Thompson, Clara (1893–1958)

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Thompson, Clara (1893–1958)

American psychiatrist. Born Clara Mabel Thompson on October 3, 1893, in Providence, Rhode Island; died of cancer on December 20, 1958, in New York City; daughter of T. Franklin Thompson (a tailor and salesman) and Clara (Medbery) Thompson; attended Pembroke College; graduated from Brown University, 1916; Johns Hopkins Medical School, M.D., 1920.

Worked at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, D.C.; established residency at Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, John Hopkins (three years); maintained a private practice in Baltimore, Maryland; established the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology in New York City.

A leading psychoanalyst for over a quarter century, Clara Mabel Thompson was born in 1893 and grew up in a devout Calvinist family of modest means in Providence, Rhode Island. An excellent student, she decided while in high school to become a medical missionary in India. After graduating from high school in 1912, she entered Pembroke College. Her exposure to intellectual life at Pembroke led Thompson to question the religious training of her youth, and she eventually abandoned her missionary career plans; instead she determined to become a practicing physician. In 1916, she became the first person in her family to graduate from college; she next entered Johns Hopkins Medical School.

While working one summer at a hospital in Washington, D.C., as part of her program, Thompson met psychiatrist William Alanson White, who was to have a major impact on her career. With his encouragement Thompson decided to specialize in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and after completing her coursework and receiving her M.D. degree in 1920, she began a residency in the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at John Hopkins. However, she left the clinic before finishing her residency after a break with the clinic's director over Thompson's decision to undergo psychoanalysis in 1925. She then opened her own psychoanalytic practice in Baltimore and became an associate of analyst Harry Stack Sullivan.

In 1931, she moved to Budapest to study under Sandor Ferenczi, who was both teacher and analyst to her. Ferenczi criticized Freud and contemporary analysts for their devotion to theory and forming general formulas over clinical practice and the tangible benefits analysts could provide their patients. Deeply influenced by his ideas, Thompson returned home to open a new practice in New York City in 1933. Thompson became part of a small group of psychoanalysts known as the Zodiac Group. Comprised of analysts from the U.S. and Europe, the group also included Sullivan, Karen Horney , and Erich Fromm, and met weekly to discuss the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. They also collaborated on publications; Thompson's first significant published paper was her "Notes on Female Sexuality," which appeared in Sullivan's text Personal Psychopathology in 1933.

Along with Horney, Thompson had become particularly interested in the psychology of women, and would devote most of her research over the next 20 years to questions about female sexuality and development. Horney and Thompson worked closely throughout the 1930s developing a feminist psychoanalytic theory; Horney's influence can be seen in the most well known of Thompson's papers, the article "'Penis Envy' in Women," published in 1943. In this controversial paper Thompson attacked Sigmund Freud's theory that there was a physiological basis for penis envy; instead she pointed to social and cultural discrimination against women, and argued that women did not wish unconsciously to become men, but wished to share in men's societal privileges.

In the late 1930s Thompson began a long relationship with Henry Major, a married Hungarian artist. The two lived together every summer at Thompson's summer home in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Major spent the rest of the year with his wife. Somewhat shy and reserved by nature, Thompson, who never married, had few other intimate relationships in her lifetime besides her personal and professional ties to Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm.

Differences in theoretical orientations led Thompson, along with Horney and Fromm, to leave the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1941. Horney then founded the American Institute of Psychoanalysis (AIP). However, Thompson left that group in 1943 after a conflict between Horney and Fromm over Fromm's membership in the AIP.

Thompson and Fromm, in conjunction with the Washington School of Psychiatry, then established their own psychiatric school in New York, which in 1945 was renamed the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry. Because of the earlier conflict with Horney's AIP, Thompson's school was soon censured by the American Psychoanalytic Association (APA), and her students were not allowed membership in the APA. Despite this lack of recognition from the largest American professional organization of psychoanalysts, Thompson's reputation flourished throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Besides activism in many other professional groups, she was an instructor at her own school, at Vassar College, and at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. From 1946 on, she served as director of her Institute of Psychiatry.

By 1949, Major and Sullivan had both died, and Thompson became more withdrawn from social life, although she remained a dedicated teacher and mentor. In 1957, she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent unsuccessful treatments. Clara Thompson died December 1958 in her home in New York. As she requested, she was buried next to Henry Major in Provincextown. Today the White Institute which she founded remains a leading institution for psychoanalytic research and teaching.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Thompson, Clara (1893–1958)

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Thompson, Clara (1893–1958)