A Brief Biography of Dr. Albert Ellis 1913-2007

the following is an excerpt from the forthcoming text and final work by Dr. Ellis & Mike Abrams, PhD and Lidia Abrams, PhD



Albert Ellis was born of Jewish parents on September 17, 1913, in Pittsburgh. He was the eldest of three children; he had a brother was two years younger, and his sister who was four years younger. Ellis's father was a businessman who experience minimal success at a succession of business ventures; he showed only a modicum of affection to his children and was often away from home on business trips during their early childhood. In his autobiography, Ellis characterized his mother as a self-absorbed woman with a bi-polar affect. At times, according to Ellis, she was a “bustling chatterbox who never listened. She would expound on her strong opinions on most subjects but rarely provided a factual basis for these views.  Like his father, Ellis'  mother was emotionally distant from her children. Ellis recounted that she typically was sleeping when he left for school and was usually not at home when he returned.  Instead of reporting feeling bitter, he took on the responsibility of caring for his siblings.  He purchased an alarm clock with his own money and woke and dressed the his younger brother and sister.  Despite the emotional paucity, his family had very little privation until the depression.  It necessitated all three children seeking work to assist the family.  Young Albert was a frail young man and suffered numerous health problems through his youth.  At the age of five he was hospitalized with a kidney ailment.  He was also hospitalized with  tonsillitis, which led to a severe strep requiring emergency surgery.  He reported that he had eight hospitalizations between the ages of five and seven. One of these lasted nearly a year.  His parents provided little or no emotional support for him during these years, rarely visiting or consoling him. Ellis stated that he learned to confront his adversities as he had  “developed a growing indifference to that dereliction” .

He entered the field of clinical psychology after first earning a degree in business from the City University of New York. He commenced a brief career in business, followed by one as a writer. However, these endeavors took place during the depression that began in 1929, making business a refractory enterprise. He also found that writing fiction was not his calling, but did find that he had a talent for non-fiction.  This talent led him to write about the field of human sexuality, a field he had developed a noted expertise in.  The dearth of experts in this area led to his being sought out for advice on the subject leading him to counsel many in this area. His lay counseling led him to discovery of his calling which convinced him to seek a new career in clinical psychology. In 1942 he began his studies for a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Columbia University which trained psychologists in the psychoanalytic tradition. Upon the completion of his M.A. in clinical psychology from Teachers College, Columbia, in June, 1943, Ellis started a part-time private practice while still working on his PhD degree. This was possible because there was no licensing of psychologists in New York at that time. Ellis began publishing innovative articles even before receiving his PhD.  For example in 1946 he wrote a critique of many widely used  pencil-and-paper personality tests that were not sufficiently validated.  He concluded that only the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory met the standards of a research based instrument (Ellis, 1946.)

After the completion of his doctorate, Ellis sought additional training in psychoanalysis.  Like most psychologists of that time he had been taken by the mystique and complexity of Freudian theories. So shortly after receiving his PhD degree in 1947 Ellis began a personal analysis and program of supervision with Richard Hulbeck (whose own analyst had been Herman Rorschach) who was a leading training analyst at the Karen Horney Institute.  Horney would be the single greatest  influence  in his thinking, although the writings of  Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan also played a role in shaping his psychological models.

 As his knowledge and experience in psychoanalysis grew so too did his questions about its efficacy and scientific foundation. As early as 1947 Ellis published an article "Telepathy and psychoanalysis: A critique of recent findings" (Ellis, 1947), the first of a series of writings critical of antiscientific mysticism and cultism in psychology.  This was expressed in his 1950 monograph {26898} commenting on the need for scientific support for psychoanalysis:


Although the art of psychoanalysis is now over a half century old, a comprehensive formulation of its scientific principles is still far from being realized. Such a formulation, which will strip from analytic theory and practice all trappings of dogmatism, unverified speculation, bias, and cultism, and which will leave standing only those principles and procedures which are, or seem well on their way to becoming, clinically validated, has been partially attempted, but by no means as yet systematically executed, by several neo-Freudians....


It would be impertinent to assume, at the start, that psychoanalysis must be scientifically based and oriented. Some analysts, notably Jung, have at times been frankly unscientific, even antiscientific, and have contended that there are more things to analysis than are dreamed of in scientific ideologies. Other analysts, like Rank and Reik), have offered doughty lip-service to scientific ideals, but have in practice advocated semi-mystical theories of analysis that are antithetical to scientific viewpoints.


