Intended for healthcare professionals


Aaron Temkin Beck: psychiatrist who invented cognitive behavioural therapy

BMJ 2021; 375 doi: (Published 25 November 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;375:n2902
  1. Joanne Silberner
  1. Seattle, USA
  1. joanne.silberner{at}
Credit: © 2016 Moonloop Photography, courtesy of Beck Institute for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

Ask the daughter of psychiatrist Aaron Beck, whose work upended that of Sigmund Freud, how she thinks her father might want to be remembered, and Judith Beck pauses a moment. Her answer then comes with confidence.

“As a scientist,” she says.

Beck, who died in his sleep at the age of 100, spent decades developing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is a talk therapy, now widely used in developed as well as developing countries, that tackles negative patterns of thought. In his later years Beck worked on recovery oriented cognitive therapy (CT-R), which focuses on creating feelings of purpose, hope, and belonging in people with more serious behavioural and medical problems such as schizophrenia. Unlike psychoanalysis, the therapies are quick—treatment usually comes in half hour to one hour sessions weekly and rarely lasts more than a few months.

Beck never intended to become a psychiatrist. After graduating from Yale Medical School in 1946, he did a residency in pathology at a veterans’ hospital in Massachusetts. He was partway through a second residency, this one in neurology, when he was assigned to six months of psychiatry because of a dearth of psychiatry trainees.

“He wasn’t crazy …

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