Harry Stack Sullivan – Major, United States Army

Sullivan, Harry Stack (1892-1949)

Harry Stack Sullivan, born on February 21, 1892, in the farming community of Norwich, New York, was the only surviving child of a poor Irish farmer. His childhood was apparently a lonely one, his friends and playmates consisting largely of the farm animals. His mother, who was sickly, was unhappy with the family’s poor situation, and is reported to have shown her son little affection. These personal experiences seem to have had a marked effect on Sullivan’s professional views in later life.

Sullivan took his medical degree in 1917 at the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery. In 1919 he began working at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., with William Alanson White, an early American psychoanalyst. Clinical research at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital occupied a portion of Sullivan’s life, as did an appointment in the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine. In 1936, he helped establish the Washington School of Psychiatry. In later life, he served as professor and head of the department of psychiatry in Georgetown University Medical School, president of the William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation, editor of Psychiatry, and chairman of the Council of Fellows of the Washington School of Psychiatry.

Sullivan’s approach to psychiatry emphasized the social factors which contribute to the development of personality. He differed from Sigmund Freud in viewing the significance of the early parent-child relationship as being not primarily sexual but, rather, as an early quest for security by the child. It is here that one can see Sullivan’s own childhood experiences determining the direction of his professional thought.

Characteristic of Sullivan’s work was his attempt to integrate multiple disciplines and ideas borrowed from those disciplines. His interests ranged from evolution to communication, from learning to social organization. He emphasized interpersonal relations. He objected to studying mental illness in people isolated from society. Personality characteristics were, he felt, determined by the relationship between each individual and the people in his environment. He avoided thinking of personality as a unique, individual, unchanging entity and preferred to define it as a manifestation of the interaction between people.

On January 14, 1949, while returning from a meeting of the executive board of the World Federation for Mental Health, Sullivan died in Paris. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

1892–1949, American psychiatrist, born at Norwich, N.Y., M.D. Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery, 1917. He was, along with his teacher William Alanson White, responsible for the extension of Freudian psychoanalysis to the treatment of patients with severe mental disorders, particularly schizophrenia. In his work on the subject of schizophrenics, Sullivan argued that such individuals were not incurable, and that cultural forces were largely responsible for their condition. In his dual role as head of the William Alanson White Foundation (1934–43) and of the Washington School of Psychiatry (1936–47), he had the collaboration of like-minded psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists in bringing his views to public and professional attention. His writings include Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry (1947, repr. 1966); Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (ed. by H. S. Perry and M. L. Gawel, 1953, repr. 1968); Schizophrenia as a Human Process (1962, repr. 1974).

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SULLIVAN, Harry Stack

(1892-1949). A healthy personality is the result of healthy relationships. This was the cornerstone of psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan’s theory of interpersonal relations. Sullivan spent his life working with patients, psychiatrists, and social psychologists to prove that people are influenced mostly by their relationships with others.

Sullivan was born in Norwich, New York, on February 21, 1892. He received his medical degree in 1917 from the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery. He worked at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he met psychologist William Alanson White. From 1923 to 1930 Sullivan worked at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, Md. During that time he met Adolf Meyer. Both White and Meyer greatly influenced his life and his theories. Sullivan taught for a short time at Georgetown University’s medical school, and in 1933 he helped to found the William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation. In 1936 he helped establish the Washington (D.C.) School of Psychiatry, where he remained until 1947. In 1938 Sullivan founded and edited the journal Psychiatry. He worked with UNESCO to lessen international tensions following World War II, and in 1948 he was involved in founding the World Federation for Mental Health. After a meeting of the federation, Sullivan died of a brain hemorrhage in Paris on January 14, 1949.

Sullivan believed that personality develops according to people’s perception of how others view them. “Others” for Sullivan included personifications, like the government, as well as imaginary and idealized figures. Sullivan worked extensively with schizophrenics and contributed new techniques to the psychotherapy of schizophrenia. His writings include ‘Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry’ (1947), ‘The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry’ (1953), and ‘The Fusion of Psychiatry and Social Science’ (1964).

Harry Stack Sullivan grew up as an only child near Norwich, New York. His father was described as withdrawn, his mother as bitter and complaining. As a young child, Sullivan had a great deal of difficulty fitting in with other kids. His only friend was an older boy named Clarence who was regarded as the “town homosexual” (however, there is no indication that their relationship was sexual). Sullivan regarded his relationship with Clarence as an important friendship, significant to his interpersonal development. On the other hand, Clarence (who also became a psychiatrist) came to hate Sullivan later in life.

At first Sullivan excelled in school, graduating at the top of his high school class at the age of 16. This record changed when he entered Cornell to major in physics…he failed out his second semester. Sullivan then disappeared for two years, possibly to be hospitalized for an identity crisis and/or schizophrenia.

