Aaron T. Beck

An American neurologist and father of cognitive therapy.

A pragmatic approach to therapy

Aaron T. Beck was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 18, 1921, to Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Harry Beck, was a printer by trade. His mother, Elizabeth Temkin, suffered from depression caused by the loss of two of her children who died before Beck was born. Beck's mother's depression was said to have been lifted with the birth of Beck. His childhood typified that of middle-class Americans, complete with his involvement in Boy Scouts and athletics.

Beck's childhood strongly influenced his approach to therapy. A life-threatening staphylococcus infection from a broken arm at the age of eight changed his life, at a time before antibiotic medications. At this point, Beck was transformed from an active young man to a quiet one who preferred reading to playing football. As a child, he developed a fear of hospitals, blood, and even the scent of ether, which made him feel faint. Eventually, he overcame those fears rationally.

Psychologist Aaron T. Beck, in jacket and bow tie.

Psychologist Aaron T. Beck, in jacket and bow tie.
(Photo courtesy of Dr. Aaron Beck.)

From this average background rose one of the groundbreaking psychotherapists of the United States. Beck developed what is known as cognitive therapy. This therapy can be used to treat cases ranging from depression and panic attacks to addictions, eating disorders, and other psychiatric illnesses. Beck graduated from Brown University in 1942. In 1946, he received his Ph.D. in psychiatry from Yale University. During his residency in neurology, he began to investigate psychotherapy and cognition. Beck served as assistant chief of neuropsychology at Valley Forge Hospital in Pennsylvania during the Korean War (1950–53).

Although he had doubts about Freud's theories and psychoanalysis, Beck attended the Philadelphia Institute of Psychoanalysis, graduating in 1958. Not long into his work with patients using psychoanalysis, Beck began to alter his approach. He joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1954, where he began to search for empirical evidence supporting Freud's theories. In his research, Beck attempted to discover a correlation between depression and masochism. Beck and his colleagues failed to find this correlation. This effort stimulated him to look at new ways of approaching depression. Within two years, his cognitive approach to therapy had taken shape.

Beck's approach to psychotherapy was simple. For him, the unconscious did not play the role that Freud proposed. Instead, Beck's cognitive method involves a person using rational thoughts to overcome fears, as he did in his childhood, rather than delving into the unconscious causes of those fears. In cognitive therapy, the fears of the client are carefully examined and confronted rationally. This approach has not been universally accepted and has been challenged by some professionals in the field of psychiatry.

Beck developed important evaluation tools that are still in use. In 1961, he introduced the Beck Depression Inventory for the evaluation of depression and later the Beck Anxiety Inventory. Also in the 1960s, Beck established the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1994, Beck Institute was established as a nonprofit organization.

Research and challenges

Beck and his wife, Phyllis, a former superior court judge in Philadelphia, had four children and as of 2015 eight grandchildren. One of his children, Judith S. Beck, became president at the Beck Institute, working closely with her father. For years his main supporter was his wife, at a time when his beliefs were not popular. Throughout his career, he continued to meet his critics by encouraging them to test his theories and his results. Beck welcomed any challenges in his pursuit of what is best for his patients.

What was originally a method to treat depression and prevent suicide evolved further. Beck insisted that his cognitive approach can be used to treat psychotic disorders, even those as serious as schizophrenia. Beck's research conducted with Neil A. Rector of the University of Toronto indicated that patients suffering from schizophrenia show greater improvement through a combination of drug and cognitive therapies than patients receiving drug therapy alone.

Beck's theories constantly evolved through his continued research efforts. A prolific writer, Beck wrote more than 20 books and 600 articles both on his own and in collaboration with others. His books include Depression: Causes and Treatment (1972), Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders (1979), Depression: Clinical, Experimental, and Theoretical (1980), and Schizophrenia: Cognitive Theory, Research, and Therapy (2008). The Beck Depression Inventory and Scale for Suicide Ideation are widely used tools that he developed for use by therapists. The Beck Depression Inventory II in 1996 followed his long-successful original as an assessment tool for clinicians in diagnosing depression.

Beck was awarded dozens of honors for his work and was named one of the five most influential psychotherapists of all time by The American Psychologist and as one of the 10 individuals who shaped the face of American psychiatry. As of 2015, Beck was president emeritus at the institute he founded, the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research, and an honorary president of the nonprofit Academy of Cognitive Therapy.



Beck, Aaron T., Denise D. Davis and Arthur Freeman, eds. Cognitive Therapy of Personality Disorders. 3rd ed. New York: Guilford Press, 2014.

Eysenck, Michael, and David Groome. Cognitive Psychology: Revisiting the Classic Studies. Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE, 2015.


Beck, Aaron T., and Emily A. P. Haigh. “Advances in Cognitive Theory and Therapy: The Generic Cognitive Model.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 10 (January 2014): 1–24.

Grant, Paul M., et al. “Successfully Breaking a 20-Year Cycle of Hospitalizations with Recovery-Oriented Cognitive Therapy for Schizophrenia.” Psychological Services 11, no. 2 (2014): 125–33.


Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center. “Aaron T. Beck, M.D.” http://aaronbeckcenter.org/about/staff/beck (accessed July 22, 2015).

Beck Institute. “About Beck Institute.” http://www.beckinstitute.org/beck-institute (accessed July 22, 2015).

Beck Institute. “History of Cognitive Therapy.” http://www.beckinstitute.org/history-of-cbt.beckinstitute.org/history-of-cbt (accessed July 22, 2015).


Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 1 Belmont Ave., Ste. 700, Bala Cynwyd, PA, 19004-1610, (610) 664-3020, Fax: (610) 709-5336, info@beckinstitute.org, http://www.beckinstitute.org .