Harry Stack Sullivan: Biography Of This Psychoanalyst

A benchmark of psychoanalysis that created Interpersonal Psychoanalysis.

The history of the study of psychology, although of relatively recent beginning, is full of important figures and of different schools and currents of thought. All of them have contributed their vision regarding the psyche and behavior, in some cases opposing each other. Among the different schools of thought we can find the psychoanalytic and psychodynamic current, focused on the existence of intrapsychic conflicts due to the repression of impulses and the attempt to adjust them to the reality of the environment.

One of the authors of the psychodynamic current, considered within the neo-Freudians and who, like  Alfred Adler and  Carl Jung, distanced themselves from  Sigmund Freud to create their own vision of psychoanalysis was Harry Stack Sullivan, creator of Interpersonal Psychoanalysis. In this article we are going to review his life, making a short biography of this important author.

A short biography of Harry Stack Sullivan

One of the great figures of the psychodynamic currents, Harry Stack Sullivan is known for the creation of interpersonal psychoanalysis, based on the importance of the interaction between people in personal development and in the creation of identity and personality, and its expansion of the psychoanalysis in the population with psychotic disorders and the application of a more empirical methodology compared to other psychoanalysts. The development of your theories is largely influenced by your experience throughout life.

Childhood and early years

Harry Stack Sullivan was born on February 21, 1892, in Norwich, New York. Son of Timothy Sullivan and Ella Stack Sullivan, he was born into a poor family of Irish origin with Catholic beliefs. His relationship with his parents was apparently turbulent, not having a close relationship with his father and receiving little affection from his mother. However, he would have a better bond with his aunt Margaret, who would be very supportive.

The family had to move due to lack of resources to a farm owned by the maternal family in Smyrna. His early years were not easy, feeling rejected and socially isolated (it is believed that he did not have a true friendship until he was eight years old, with the young Clarence Belliger) living in a Protestant majority population where Catholics were not welcome, possessing a shy nature and excel in studies.

Training and first jobs

Despite coming from a family with few resources (although the one of maternal origin was somewhat wealthier), he would enroll at Cornwell University in 1909 after finishing high school, but for some reason (it is believed that he suffered a psychotic outbreak that would lead to being detained in an institution) he would not finish his studies there, having only attended his first year.

With the passage of time, Sullivan would enter the Chicago School of Medicine in 1911, graduating in Medicine and Surgery in 1917.

The fact that the First World War began in 1914 would cause him to be called up, participating in the conflict as a military doctor in the Army Veterans Medical Corps.In 1921 he began to work at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, where he would meet the neuropsychiatrist William Alanson White and would work for the first time with schizophrenic people. Together with him, Sullivan would work to adapt psychoanalysis to the psychotic population, especially in the case of schizophrenia.

A year later, he would go to work for the first time as a psychiatrist at Sheppard & Enoch Pratt Hospital, where he would stand out for quickly connecting with patients and obtaining good results.

Link to psychoanalysis and elaboration of Interpersonal Psychoanalysis

During his stay at the Sheppard% Enoch, he would meet Clara Thompson, with whom he would share his affinity for treating schizophrenia and would become one of his closest friends. This would introduce him to his mentor Adolf Meyer, from whom Sullivan would learn psychoanalytic practice as well as skepticism regarding the orthodoxy of classical psychoanalysis.

She would also meet in 1926 (the same year her mother died) the anthropologist and ethnolinguist Edward Sapir, whose collaboration would make her interested in the study of communication and its effects. Through him he met  George Mead, from whom he would acquire numerous concepts.

Also interested in Ferenczi’s ideas, he proposed to Thompson to go to Budapest to be analyzed by this, in 1927. On his return, Thompson would become Sullivan’s analyst, which would eventually lead to his being accepted into the American Society of Psychoanalysis. Also in 1927 he would meet a young man named Jimmy whom he would end up adopting and making his secretary and sole heir.

All this set of circumstances would cause that during his stay in the hospital (of which he would become Director of Clinical Research), Sullivan was partially based on the theory of Sigmund Freud (with whom he never had contact) and on the contributions from other disciplines to develop a model that could explain the circumstances that can lead to a psychotic crisis. This would lead him to end up elaborating his interpersonal theory, which would eventually lead him to found interpersonal psychoanalysis.

Sullivan would be aware of the importance of pooling the contributions of various disciplines, which would lead him to try to found several organizations together with other professionals. However, some of these companies would virtually bankrupt you.

Last years and death

As of 1930, he would leave his position at Sheppard Hospital (due to the fact that despite participating very actively in the creation of a new center and his work, he was not granted and, in addition, the provision of funds for his research began to be canceled) and would move to New York.

Three years later, together with other professionals, he founded the William Alanson White Foundation, then created the Washington School of Psychiatry in 1936 and finally the publication Psychiatry in 1938. He would also collaborate with several hospitals and universities, serving as professor and head of the department of psychiatry in Georgetown University. Later, from 1940 on, he would make several collaborations with the World Health Organization and Unesco.

Sullivan died on January 14, 1949 in Paris due to a brain hemorrhage, while resting in a hotel room where he spent the night during his return trip from a meeting of the World Federation for Mental Health, in Amsterdam.

Although he may not be as well known as other authors in the psychoanalytic current, Sullivan’s contributions have had a wide impact in the world of psychology, serving as the basis for such well-known authors as  Carl Rogers.

Bibliographic references:

  • Barton, F. (1996). Harry Stack Sullivan. Interpersonal theory and psychotherapy. Rouledge London and New York. New York.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *