Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Expert Aaron Beck Going Strong at 96

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Aaron T. Beck is “slipping.”

Ranked by Medscape a few years ago among the 50 most influential physicians in history — but first among the living — the latest listings name him the No. 4 most influential medical practitioner within the past century.

Aaron T. Beck | Photo provided

“I’ll have to figure out how that happened,” he laughed about his decline. “But I’ve been around a long time.”

Still, Medscape glowed with its praise.

“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.’”

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

Medscape notes that Beck has authored more than 600 scholarly articles and 25 books.

His resume, which includes his academic training, positions held, awards, publications and more, runs seven pages. Of course, he is 96 and still going strong, which amazes those around him.

“He’s incredible, and he doesn’t miss a thing,” said Barbara Marinelli, his longtime personal assistant. “I’ve worked for him since 1978. He’s not as intense as he was, but he still knows what he wants.”

What Beck wants and has wanted since he arrived in the Philadelphia area in the mid-1950s to work at Valley Forge Army Hospital, is for the field of cognitive behavioral therapy to thrive. In particular, he wants to solve the riddle of schizophrenia. That’s why he continues to direct his research staff as an emeritus professor in the Department of Psychiatry of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and as director of the Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center.

“The research we do is primarily clinical research,” said Beck, a native of Providence, R.I., who settled in Wynnewood, where he and his wife, Phyllis, raised four children. “What we try to do is look at behavior of the staff toward the patients, some of whom may have been in a hospital 30 to 40 years.

“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. 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.”

Through his research over the years, Beck has begun solving that riddle, which is just one of the reasons he’s considered such a groundbreaker.

“It gives me validation I’ve been on the right track, and it means my product has had an enormous influence,” he said about his fame. “I’m pleased that my name and my idea is known by a lot of people who associate it with cognitive behavioral therapy.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most popular form worldwide and has expanded into many areas in recent years. In recent years, the big question was could it help people with schizophrenia? The past 10 years we did a lot of research on it.”

Beck didn’t start out that way when he arrived here in 1954 in the midst of his Army tour during the Korean War.

The son of Ukrainian parents, he graduated from Brown University, then received his doctorate at Yale University before coming here with his then-pregnant wife. They never left.

His family’s story dates to the 18th century. The origin of his last name comes from the time when the Prince of Bohemia ordered all male adult Jews to convert to Christianity or be executed. The young sons of those murdered then banded together to take the Hebrew name, b’nai yisrael kiddushim, which eventually became Beck.

After growing up with strong Jewish ties in Providence, Beck became a fixture within the Philadelphia Jewish community.

“Since I’ve been in Philadelphia, I joined [Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El] in Wynnewood, where my two daughters still belong and where my grandson works. I was chairman of the education committee for a while there.”

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.

Since moving from the suburbs to Center City, Beck, recipient of the 2006 Lasker Award for clinical research, the Kennedy Community Health Award from the Kennedy Forum and, more recently, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Lifetime Achievement Award, isn’t as active as he used to be. At the same time, he remains busy with his work, saying there’s too much to be done for him to stop now.

“I’ve never retired because I love what I’m doing,” he said. “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.” 

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