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Clara M. Thompson
Childhood and Family
Clara Mabel Thompson was born in Providence, Rhode Island on October 3, 1893 (Green, 1964). Her family’s household was located in a rural area just outside Providence in which she lived with her immediate as well as extended family. While the family was financially secure there was some strife between the maternal and paternal grandparents especially over religious issues.
Her father, of who she was quite fond, was a highly successful business man who had climbed his way up the corporate ladder of Blanding and Blanding, a U.S. based drug company (Green, 1964). On the other hand, Clara was usually at odds with her mother, the disciplinarian of the family, who favored Clara’s younger brother Frank. Clara spent most of her childhood as a highly active tomboy. She was well liked among the other children and spent most of her time engaged in sports and various outdoor activities.
When Clara entered high school religion and scholarly pursuits became a much more important part of her life (Green, 1964). Her ardor for school was proven beyond a doubt by her standing at the head of the class in every subject for her entire high school career, which lasted from 1908 to 1912. Active involvement in the Baptist youth group known as Christian Endeavor as well as a self-proclaimed desire to become a medical missionary served to show her enthusiasm for religion. Christian Endeavor also served as an outlet for her more active side as she was able to continue many of the outdoor activities of her youth through this organization despite the increased intensity of her studies.
After graduating high school Clara entered the premed program at Brown University’s Women’s College (Green, 1964). During her years at Brown she eventually gave up her quest to become a religious missionary and discontinued her attendance at church. This move away from religious life caused a great rift between her and her family, especially her mother who remained distant from her for nearly twenty years. The years she spent at Brown were largely unhappy, but it wasn’t until she entered Johns Hopkins that she would find the subject of her life’s work.
Thompson came to Johns Hopkins in 1916, but it was in her second year that she met Lucille Dooley who offered her an introduction to psychoanalytic concepts (Green, 1964). Due to Thompson ‘s great enthusiasm Dooley invited her to work over the summer at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. It was during her summer at the hospital that she met William Alanson White, Edward Kempf, and Dr. Joseph Thompson all of whom helped her along her path towards becoming a psychoanalyst.
By the time she graduated from Hopkins in 1920 she had decided to specialize in psychiatry (Green, 1964). After doing her internship at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children she returned to Hopkins to start a three year residency at the Phipps Clinic under Adolf Meyer. During her residency at the clinic she also founded her friendship with Harry Stack Sullivan who would become her confidant and long time friend. Also during her residency she was given the honor of attending to Meyer’s private patients due to the absence of the doctor to whom the responsibility usually fell. It was during her last year of residency that she began her own psychoanalytic treatment under Joseph Thompson, a situation which lead to a bitter disagreement between herself and Meyer, and her eventual dismissal from the clinic.
Joining the Field
After leaving Johns Hopkins in 1925 she established a private practice in Baltimore and began teaching mental hygiene at Vassar (Green, 1964). During this time she devoted herself almost exclusively to psychiatry and began networking with others in the field. In 1930 Sullivan organized the Washington-Baltimore Psychoanalytic Society and she was elected to be its first president. She continued holding meetings with many of her colleagues until she left for Budapest in 1931 where she was to undergo psychoanalysis with Sandor Ferenczi.
This trip to Budapest has been remarked upon as, “the most important single experience in this period of Clara Thompson’s life” (Green, 1964). Her treatment under Ferenczi had actually begun earlier in 1927 when her analysis with Thompson had grown stagnant and she had arranged to meet Ferenczi, while he was lecturing at the New School in New York, following a suggestion made by Sullivan. During the time of her analysis she also exchanged ideas with Ferenczi, who at the time was becoming more interested in the relationship between the patient and the analyst. She also discussed Sullivan’s ideas with Ferenczi who found them very similar to his own. On top of all this, Thompson had a romantic affair with an American businessman who was also undergoing analysis by Ferenczi. Unfortunately, both the affair and her analysis ended in 1933 when Ferenczi died.
When Thompson came back to America she decided to live in New York instead of Baltimore (Green, 1964). Upon arriving in New York she was able to resume her friendship with Sullivan who had come to teach at Yale. She also forged new friendships with Karen Horney and Erich Fromm. Through her friendship with Horney, Thompson began to lecture on psychoanalysis at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute to which Horney belonged. These friendships flourished in New York and they met regularly for dinner calling their group the Zodiac Club.
