Nathan Ackerman (1908-1971)

Nathan Ackerman

Early Life

Nathan Ackerman was born on November 22, 1908, in Russia. When he was only four, his family moved to America. Ackerman was enrolled in the public school system in New York and attended Columbia University. He received his BA in 1929 and his MD from Columbia four years later. He conducted his internship at both the Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, New York and the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.

Professional Life

In 1935, Ackerman accepted a staff position at the Menninger Clinic. In two short years, Ackerman had risen to Chief Psychiatrist at the Clinic. He was also affiliated with several other professional organizations in New York. He participated with the Red Cross during the war, and when the war ended, he was asked to join the staff at Columbia University as a clinical professor of psychiatry. All the while, Ackerman remained active as a visiting professor at other colleges throughout the country. He was also asked to serve on a special delegation for children in a White House conference.

Contribution to Psychology

Ackerman is considered one of the pioneers of family psychology. He was originally trained as a classical psychoanalyst, and he researched psychosexual phases of development with a strong emphasis on how these phases affect the development of personality and character. He later became interested in incorporating psychodynamic insights into a group therapy setting, and he began advocating for the role of the family in therapy after World War II.

He was instrumental in bringing the theory of family therapy to the mainstream by initiating a family therapy debate at a session of the American Orthopsychiatric Association. Like other psychiatrists of his time, he theorized that the psychological well-being of the individual was directly a result of, and related to, the condition of the family. He firmly believed that a client was best served if the whole family received treatment. Ackerman spent most of his career advocating for the advancement and acceptance of family therapy.

Ackerman incorporated insights from both traditional psychodynamic therapy and family systems therapy into his practice, emphasizing that the family is a social unit. He argued that the family, just like the individual, goes through developmental stages and was especially fascinated by intergenerational family ties and the role emotion plays within the family unit.

In 1938, Ackerman published two books that publicized his views on family theory. The books, Family Diagnosis: An Approach to the Preschool Child and The Unity of the Family were among several that Ackerman published throughout his long career. Along with his colleague Don Jackson, Ackerman created the professional journal, Family Process. To this day, the journal is seen as one of the leading resources in the field of family mental health and family therapy. In addition to the subject of psychology, Ackerman wrote about Jewish concerns and anti-Semitism.

Ackerman founded the Ackerman Institute for the Family in 1960. The center is still in existence and was designed to offer education and resources for the mental health of families. The research of the center has greatly expanded into study of virtually every area of family dynamics, with a strong emphasis on the ways that social change affects family dynamics. Ackerman served on the board of many organizations and held the title of president of the Association of Psychoanalytic Medicine for a period. He was recognized for his many achievements with the Wilfred Hulse Award and the Rudolph Meyer Award.

Books by Nathan Ackerman

  • The Psychodynamics of Family Life (1958)
  • Treating the Troubled Family (1966)
  • Family Process (1970)

Last Update: 07-03-2015

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