With advocates of unscientific psychoanalysis there can be essentially no argument—as long as they frankly admit that science is not their goal, and that faith, religion, mental healing, or some other non-scientific object is in all frankness, to espouse some other kinds of analytic viewpoints, that is their democratic right—as long as they do not call their views scientific… Most contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists agree, however, that thorough going scientific knowledge is the only valid basis for analytic (and other) therapy, and that rigorous criticism of non-scientific psychological methods is quite justified.

While conducting his part-time practice in New York, Ellis worked full-time as a psychologist for the state of New Jersey and became chief psychologist of the state in 1950.  However, by 1952 he had left his position in and expanded his private practice to full-time. His task of building a full-time practice aided by his growing reputation as a sexologist, especially from his books The Folklore of Sex (1951), The American Sexual Tragedy (1954), and Sex Without Guilt (1958). He also achieved a degree of notoriety by defending publishers of sex materials, gays, and other alleged sex offenders in court.  In one prominent case, Ellis collaborated with the well-known attorney, O. John Rogge, to defend Reverend Ilsley Boone, a Protestant minister and the publisher of magazines for the American Nudist Association. Boone was prosecuted by the U. S. Attorney's office for his sending "obscene" magazines through the mail and placing them on newsstands. Ellis ultimately helped write the brief that led to the case being won on appeal before the U.S. Supreme court.  His growing recognition as an advocate for sexual freedom did come with some costs.  His undergraduate school, City College of New York, and his graduate school, Teachers College, Columbia, both refused to give him teaching positions because of his "controversial" sex writings. Many psychology departments, even when after he had achieved national prominence as a psychologist banned or canceled presentations by Ellis.  In 1951, Ellis became the American editor of the International Journal of Sexology and began publishing a number of  articles advocating sexual liberation .  He  also wrote the introduction to Donald Webster Cory's controversial book, The Homosexual in America , and thereby became the first prominent psychologist to advocate gay liberation.

During the his early career Ellis married twice. The first ended in an annulment and the other ended after about three years with no reports of rancor. Neither of these marriages nor the numerous paramours in his life ever provided him with children. However, his numerous love interests resulted in short-lived and conflicted relationships.  There was a benefit in these relationships, in that it provided him with the background necessary to write his numerous books and articles about human sexuality. In his fifties he would commence his longest enduring relationship with Janet Wolfe an intern who would rise to be Executive Director of the Albert Ellis institute. In the early 2000's Ellis began a relationship with Debbie Joffee, an Australian Psychologist who had come to the United States to study at the Albert Ellis Institute.  This relationship became increasingly intimate and culminated in marriage in 2004. This, his final relationship, lasted until his death in 2007. 

Despite the prominence he achieved from his publications and expertise in matters relating to human sexuality led to Ellis being one of the only psychologists in New York able to earn his entire income from psychological practice.  Although continually modifying his technique, he was still primarily using psychoanalytic methods with his clients. However, the growth of his client base made the passivity and marginal efficacy of the psychoanalytic approach increasingly apparent. Having a penchant for efficiency he began exploring new methods that would more active and more effective. The approach that became increasing apparent was that was based on a consistent pattern he induced from his clients. He noted that virtually all people labeled as neurotics had in common the tendency to invoke irrational and rigid thinking. What Ellis noted was a major advance from the "misery, stupidity and symptoms" of Dollard and Miller (Dollard and Miller, 1950).  In their integration of psychoanalytic and behavioral concepts, they proposed that neurosis was caused by the conditioned repression of thoughts or behaviors that resulted in anxiety. 

Consequently, a nominally intelligent person will act in ways which seem self-defeating and foolish.  In contrast, Ellis observed that people are fully aware of irrational beliefs but tend to tenaciously maintain them despite their leading to continual despair. This important observation combined synergistically with his readings of the philosophers like the stoics Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus compelled him to a new theory of psychotherapy.  The Stoics held that disruptive emotions like fear or jealously arose from, false judgments and that the sage--a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection--would not undergo them.  Sage status, according to the stoics, was achieved by accepting the principles implied in the quotations below.  That is, all extreme, disturbing, or neurotic emotions are a result of the individual’s view of the situation, not the situation itself.


