Harry Stack Sullivan

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Harry Stack Sullivan (actually Herbert Stack Sullivan ; born February 21, 1892 in Norwich , New York , † January 14, 1949 in Paris , France ) was an American psychiatrist and advocate of neo-psychoanalysis .


In 1917, Sullivan received his medical degree from the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery. In 1921 he began treating schizophrenic patients under the guidance of William Alanson White at St. Elisabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC . He can therefore be regarded as a pioneer in the psychodynamic-psychotherapeutic treatment of psychotic patients who Freud considered unanalysable.

In 1923, a special schizophrenic department was opened for Sullivan at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson , Maryland . Publications about his sensational healing success made Sullivan known among psychiatrists in the USA. In contrast to the prevailing doctrine of biological psychiatry, he took the view that schizophrenia had biographical references and causes and could therefore be cured with therapy. In 1923 he also met Clara Thompson (1893-1958) for the first time , who was then working as a psychiatrist at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore , which was headed by Adolf Meyer (1866-1950), who immigrated from Switzerland . In 1930 Sullivan opened a private practice in New York, taught at the Maryland School of Medicine, and organized the New Psychoanalytic Association in Washington and Baltimore, of which Clara Thompson became the first president.

In 1933 he underwent a training analysis with Clara Thompson, who in turn was the analysand of Sandor Ferenczi .

During this time Sullivan met Erich Fromm and Karen Horney in New York , who had come to the United States on the run from National Socialism. Together with Silverberg and Thompson, they dealt with Sullivan's concept of interpersonal psychiatry and developed neo-psychoanalysis . The inclusion of the other social sciences led to collaboration with the ethnologists Ruth Benedict , Margaret Mead , Bronisław Malinowski , the linguist Edward Sapir and others.

The journal Psychiatry was founded in 1938 and became the most important mouthpiece for the interpersonal direction in psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

In 1939, after the death of his friend Edward Sapir, Sullivan left New York and moved to Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, DC. Shortly thereafter, he began intensive training for the doctors and nurses at the Chestnut Lodge private clinic in Rockville, Maryland, which later became internationally famous for its pioneering work in the treatment of schizophrenics. The autobiographical book by Hannah Green alias Joanne Greenberg I never promised you a rose garden ("I Never Promised You a Rose Garden", New York 1964), which was later made into a film, is about Chestnut Lodge and the psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann .

In 1943 Sullivan, Clara Thompson, Erich Fromm, and Frieda Fromm-Reichmann founded the William Alanson White Institute in New York.

Interpersonal theory

Sullivan used the conceptual framework of modern physics ( field theory ) for psychiatry : He no longer understood human behavior as isolated individual events, but as a sequence of processes that result from the interaction of different forces within a field of activity. He was influenced by Adolf Meyer , who was of the then outdated view that every human behavior in health and illness meant an answer and an attempted solution to life's questions. In this sense, the behavior of schizophrenic patients had to make some sense, and it was much more the psychiatrist's mistake than the patient's that the two did not get along. Meyer's "dynamic concept" prompted Sullivan to research the actual difficult to understand goals and intentions of his patients and he found ways to cure the so-called "incurable mentally ill" purely psychotherapeutically.

The principle of development is at the center of Sullivan's teaching. The development of personality is fully explained from the interpersonal (interpersonal) relationship: The personality arises on the basis of "relatively permanent patterns of recurring interpersonal situations that characterize human life". According to Sullivan, cultural factors must also be taken into account in shaping the individual. Although humans depend on innate biological factors, the significant differences in human personality are primarily determined by individual interpersonal experiences. This shows striking similarities with psychoanalytic object relationship theory and self psychology . In addition to the great importance of interpersonal experience during early childhood, he pointed out the importance of adolescence for corrective experiences. Sullivan assigned the therapist the role of a participating observer.

Sullivan recorded his theory in his most important book The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry , which was published posthumously in 1953 and published in German in 1980 under the title Die interpersonalale theory der Psychiatrie in S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt a. M., has appeared. The Italian-German psychoanalyst Marco Conci has written the most comprehensive biography of his life and work to date: Rediscovering Sullivan. The life and work of Harry Stack Sullivan and its significance for psychiatry, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, published in 2005 by Psychosozial-Verlag , Giessen.


  • Chapman, AH: Harry Stack Sullivan - His Life and His Work , New York 1976 GPPutnam's Sons
  • Conci, Marco: Rediscovering Sullivan - the life and work of Harry Stack Sullivan and its significance for psychiatry, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis , Giessen 2005 Psychosozial-Verlag .
  • Evans III, F. Barton: Harry Stack Sullivan - Interpersonal theory and psychotherapy. London / New York 1996 Routledge
  • Mitchell, Stephen A .: Harry Stack Sullivan and Interpersonal Psychoanalysis. In: St. A. Mitchell & M. Black: Freud and Beyond - A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Theught, Basic Books, New York 1995, ISBN 978-0-465-01405-7 , pp. 60-84.
  • Mullahy, Patrick: Psychoanalysis and Interpersonal Psychiatry - The Contributions of Harry Stack Sullivan , New York 1970, Science House
  • Perry, Helen Swick: Psychiatrist of America - The Life of Harry Stack Sullivan , Cambridge (Mass.) 1982 The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
  • Josef Rattner : Psychology of interpersonal relationships. Developmental psychology, psychopathology, psychotherapy, social psychology , Augsburg 1999 Bechtermünz Verlag , Original: Olten / Freiburg i. B. 1969 Walter-Verlag
  • Josef Rattner: Harry Stack Sullivan . In: Classics of Depth Psychology . Munich 1990, Psychologie Verlags Union, pp. 416-440, ISBN 3-621-27102-3
  • Siebenhüner, Hartmut: The discovery of interpersonal relationships - Harry Stack Sullivan and his interpersonal theory. (Diss. Klagenfurt 2007) VTA-Verlag, Bad Rappenau 2015. ISBN 978-3-9816670-3-5

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