1892 – 1977
Therese Benedek was among the pioneers of psychoanalysis, first in Germany and then in the United States. She developed expertise in psychosomatic medicine, sexual dysfunction, and family dynamics, but she is best known for her work on the psychosexual development of women.
Born on November 8, 1892, in Eger, Hungary, Therese (Friedmann) Benedek was the third of four children of a traditional Jewish family. Her father was Ignatius Friedmann, a merchant, and her mother was Charlotte (Link) Friedmann. While neither her brother nor her two sisters attended university, she graduated from the University of Budapest in 1919 with a doctorate in medicine. After training as a pediatrician in Budapest and Bratislava, she decided to become a psychoanalyst instead.
In 1919, she married a Hungarian Protestant, Tibor Benedek, a dermatologist and academic researcher. The following year they moved to Germany, and she became a research assistant in the Neurological-Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Leipzig. A member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society, she opened up the first private psychoanalytic practice in Leipzig in 1921 and became a training analyst. In 1926, she gave birth to a son, Thomas; three years later, a daughter, Judith, was born. With nannies and governesses raising her children, she continued her psychotherapeutic practice and published on the problems of motherhood.
She was reluctant to leave Germany after the Nazi takeover because, she insisted, “I am not a Jew, I am a Hungarian!” and “I will not go uninvited to another country.” But in 1936, her husband persuaded her to accept Franz Alexander’s invitation to become training analyst of the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis. Despite serious language difficulties, she obtained her American medical license in 1937. She became an American citizen in 1943, but always spoke and wrote English with a distinct Hungarian accent. After the war, she refused to visit either Germany or Hungary, although she and her husband traveled frequently in Europe.
Benedek’s career combined therapy, training, and research. She played a central role in the development of psychoanalysis in the United States, while serving as supervising analyst and member of the research staff of the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis for thirty-four years. She was president of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society from 1958 to 1959. Her best-known work, Psychosexual Functions in Women, which deals with the emotional response of women to the fluctuations of hormones during the sexual cycle, appeared in 1952. Much of her finest research on parenthood, family life, and depression was completed in her seventies. Even after her retirement in 1969, she maintained a private practice, although by then her hearing was impaired and she had difficulty walking. In 1972, for her eightieth birthday, the Therese Benedek Research Foundation was established in her honor.
Although she was not an observant Jew and her husband attended church regularly, Therese Benedek never formally left the Jewish community. She devoted her life to her career and was considerably more successful in the United States than her husband. A lively but reserved and self-assured person, she was valued for her feminine, motherly qualities and viewed as a cultivated lady with Old World charm. She maintained close ties with her extended family and became a doting grandmother in her later years. Three years after her husband’s death, she died of a heart attack on October 27, 1977.
Depression and Human Existence, with E.J. Anthony (1975); Insight and Personality Adjustment (1946); Parenthood. Its Psychology and Psychopathology, with E.J. Anthony (1970); Psychoanalytic Investigations: Selected Papers (1973); Psychosexual Functions in Women (1952).
EJ (1983–1985); Fermi, Laura. Illustrious Immigrants. 2d ed. (1971); International Biographical Dictionary of Central European Emigres,, Vol. 2, part 1 (1980): 78; NYTimes, October 27, 1977, 26:4; Peters, Uwe Henrik. Psychiatrie im Exil (1992); Stevens, Gwendolyn, and Sheldon Gardner. The Women of Psychology. Vol. 2 (1982): 46–48; Weidemann, Doris. Leben und Werk von Therese Benedek 1892–1977 (1988).