Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth 1926-2004

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KÜBLER-ROSS, Elisabeth 1926-2004


See index for CA sketch: Born July 8, 1926, in Zurich, Switzerland; died August 24, 2004, in Scottsdale, AZ. Psychiatrist, educator, and author. Kübler-Ross is best known for her revolutionary work in easing the fear of death in terminal patients and their families and in energizing the medical community to become more sympathetic and honest towards their dying patients, all of which she discussed in her groundbreaking 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross's concern for the dying was sparked shortly after World War II. During the war, she had been a volunteer worker at a Zurich hospital that gave aid to refugees fleeing Nazi Germany; when the war was over she traveled throughout Europe, assisting at first-aid posts that gave medical attention to the victims of war. It was while in Poland that Kübler-Ross first visited a Nazi concentration camp, and the horror of the devastating loss of human life there fixed her resolve to do something to ease the pain—physical and mental—of the dying. Earning her medical degree from the University of Zurich in 1957, she moved to the United States with her husband. After completing an internship, a research fellowship in New York, and her residency at Montefiore Hospital in New York City, Kübler-Ross moved to Denver, Colorado, where she was a teaching fellow at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. It was here that her views about treating the terminally ill first got noticed. She had her students look at death head-on by bringing in dying patients and having the medical students talk to them, which forced them to consider the human side of death, rather than just the clinical side. In 1965, she left Denver for Chicago, becoming an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago's Billings Hospital. Sometimes working in concert with theology students and ministers, she urged doctors to be more sympathetic and compassionate toward their patients' feelings; she also interviewed terminally ill patients. Out of this grew her now famous idea about the five stages people progress through when they discover they are dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She began publishing her ideas in her bestselling On Deathand Dying, which brought international attention to the issue and helped spur change in the medical community. This would be followed by many more books on the subject by Kübler-Ross, including Death: The Final Stage (1974), Living with Death and Dying (1981), and On Children and Death (1983). Increasingly bothered by hospital politics and pressure, after three years as medical director Kübler-Ross resigned from the Family Service and Mental Health Center in 1973. By this point, she was becoming increasingly interested in what happens to people after they die. Having always felt that people fear death most when they have lost touch with their spirituality, Kübler-Ross started to explore the possibility of life after death. Part of this was experimenting with "out of body" experiences, something she felt she had achieved herself several times. This, and a temporary association with the disreputable Jay Barham, the founder of the Church of the Facet of Divinity who claimed to speak with spirits, caused a marked decline in Kübler-Ross's reputation in the scientific community. In addition, two centers she had founded, the Shanti Nilaya Growth and Health Center in California and the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Center in Virginia, burned down in 1984 and 1994 respectively, and arson was suspected in both cases, which further led to her diminished credibility. Still, she continued to write about and lecture on the spiritual nature of death, including in her 1999 book, The Tunnel of the Light: Essential Insights on Living and Dying. Although some considered her to be less than credible due to her later beliefs, Kübler-Ross's campaign for more compassion among doctors for the terminally ill forever changed the medical community's approach on this issue. More about Kübler-Ross's remarkable life is recorded in her autobiographical The Wheel of Life: A Memoir of Living and Dying (1997); her last book, On Grief and Grieving, written with David Kessler, was scheduled for 2005 publication.



Chicago Tribune, August 26, 2001, section 1, pp. 1-2.

Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2004, section A, pp. 1, 25.

New York Times, August 26, 2004, section A, p. 22.

Times (London, England), September 2, 2004, p. 34.

Washington Post, August 26, 2004, section A, pp. 1, 11.