Thompson, Clara M. (1893-1958)

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THOMPSON, CLARA M. (1893-1958)

American physician and psychoanalyst Clara M. Thompson was born in Providence, Rhode Island on October 3, 1893, and died in New York City on December 20, 1958.

Thompson grew up in a religious, middle class family. She was closer to her father, while her brother Frank, nine years her junior, was closer to her mother. Thompson was a serious student and a tomboy in elementary and high school where her goal was to be a medical missionary. In 1912 Thompson enrolled at the Women's College of Brown University. College was a difficult time for her; she is described as quiet and lonely. A formative experience occurred in her sophomore year when she read George Eliot's Mill on the Floss. Thompson deeply identified with its rebellious protagonist, Maggie. She stopped going to church and decided not to be a missionary. This precipitated a twenty-year rupture with her mother. In her senior year Thompson was engaged to be married, but her boyfriend insisted that she chose between him and medical school. She chose medical school and never married.

In 1916 Thompson began medical training at Johns Hopkins University, where she also completed her internship. She worked at St. Elizabeth Hospital under Edward Kempf and William Alanson White, and had a psychiatric residency at the Phipps Clinic where she studied under Adolph Meyer.

In 1923 Harry Stack Sullivan heard Thompson give her first scientific paper. He was very taken by her work and thus began a friendship of twenty-five years. Sullivan encouraged Thompson to go into treatment with Sándor Ferenczi, whom she first met in the spring of 1927, while he was lecturing at the New School. She went to Budapest in the summers of 1928 and 1929 and then moved to Budapest in June of 1931 where she stayed until Ferenczi's death in 1933. Prior to moving to Budapest, in 1930, she had become the first president of the Washington-Baltimore Psychoanalytic Society.

Thompson's treatment deeply affected her. People felt that she was deeply changed by this analysis. Ferenczi's ideas about the impact of the real relationship between patient and analyst and the importance of real events in childhood were compatible with Sullivan's Interpersonal Theory, but Thompson strongly disagreed with Ferenczi's ideas about regression.

After Ferenczi's death Thompson moved to New York where she, Sullivan, Karen Horney, William Silverberg, and later Erich Fromm met to discuss their work. Thompson taught at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute from 1934 until 1941, when she left after Horney was forced to resign. She joined with Horney, Silverberg, Robbins, and Fromm in forming the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, but she left two years later after Horney insisted on only including medical doctors, and excluded Fromm. Thompson, Fromm, and Janet Rioch, with the help of Sullivan and Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, then started the New York Branch of the Washington School of Psychiatry, later to become the William Alanson White Institute. Thompson was co-founder and director of the William Alanson White Institute, from its creation as the New York branch of the Washington School of Psychiatry in 1943, until her death in 1958.

Thompson wrote over fifty articles, many of which are reprinted by Maurice Green in Interpersonal Psychoanalysis. The Selected Papers of Clara Thompson (1964). These include: "Notes on the Psychoanalytic Significance of the Choice of Analyst," (1938) "The Role of Women in This Culture," (1941) "Some Effects of the Derogatory Attitude toward Female Sexuality," (1950) "Transference as a Therapeutic Instrument," (1945) and "Counter-Transference" (1952).

Thompson was a central force in the creation of the interpersonal school of psychiatry. Thompson analyzed or supervised many of the most influential members of the second generation of interpersonal analysts who greatly expanded and extended her ideas on transference and counter-transference. Her understanding of the unique difficulties facing professional women led her to be the analyst of choice for many groundbreaking women. In addition, Thompson's dedication to training lay analysts set an important precedent in the United States.

Sue A. Shapiro

See also: Counter-transference, Interpersonal analysis.


Moulton, Ruth. (1986). Clara Thompson: Unassuming leader. In L. Dickstein and C. Nadelson (Eds.), Women physicians in leadership roles. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Shapiro, Sue A. (1993). Clara Thompson, Ferenczi's messenger with half a message. In L. Aron and A. Harris (Eds.), Legacy of Sándor Ferenczi. Hillsdale, NJ, and London: Analytic Press.

Thompson, Clara. (1950). Psychoanalysis: Evolution and development. New York: Hermitage House.

. (1964). Interpersonal psychoanalysis. The selected papers of Clara Thompson (Maurice Green, Ed.). New York: Basic.

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Thompson, Clara M. (1893-1958)