July 8th in (Feminist) History

189On this day in 1926 was the birth of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist who developed the now widely-known theory of the five stages of grief. She was born in Switzerland, the first-born of triplets, followed by her identical sister Erika, and then Eva (who was not identical to them). Despite her father’s original disapproval, she eventually studied medicine, gradating from the University of Zurich medical school in 1957 and moving to New York in 1958 to continue her work and studies.

Originally she had wanted to take her residency in pediatrics, but was disqualified because she was pregnant, so instead she chose to take a residency in psychiatry after moving to New York with her husband. It was there, in U.S. hospitals, that she got her first look at the horrifying treatment of dying patients and began to lecture on the topic; pushing the medical students who attended her lectures to actually face and deal with dying patients directly.

After finishing her training in 1963, she moved to Chicago where she took a position as an instructor at the University of Chicago’s Priztker School of Medicine in 1965. It was there that she developed more lectures and seminars built around her experiences with terminal, dying patients. Her work, combined with her deeper training on psychoanalysis, lead to her publishing her book, On Death and Dying, in 1969. It was in this book that she first stated her theory of the Five Stages of Grief– denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance– now widely known and accepted.

Elisabeth was a proponent of the hospice care movement, eventually buying land (with her husband) in Escondido, California, where she created “Shanti Nilaya” (Home of Peace), which she wanted to become a healing center for the terminally ill and their loved ones. She eventually co-founded the American Holistic Medical Association, and in the 1970s became ore involved in spiritualism and the idea of mediums and contacting the dead, which actually lead to a scandal involving her Healing Center and a charlatan who convinced her he could channel ghosts.

In the 1980s, she also became involved in AIDS projects; one of her goals was to create a hospice for children infected with HIV to live until they died. Her efforts were fought, however, by people prejudiced against the disease who fought her zoning efforts and allegedly burned down her house and possessions at one point. Elisabeth continued to conduct workshops on AIDs across the world, but eventually her age caught up to her and she moved her Healing Center to her home, so she wouldn’t need to travel anymore. The Center closed after she suffered a series of strokes in the mid-90s, but Elisabeth lived until 2004, when she died at her home. Throughout her life she earned twenty honorary degrees, and published numerous books and other publications; in addition, she estimated she had taught over 125,000 students in her death and dying seminars, lectures, and courses over the world. In 2007, she was inducted into the American National Women’s Hall of Fame.


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