In Memory of Aaron T. Beck Tribute by Susan M. Knell

Dr. Aaron T Beck, who revolutionized the field of psychotherapy, died today at the age of 100.

It is difficult to summarize his contributions to the field, as so much of his work, now considered standard practice was once new and not well accepted. 

Trained as a psychoanalyst, Dr. Beck began to encourage his patients to consider distortions in their thinking, rather than early childhood experiences as the basis of psychopathology. 

His work became the foundation of Cognitive Therapy (also referred to as Cognitive Behavior Therapy), now one of the most extensively studied and practiced forms of psychotherapy. 

His earliest efforts to help depressed individuals soon gave way to similar treatment approaches for individuals with many diagnoses and presenting problems.

He was challenged from many sides but persisted.  His psychoanalytic peers questioned his approach even though it emanated from a strong psychoanalytic base, but without many of the tenets of Psychoanalysis.   More biologically oriented physicians questioned therapy in general, and Cognitive Behavior Therapy in particular, when compared to drug treatments.  Dr. Beck was not deterred, presenting more data and more evidence that Cognitive Behavior Therapy worked.

Decades of research by Dr. Beck, and his followers, provided empirical support for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.   As the field continued to grow, not only was Cognitive Behavior Therapy utilized and empirically supported as a treatment for more and more issues, but the approach gained support for adolescents and children.

Dr. Beck’s persistent and creative thoughts about how psychotherapy could help adults, was the impetus behind child therapists who sought approaches that could be adapted to meet the needs of younger child patients.  Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy, a growing field of psychotherapy for young children, would not exist without the seminal work of Dr. Beck.

He leaves behind his wife of 71 years, Phyllis Whitman Beck (the first woman to serve on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court), as well as four children, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. 

He and his daughter Dr. Judith Beck co-founded the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.  In a statement this morning, Dr. Judith Beck acknowledged her extraordinary father.  She and their family mourn the loss of this amazing person whose legacy transformed the field of psychotherapy and improved the lives of countless people around the world.  

May his memory be for a blessing.

Susan M. Knell, Ph.D.

November 1, 2021