Bick, Esther (1901-1983)

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BICK, ESTHER (1901-1983)

Esther Bick, a physician and psychoanalyst, was born of orthodox Jewish parents in 1901 near Kraków, Poland, and died on July 20, 1983, in London. Her maiden name remains unknown. Her friends referred to her as Nusia. Unable to study medicine in Poland because of the many restrictions on Jews, she moved to Vienna, where she worked with Charlotte Buhler on the experimental observation of young twins. It was during this period of her training that the foundations were established for her later work in psychoanalysis. Having refined a methodology for the objective observation of infants (time studies, quantitative descriptive analysis), she continued to formalize a new method of observation that was able to take into account the subjective and emotional environment of the child, together with the experience of the observer.

Her marriage is difficult to date precisely and appears to have been short-lived. Following Germany's annexation of Austria on March 12, 1938, Esther Bick reached London, where she became a student of Melanie Klein. Martha Harris indicates in the obituary she wrote for Bick's death that her brother and the rest of her family died in concentration camps and that only one of her nieces escaped the holocaust. This niece later moved to Israel, although Bick did not learn of this until the 1950s.

During the Second World War, Bick worked in a nursery in Manchester, where she began an analysis with Michael Balint. She completed her analytic studies in London, while working at a child guidance clinic in Middlesex with Portia Holman. In 1949 she joined the Tavistock Clinic, where John Bowlby asked her to provide a training course for future analysts. There she developed her method of infant observation, which encouraged observers to watch and listen to infants during their early development and focused on in-depth analysis of the capacity for attention and psychic transformation. It was also during this period that she began a second analysis with Melanie Klein.

Esther Bick wrote little, but what she did write was influential and is intentionally situated within what has customarily been referred to as the post-Kleinian movement. She noted the importance of the skin during infant relations (this opened the way to an entire field of research on the establishment of psychic envelopes and, in France, to the work of Didier Anzieu on the skin ego). She was also interested in the observation of infants from a psychoanalytic perspective. Bick's methodology for infant observation has been integrated into the training of child analysts, and even of some adult analysts, in several countries (Great Britain, Belgium, Italy). In France, the issue is more controversial, especially regarding the status of observed material compared with conventional analytic material. Some applications of her method have been developed not only for training but also for therapeutic purposes.

In any case, the rigor of Bick's methodology, together with her sense of ethical conduct, have had a profound influence on child psychologists since the 1970s. Her work has drawn their attention (along with that of some adult psychologists as well) to the more archaic levels of functioning and the earliest stages of mental development in the infant. In France, Bick's ideas have been taken up by authors like Geneviève Haag and Didier Houzel, who trained with Bick.

Bick's two great passions throughout her life were psychoanalysis and Israel, and she placed her hopes in both of them. Bick ceased clinical practice in 1980.

Bernard Golse

See also: Adhesive identification; Body image; Infantile psychosis; Infant observation; Infant observation (therapeutic); Object; Psychic envelope; Skin.


Bick, Esther. (1964). Notes on infant observation in psychoanalytic training. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 45, 558-566.

. (1968). The experience of the skin in early object relations. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 49, 558-566.

Haag, Michel, and Haag, Geneviève. (1995). L'observation des nourrissons selon Esther Bick (1901-1983) et ses applications. Information psychiatrique, 1, 7-17.

Harris, Martha. (1983). Esther Bick, 1901-1983. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 9, 101-102.

Harris, Martha, and Bick, Esther. (1987). Collected papers of Martha Harris and Esther Bick. Perthshire, U.K.: Clunie Press for Roland Harris Education Trust.