Hellman Noach, Ilse (1908-1998)

views updated


Dr. Ilse Hellman Noach, distinguished psychoanalyst and expert on child development, was born in Vienna on September 28, 1908, and died in London on December 3, 1998. Her parents, Paul and Irene Hellman, were deeply engaged in the cultural climate of the day, encouraging the arts and promoting the talents of musicians who achieved distinction.

Fascinated by children, Hellman, on leaving school, completed a two-year course specializing in juvenile delinquency. She joined a home near Paris for the children of parents unable to care for them, and her fluent French allowed her to attend evening classes in psychology at the Sorbonne. The home was run on family lines, and the same staff member looked after each small group of children. On returning to Vienna, she attended the University and studied under Charlotte Buhler, Professor of Child Development, who was making detailed studies of children from birth onwards. Buhler was invited to London as visiting Professor at University College, retaining her post in Vienna, and in 1937 she invited Hellman, who by then had been awarded her Ph.D., to join her in the study of retarded children. When Buhler was in Vienna, Hellman took charge. It was then, too, that she met the distinguished analyst and child expert, Susan Isaacs, who became a close friend.

At the outbreak of war Buhler left for the United States, and the Home Office employed Ilse Hellman and other psychologists to work with children evacuated from London to escape the threat of air raids. Taken from their mothers to remote areas, many suffered disturbed sleep, eating disorders and bedwetting, and the psychologists set up special homes to cope with these problems. In 1942, Freud's daughter Anna invited Hellman to join her war nurseries, set up to provide for children whose families were disrupted by wartime bombing, and she remained there until the nurseries closed at the end of the war. The staff was residential and, to facilitate attachment to a substitute parent, each member cared for the same small group of children (as in the French home). The three homes together cared for 150 children, and the staff slept wherever they could. The children's development was rigorously observed and meticulously recorded, and Ilse Hellman found the experience invaluable for the understanding of the effects of separation, the restriction of the damage it occasioned, and child observational research. She continued to meet with, and evaluate, her own "war babies" for over fifty years.

While at the nurseries, she trained in psychoanalysis, and rapidly rose to prominence in the British Psycho-Analytical Society. Her attractive and friendly personality put her on the best of terms with Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott and other well-known analysts: theoretical differences never interfered with friendship. She joined the Staff at Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham's Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic, which had quickly earned a worldwide reputation. The clinic originated major studies on child development, normative and pathological, to many of which Ilse contributed. For some years she was in charge of the department for adolescents, publishing valuable papers about the difficulties encountered with this age group. She wrote on many other subjects. She was a fine teacher. Her deeply empathic understanding of the problems encountered by students in their clinical work made her a valued mentor in work with both adults and children. Her clinical skills with children of all ages secured her international reputation.

It was not until after the war that she learned that her mother and brother had died in Nazi concentration camps. It was then she met and married the art historian, Arnold Noach, who had survived the Nazi occupation of Holland. He later became Professor of the History of Art at the University of Leeds. His was a fun-loving and warm personality. He died suddenly in 1976. Hellman Noach continued her work for many years, although in the last few years she worked much less intensively. Impressed by the fact that many young people showed great trust, and a readiness to confide in her, she amusingly called herself an "analytic grandmother." But, at the age of 84, increasing ill health forced her to abandon the practice of, though not the interest in, the profession she had served so well.

She endured a cruelly incapacitating illness with great fortitude, always finding a warm and welcoming word for her visitors. Generations of analysts have cause to be grateful for her guidance, instruction, and, above all, her wisdom. She was survived by her one daughter, Maggie, and grandchild, Sophie.

Clifford Yorke

See also: Great Britain.


Hellman, Ilse. (1990). From war babies to grandmothers: Forty-eight years in psychoanalysis. London: Karnac.