If you are distressed by anything external,

the pain is not due to the thing itself

but to your own estimate of it; and this you have

the power to revoke at any moment.
Marcus Aurelius


For freedom is not acquired
by satisfying yourself with what you desire,
but by destroying your desire.


Deeply influenced his experience, reading, and unscientific nature of psychoanalysis by January of 1953 his break with psychoanalysis was complete and he commenced calling himself a rational therapist. Ellis was now advocating a new more active and directive type of psychotherapy {26965}. By 1955  he dubbed his new approach Rational-Emotive Therapy and it required that the therapist help the client understand and act on the understanding that his personal philosophy contains beliefs that lead to his own emotionally pain.  This new approach stressed actively working to change his client’s self-defeating beliefs and behaviors by illuminating by demonstrating their irrationality or rigidity. The next year Ellis began teaching his new technique to other therapists and by 1957 he formally set forth the first cognitive behavioral psychotherapy by proposing that therapists help people adjust their thinking and behavior as the treatment for neuroses. Two years later Ellis published the book How to Live with a Neurotic {26978} which elaborated on his new method.  The next year Ellis presented a paper on his new approach at the American Psychological Association convention in Chicago.  There was mild interest, but few recognized that the paradigm that in a generation would become the zeitgeist had been set forth.  Recall, that at that time the prevailing interest in experimental psychological was behaviorism and in clinical psychology it was the psychoanalytic schools of notables such as Freud, Jung, Adler, and Perls.  Despite Ellis’ approach emphasized cognitive, emotive, and behavioral methods, his strong cognitive emphasis provoked almost everyone with the possible exception of the followers of Alfred Adler. Consequently, he was often received with hostility at professional conferences and in print. Interestingly, on several occasions, at symposia at APA conventions, Fritz Perls the founder of Gestalt therapy would refer sarcastically to Ellis’ "rationality," while completely ignoring the experiential and behavioral components of RET.

Despite the slow adoption of his approach, Ellis founded his own institute. The Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy was founded a not-for-profit organization in 1959. By 1968 it was chartered by the New York State Board of Regents as a training institute and psychological clinic. This was no trivial feat as New York State had a Mental Hygiene Act which mandated psychiatric management of mental health clinics. Ellis had broken ground by founding an institute that was purely based on psychological control and principles. 


The Albert Ellis Study

Ellis conducted an early psychotherapy outcome study in 1957 in which he compared his nascent rational psychotherapy to psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy.  Then as today, Ellis’ approach involved demonstrated to the client that strong negative feelings such as anger, depression, anxiety, or guilt are not remedied by extensive explorations into the past.  Rather, they are generated situation by situation via the individual’s irrational attitudes or beliefs about the situation. In contrast psychoanalysis theorizes that negative emotions arise from conflicts that developed during the individual’s maturation and require extensive biographical review to understand and discharge.


Ellis assigned his own clients to three groups the two primary groups that each contained seventy eight clients closely matched as to diagnosis, age, sex and education. Clients in the two primary groups either received psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy or rational psychotherapy for thirty five sessions.  The sixteen clients who constituted the third group received orthodox psychoanalysis for an average of ninety three sessions.  He then proceeded to provide all of the treatments himself, and generated the outcome ratings after each client completed therapy.  Clients were rated as to whether he or she had made (a) little or no progress while being seen; (b) some distinct improvement; or (c) considerable improvement. Ellis concluded "that therapeutic results appear to be best for clients treated with rational analysis and poorest for orthodox analysis.  The actual proportions of cases showing distinct or considerable improvement were 90 per cent for rational psychotherapy, 63 per cent for psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy, and 50 per cent for orthodox psychoanalysis. Ellis pointed out that these results should considered given of the fact that orthodox psychoanalysis was carried on for three times as many sessions as rational psychotherapy


This early study has the obvious weakness of having the therapy ratings performed by the clinician who is conducting all of the therapy and one who is advocating a particular form of therapy. So Ellis is not to be lauded for his research design.  But he is for making the effort to perform one the first studies comparing the outcomes of different therapeutic approaches.



Albert Ellis died July 24th 2007 after a long illness.

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