Influential psychologist Albert Ellis dies at 93

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NEW YORK (AP) – Albert Ellis, one of the most provocative figures in modern psychology and the founder of a renowned psychotherapy institute, died Tuesday at age 93.

He died from kidney and heart failure after a long illness, said his wife, Debbie Joffe Ellis.

“He helped countless people, and a large number of people he helped now help other people,” she said. “And in that, there’s no question that he has influenced the world in an intensely positive way. In this crazy, violent world, he was a compass for truth.”

In the 1950s, Ellis invented what he called rational emotive behavior therapy, or R.E.B.T., which stresses that patients can improve their lives by taking control of self-defeating thoughts, feelings and behaviors. His work, along with that of others including Dr. Aaron Beck, is considered the foundation of cognitive behavior therapy.

“We all owe a great debt to Dr. Ellis,” said Robert O’Connell, executive director of the Albert Ellis Institute, which is located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “His students and clients will remember him for his tremendous insight and dedication as a psychotherapist.”

A 1982 survey of clinical psychologists ranked Ellis as the No. 2 most influential in the field – ahead of Freud and behind Carl Rogers, founder of humanistic psychology.

In recent years, Ellis had been slowed by illness and controversy. He nearly died from an infection in 2003, and last year he came down with pneumonia.

Ellis also was involved in legal battles with the institute he founded more than four decades ago, accusing its board of improperly removing him and canceling his popular Friday seminars. The board said the ouster was done out of economic necessity.

Last year, a New York judge ruled that the board had wrongly removed Ellis without proper notice and reinstated him. He returned to the institute in June, O’Connell said.

Though the fight saddened Ellis deeply and he felt he was powerless when he returned to the institute, he reinstated his Friday night workshops in the building next door, his wife said.

“Nothing stopped him,” she said. “Wherever he had an opportunity to contribute, he did, no matter the circumstances.”

For example, she said, Ellis had scheduled a talk to a group of psychology students visiting from Belgium thinking he’d be home by then. When the time came, he was still hospitalized, and hours before the talk he looked pale and sick.

But he gave the lecture anyway, in his hospital room, answering question after question with humor and sharpness, though his voice was weak.

Later that day, the doctors told Ellis he’d had a minor heart attack shortly before the students arrived.

“He really was in it till the end,” his wife said.

Ellis initially devoted most of his spare time to writing fiction, and when he couldn’t get anything published he turned exclusively to nonfiction, promoting what he called the “sex-family revolution.”

In the late 1930s, as he collected material to make a case for “sexual liberty,” his friends began regarding him as something of an expert on the subject. They often asked for advice, and Ellis discovered that he liked counseling as well as writing.

After receiving a doctorate in clinical psychology from Columbia University, Ellis started a private practice specializing in sex and marriage therapy. R.E.B.T. grew out of his own experiences and the teachings of Greek, Roman and modern philosophers.

Early on in his career, Ellis drew criticism from some in the psychological and psychiatric establishment because of his critical views about Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis.

Ellis, who was born in Pittsburgh and raised in New York, wrote or co-wrote more than 60 books including “A Guide to Successful Marriage,” “How to Live With a Neurotic” and “A New Guide to Rational Living.”

He was married twice before; the first marriage ended in annulment, the second in divorce. He is survived by his wife.

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