Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Helen Flanders Dunbar

by Constance M. McGovern

Dunbar, Helen Flanders (14 May 1902-21 Aug. 1959), psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and pioneer in psychosomatic medicine, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Francis William Dunbar, a mathematician and patent attorney, and Edith Vaughan Flanders, a genealogist. She attended a series of private, largely experimental schools, graduating from Bryn Mawr College in 1923.

Dunbar received four graduate degrees in the next seven years. At one point, she was studying in three programs at three different institutions simultaneously. Columbia University awarded her a master of arts degree in philosophy in 1924 and a doctor of philosophy degree in 1929. Her doctoral dissertation on Dante, "Symbolism in Medieval Thought and Its Consummation in the Divine Comedy," was published in the same year. Meanwhile, she had enrolled at Union Theological Seminary, receiving her bachelor of divinity degree in 1927, and at Yale University School of Medicine in 1926. She finished her studies for the doctor of medicine degree in 1930. Her ability to organize her studies in philosophy at Columbia, her theological pursuits at Union, and her medical interests at Yale was considerably facilitated by the two secretaries she hired, a habit she continued throughout her career. In 1932 she married Theodor P. Wolfensberger (later Theodore P. Wolfe). They divorced in 1939, and that same year she married George Henry Soule, Jr. They had one child, a daughter, Marcia Dunbar-Soule.

Dunbar's interests in integrating religion and science and, eventually, medicine and psychiatry emerged even as she began her graduate education. While at Union Theological Seminary, she took advantage of training opportunities at the Worcester (Mass.) State Hospital because she believed that divinity students needed the experience of working in clinical settings; she would later become director of the Council for the Clinical Training of Theological Students. She applied similar integrative principles as a medical student when she pursued clinical experiences for herself at the New Haven (Conn.) Hospital and at Bellevue in New York City. During her final year in medical school, Dunbar worked at the General and Psychiatric-Neurological Hospital and Clinic of the University of Vienna, became an analysand of Helene Deutsch, did a stint at the Burgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich, where she discussed with Carl Jung his views on religion, and, finally, visited Lourdes as a continuation of her interest in the relationship between faith and healing.

Dunbar's capacity for carrying out multiple tasks and pursuing a wide variety of interests never diminished. During the height of her career, she maintained concurrent positions at a variety of institutions, carried out scientific studies, and wrote prolifically.

From 1931 to 1949 she held appointments in medicine and psychiatry at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and the Vanderbilt Clinic in New York City, while teaching at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. Between 1942 and 1947 she taught at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute as well. Throughout her professional life she maintained an active private practice in psychiatry.

In the early 1930s Dunbar conducted a study at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital that would become the basis for her career's work. She analyzed the familial, social, and economic backgrounds of 1,600 consecutive patients, gathered information about their current living environments, and recorded the major characteristics of their emotional makeups. Her preliminary conclusion that a personality profile existed for specific diseases would be quickly abandoned, although her delineation of the "accident-prone" personality has persisted. Her demonstration of the importance of emotional factors in the course of disease became her major intellectual contribution to the medical and psychiatric fields.

Dunbar's first, and most ambitious, publication resulting from the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital study, Emotions and Bodily Changes (1935), is her bibliography and review of the literature on psychosomatic medicine--a review she periodically updated. In 1943 she wrote Psychosomatic Diagnosis, her major analysis of the study and a book that became the handbook of the specialty. In Mind and Body (1947), she brought her message to a popular audience. With the birth of her daughter in 1940, Dunbar turned her energies and theories about the interrelationship of the mind and body to the issues of parenthood. In 1949 she published Your Child's Mind and Body but did not complete her analysis of her daughter's teenage years. Two volumes, Your Pre-Teenager's Mind and Body and Your Teenager's Mind and Body were edited by Benjamin Linder and published in 1962, after Dunbar's death. Her final, and some say her best, work, Psychiatry in the Medical Specialties, was published in 1959.

In the 1930s, when theories of dynamic psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, and the relationship between medicine and psychiatry were still in flux, Dunbar carved a theoretical niche for psychosomatic medicine--a holistic, organismic niche. She established the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, serving as its chief editor from 1938 to 1947, and, in 1942 was instrumental in founding the American Psychosomatic Society.

Dunbar's intellectual and organizational brilliance was sometimes overshadowed by the force of her personality. Her biographer suggests that "many colleagues, especially males, seem to have felt threatened by her combination of coyness, elusiveness, and strength" (Powell [1977], p. 134). Her daughter's description of her in Notable American Women as a "magnetic, charismatic woman, with a disturbed and beautiful soul and an almost magical gift of insight and intuition" summarizes the characteristics that account for her ability to succeed in a profession like psychoanalysis, where gender roles, for a time, were in flux as the profession sought its own identity.

Dunbar drowned at her home in Connecticut on the very day in 1959 that she had received the first copy of her Psychiatry in the Medical Specialties. Franz Alexander, in a memorial published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, paid her tribute by proclaiming that "no single person was more effective than she in the organization of the psychosomatic approach in modern medicine."


There is no collection of Helen Flanders Dunbar papers. The most complete assessment of her work is Robert C. Powell, "Healing and Wholeness: Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959) and an Extra-Medical Origin of the American Psychosomatic Movement, 1906-1936" (Ph.D. diss., Duke Univ., 1974), and Powell's "Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959) and a Holistic Approach to Psychosomatic Problems," Psychiatric Quarterly 49, no. 2 (1977): 133-52. Franz Alexander's memorial appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry 117 (Aug. 1960): 189-90.


Constance M. McGovern. "Dunbar, Helen Flanders"; http://www.anb.org/articles/12/12-00234.html; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.

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