Pioneer psychoanalyst Erik Erikson dies at 91

May 13, 1994|By New York Times News Service

Erik H. Erikson, the psychoanalyst who profoundly reshaped views of human development, died yesterday at the Rosewood Manor Nursing Home in Harwich, Mass. He was 91.

He had a brief illness, said his daughter, Sue Erikson Bloland of Manhattan.

A friend and disciple of Sigmund Freud, Dr. Erikson was a thinker whose ideas had effects far beyond psychoanalysis, shaping the emerging fields of child development and life-span studies and reaching into the humanities.

He was best known for the theory that each stage of life, from infancy and early childhood on, is associated with a specific psychological struggle that contributes to a major aspect of personality.

That represented a quantum leap in Freudian thought, suggesting that the ego and the sense of identity are shaped over the entire life span and that experiences later in life might help heal the hurts of early childhood.

Dr. Erikson's influence pervaded many layers of society, from education to medicine to law to biography to psychiatry to low-brow culture.

His career included clinical studies of children, a teaching post at Harvard University, popular lectures and best-selling books on Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther.

His popular recognition reached a peak in the 1970s, particularly because of his identification with the development of "identity crisis" -- he coined the term.

His most significant contribu- tion, however, was the concept of a malleable and changeable ego in adults, a departure from traditional notions of an ego fixed early in life and persisting to its end.

A key element in Dr. Erikson's theory of successive changes in personality and modification of the ego was that the dynamics of the society in which a person lived determined the extent of the resolution of the changes.

By placing the individual firmly in a societal matrix, Dr. Erikson was able to suggest the degree to which political, economic and social systems, all exterior forces, mold a person's interior emotional life.

In that manner Dr. Erikson sought a union between psychoanalysis and the social sciences.

In some of his last work, in his 80s, Dr. Erikson worked with his wife, Joan, who lent him an editorial hand throughout his career, to develop a more detailed description of just what the lessons of each part of life lend to wisdom in old age.

In the final phase of life, the Eriksons proposed, wisdom is achieved to the degree each earlier phase of life has had a positive resolution.

Dr. Erikson was born on June 15, 1902, in Frankfurt, Germany, of Danish parents.

The common story was that his mother and father had separated before his birth, but the closely guarded fact was that he was his mother's child from an extramarital union.

He never saw his father or his mother's first husband.

In addition to his daughter and his wife, of Harwich, Mass., he is survived by two sons, Kai, of New Haven, Conn., and Jon, of Los Osos, Calif.; two sisters, Ruth Hirsch of Manhattan and Ellen Katz of Haifa, Israel, and three grandchildren.

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