Helen Flanders Dunbar: The Unfinished Pursuit of Unity

Robert M. Kaplan

Affiliation: University of Wollongong, Sydney, Australia

Keywords: Helen Francis Dunbar, Psychosomatic medicine, Psychoanalysis Psychiatry, Franz Alexander, Clerical Hospital Ministry, Accident Neurosis

Categories: Humanities, Social Sciences and Law, Medicine

DOI: 10.17160/josha.10.1.867

Languages: English

Helen Flanders Dunbar, the mother of psychosomatic medicine, was an outstanding pioneer whose life was to end tragically. A brilliant academic career led her to becoming an authority on Danté, a leading psychosomaticist who studied the healing shrines and one of the first to promote the work of clerics in hospitals. She did several large studies that put psychosomatic medicine on the map. With Franz Alexander she was regarded as the leading authority in the field, becoming the first editor of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. Inspired by her Danté studies, Dunbar believed in combining art and science, manifested in a holistic attitude. She differed from Alexander’s organ specificity model, instead using the term personality constellation. Not a traditional Freudian, she was more interested in the symbolism of Jungian and Reichian typologies. Her studies also led to the finding of accident proneness which, tragically, could apply to her own life. She mixed easily with figures like Margaret Mead and Eleanor Roosevelt and had a considerable public profile with her articles on a range of subjects. A Renaissance figure, Dunbar was dynamic, charming and attractive. This mostly worked, but also led a hostile reaction from some in the male-dominated world she was forced to operate in. After the thirties, Dunbar’s life went on a downward trajectory. She antagonised many, withdrew from academic life, relationship difficulties multiplied and she slid into alcoholism. Dunbar’s death at 57 was a sad end for an intelligent, inspiring and charismatic figure whose potential was not allowed to be realised.

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