In 1911 Sullivan entered the Chicago College of Medicine (one of the worst medical schools in the country) without a college degree. He obtained his diploma in 1917, the same year the school closed.

During his early career Sullivan worked with schizophrenic patients. He demonstrated a high cure rate with his Interpersonal Therapy, which involved training the staff to enact safe, corrective interpersonal interactions with the patients. After serving as  a psychiatrist in the Army, Sullivan worked at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, where he was influenced by William Alanson White (a leader in the object relations field).

During his clinical work Sullivan came to appreciate the impact interpersonal relationships have on personality development. He also noted that people tend to carry distorted views and unrealistic expectations of others into their relationships. As a psychotherapist, his solution was to become a “participant observer” with his clients, a more active therapeutic stance than the psychoanalytic “blank screen” popular at the time. In this role, Sullivan would focus on observable interpersonal behavior, including the client’s reactions to the therapist. He believed that emotional well-being could be achieved by making an individual aware of their dysfunctional interpersonal patterns.

Sullivan died of cardiovascular disease in Paris in 1949.

Harry Stack Sullivan: Early Influences and Creative Years

Few psychiatrists can lay claim to the charisma of Harry Stack Sullivan. The author traces the salient features of thelife and story of this famous and enigmatic man, who has influenced American psychiatry in so many ways.-Dilip Ramchandani, M.D.
History Notes Editor

By Lucy D. Ozarin, M.D.

Fifty years after his death, Harry Stack Sullivan, M.D., remains an enigmatic personality on the American psychiatric scenedespite being the subject of many biographies, books, monographs, and oral histories.

He was born in rural south-central New York to a withdrawn father and an unhappy mother. Sullivan was a lonely child, a Catholic in a Protestant community. His only companion was a 5-year-old boy in a neighboring farm who himself became a psychiatrist in later life. To what degree this influenced Sullivan’s career choice is unknown.

Sullivan completed high school and received a scholarship to Cornell University but dropped out in his second semester in 1909 because of failing grades. Rumors abound that he had a schizophrenic illness, but no records of a hospitalization have ever been found.

In 1911 Sullivan enrolled as a student at the unaccredited Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery and received a medical degree in 1916. He served as a physician for various industrial and insurance companies, the National Guard, the Army, and eventually the federal government. His first contact with psychiatry occurred when he was a liaison officer between the Veterans Administration and St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C.

He began to talk to patients at St. Elizabeths and attended lectures. Dr. William A. White, a major figure in American psychiatry and an psychoanalyst, helped him secure a job at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, which proved to be a turning point in Sullivan’s career.

He established a reputation for successfully treating young men with schizophrenia. He began to write and publish. By 1926 Sullivan had faculty appointments, was director of research at his hospital, was active in many psychiatric societies, and became associate editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry. At this time, he met Dr. Edward Sapir, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Harold Lasswell, a political scientist, who taught there as well. Sullivan was influenced by these men and others in his conviction about the importance of social sciences for psychiatry.

In 1931 Sullivan moved to New York, developed a large and lucrative outpatient practice, and received 300 hours of personal analysis from Dr. Clara Thompson, who herself had been an analysand of Ferenczi. Sullivan became part of the psychoanalytic movement but was increasingly disenchanted with Freudian theory. Moving with the dissidents, he helped to found the William A. White Foundation in 1936, the Washington School of Psychiatry, and the journal Psychiatry. At this time, his ideas embodying the influence of social sciences in psychiatry also began to take shape and were the basis for his formulations of interpersonal theory.

Having returned to Washington in 1939, Sullivan now devoted himself to training, writing, and private practice. When World War II ended, he thought his viewpoints on interpersonal relations could contribute to avoiding future conflicts between nations and the risk of war. In collaboration with Dr. Brock Chisholm, a Canadian psychiatrist and later director of the World Health Organization, he put these ideas to practice. Thus was born the World Federation for Mental Health.

Sullivan died, possibly of heart attack and a stroke, in a hotel room in Paris in 1949 while attending a conference related to his international work. He was 57.

Of Sullivan the person, some information is fact, some is anecdotal, some is rumor. That he was homosexual is widely suspected; that he was improvident with money is fact (he borrowed from colleagues and declared bankruptcy twice in the 1930’s); that he was loose with the truth at times, especially during his early years, is speculated.

One may wonder about the source of motivation in Sullivan, a lonely child, a college failure, and a graduate of a diploma-mill medical school who had a lackluster medical career until chance contact with psychiatry occurred at age 30. Yet for the next three decades, Sullivan achieved national and international status in the psychiatric community. As Dexter Bullard commented in his oral history, “Sullivan was loved and hated with equal intensity. . . . [N]o one knew all of Sullivan. . . . [H]e was the closest thing to a genius I’ve ever seen. . . . [H]is work will outlast Adolph Meyer.”

  • DATE OF DEATH: 01/14/1949

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