them feel like they could use their strengths to connect, Judy Beck said.

Her father even told her that maybe he had made a mistake with cognitive behavioral therapy, his life’s work. Maybe he should have been focusing on people’s strengths all along.

“It demonstrated his flexibility,” she said.

Son Dan Beck was not planning on speaking at his father’s funeral. He didn’t think he could sum up a 65-year relationship in a few minutes. But the morning of the service, he took a walk around Wynnewood and the words came to him.

Dan Beck recalled that, given his father’s status, his young friends pictured his house as some lively intellectual salon. But when they came over, they didn’t find Freud himself arguing with Aaron Beck in the living room, he said.

Instead, the Becks were just a normal Philadelphia family. They even went to Wildwood every August to go on the boardwalk rides.

Dan Beck’s earliest memory with his father was of him singing, “Oh Danny Boy,” throwing him in the air and catching him. The son cracked up every time. Now, he does the same thing with his kids.

During a difficult period in his 30s, Dan Beck often asked his father for advice.

“He said, ‘Just write down three things you want to do today, and as you do them, cross them off,’” Dan recalled. “‘Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will work out.’”

“He was right,” Dan Beck said. “Tomorrow did work out.”

Aaron Beck is survived by his wife, Phyllis; children Roy, Judith, Daniel and Alice; 10 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. PJC

Jarrad Saffren is a writer for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication.

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