Dr. Joseph Wolpe, the South African-born (April 20, 1915) American psychiatrist, helped usher in behavior therapy with his treatment to desensitize phobia patients by exposing them incrementally to images of their fears. In addition to establishing the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy and founding the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, he helped to develop assertiveness training as an approach to combating depression and other emotional problems. Wolpe is probably best known for urging his colleagues to view psychotherapy as an applied science in which the effectiveness of treatment is evaluated through controlled experiments. The techniques of behavior therapy and relaxation techniques, guided imagery and other scientifically validated exercises were based on theories of learning derived from the classical conditioning research carried out by Ivan Pavlov and from the work of B.F. Skinner, John B. Watson, and Andrew Salter. A specialist in the study and treatment of neurosis, Wolpe produced scientific data that phobias are based on learned behavior, as opposed to repressed conflict, and can therefore be "cured" in far fewer sessions than needed in traditional psychotherapy. Wolpe's influence can be felt in today's managed care, which favors short-term, empirically supported treatments over long-term psychotherapy.
Trained as a physician at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, Wolpe developed an interest in mental health as a medical officer in the South African army during World War II. He was dissatisfied with the effects of electroshock therapy and other common treatments for shell shock. Behavior therapy is based upon theoretical principles first developed in animal experiments. Wolpe, for example, found that cats could be cured of experimentally induced "neuroses." Based on this animal research, he developed a modality of treatment called "systematic desensitization" for people with phobias. In this procedure, fearful patients are exposed, while relaxed, to images of what they are afraid of, beginning with the least distressing scene and moving gradually to the most fearsome.
Wolpe set forth his findings in the landmark 1958 book Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition, one of the first scholarly challenges to the notion that scientific evaluation is irrelevant to psychotherapy and contended that phobias are most effectively treated by confronting them directly.
In 1965, Wolpe established a behavior therapy unit at Temple University in Philadelphia. With a small group of scientifically oriented clinicians, he established the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy and founded the scholarly journal Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry and edited it from its inception in 1970 until his death in 1997. He also developed two measuring systems still in use today--the subjective anxiety scale and the fear survey schedule.
In addition to Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition (1958), major publications by Wolpe include Behavior Therapy Techniques: Guide to the Treatment of Neuroses; Theme and Variations: A Behavior Therapy Casebook; The Practice of Behavior Therapy; and Life without Fear: Anxiety and Its Cure. He also authored 700 journal articles.
Major awards Wolpe received include the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Award, a Psi Chi National Distinguished Member Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award and Special Award from the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy.
After retiring from Temple University, Wolpe served as a distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University. Stella, his wife of 40 years, died shortly after the couple moved to Southern California in 1988. Wolpe married Eva Gyarmati, a retired insurance underwriting manager, in 1996. He died of lung cancer in Los Angeles, CA, on December 4, 1997.
Highlights of the Wolpe archives include Wolpe's reports on his pioneering "systematic desensitization" studies with cats; audiotapes of a successful 16-session treatment with an intensely phobic client who was socially paralyzed by fear of fainting in public; correspondence with Skinner and other luminaries of the behavior therapy field; videotapes of an extensive 1994 interview with Wolpe; and an interview conducted by Gerald Davison.
Wolpe was the author or editor of the following books: Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition (1958); The Conditioning Therapies; the Challenge in Psychotherapy, edited with Andrew Salter and L.J. Reyna (1964); The Practice of Behavior Therapy, 1st ed. (1969); The Practice of Behavior Therapy, 2nd ed. (1973); Theme and Variations: A Behavior Therapy Casebook (1976); Our Useless Fears, with David Wolpe (1981); The Practice of Behavior Therapy, 3rd ed. (1982); and The Practice of Behavior Therapy, 4th ed. (1990).
Roger Poppen wrote a biography of Dr. Wolpe published in 1995.