Thompson continued teaching at the Institute until 1941 when Horney was forced to resign because of her unorthodox approach to analysis (Green, 1946). Thompson and three others also tendered their resignations as an act of protest. Shortly after their departure Horney, Thompson, and others formed the American Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. Later in 1941 they also formed another training institute known as the American Institute of Psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, history is doomed to repeat itself and did when tensions grew between Fromm and Horney. Horney, concerned about Fromm?s lack of a medical degree and his growing influence at the institute, called a vote to oust Fromm and won. Thompson once again sided with the underdog and left the institute with her students and Fromm.
In 1943. the William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation established a New York school and appointed Clara Thompson as director (Green 1946). Here, Thompson and the others who had left the American Institute created a very liberal academic environment blending psychoanalytic concepts with anthropology and social psychology. The William Alanson White institute continued to grow and thrive and Clara Thompson thrived along with it putting in many hours of dedicated work. She continued her work here until her death in 1958.
Legacy of Psychoanalysis
Clara Thompson wrote extensively on the works of other analysts hoping to define and clarify the field. Her main work, Psychoanalysis: Evolution and Development, was an attempt to follow the development of the field amidst a growing number of dissenters and splinter schools. This book was produced at the request of her students who wanted the lectures that she had been giving at the William Alanson White Institute and the Washington School to be embodied in a more permanent form.
In her book, Thompson (1950) includes documentation as well as evaluation of psychoanalytic theory up until that time. She criticizes Freud for his cultural bias and the over emphasis of biology in his theory. Her chapters on psychoanalytic deviants point out many of the positive aspects of the rival schools and endeavor to rehabilitate the image of the analysts who had fallen out of favor. The work is conscientious, comprehensive, and represents a great contribution to the field of psychoanalysis.
In addition to her own book she also contributed to the works of others who were trying to codify the development of psychoanalytic thinking. One such contribution appears in Patrick Mullahy’s (1967) collection of essays discussing the work of Harry Stack Sullivan. In her chapter she outlines the progress of Sullivan’s thinking which she was more than capable of doing having been his friend and colleague for so many years. In another paper, appearing in The American Journal of Nursing, Thompson (1957) again surveys the psychoanalytic landscape, defining the differences and pointing out the similarities between the leaders of the different schools of thought.
Psychology of Women
Clara Thompson was also one of the forerunners of the psychology of women. In her paper “Towards a Psychology of Women” Thompson (1953) identifies many of the major issues facing women in her time focusing mainly on childbirth, menopause, and women’s role in sex. She also points out the conflict between women’s social role as the self-sacrificing caretaker and the drive for success as women become more educated and begin to take their place in the professional world. Also present in this paper is a critique of Freud’s theory which she believes contains a built in bias towards the inferiority of women. She challenges Freud’s theory of women and their sexual role by attempting to define a more positive aspect to women’s sexuality.
In addition to this paper Thompson also published many other papers in the field of women’s psychology. Most of these papers focused on cultural pressures facing women and the redefinition of psychoanalytic concepts facing women. Thompson also focused on the psychological development of women and the relationship of women to one another (Green, 1964).
From Her Own Perspective
Clara Thompson was a self-proclaimed member of the cultural interpersonal school of psychoanalysis (Thompson, 1950). Her powerful intellect and tireless effort has helped to shape and define the field of psychoanalysis. In focusing on women?s issues and recognizing the influence of cultural factors she broke with mainline Freudian psychoanalysis. She also aided and supported others who were committed to psychoanalytic concepts, but who also believed that these concepts should be viewed under a broader perspective. While doing her own work, she also served as a great organizer and teacher.
- Green, Maurice R. (Ed.). (1964). Interpersonal psychoanalysis: The selected papers of Clara M. Thompson. New York: Basic Books Inc.
- Thompson, Clara M. (1950). Psychoanalysis: Evolution and development. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons.
- Thompson, Clara M. (1957). The different schools of psychoanalysis. American Journal of Nursing, 57, 1304-1307.
- Thompson, Clara M. (1953). Towards a psychology of women. Pastoral Psychology, 4 (34), 29-38.