Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Biography

Born Elisabeth Kübler, July 8, 1926, in Zurich, Switzerland; died August 24, 2004, in Scottsdale, AZ. Psychiatrist and author. Early in her medical career, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed an interest in the way hospitals cared for dying patients. Mostly, she was alarmed that the medical community, so focused on saving lives, seemed unable to deal with those who were dying. At the time, terminally ill patients were generally ignored and left to die on their own without ever being told the entire truth of their condition.

Kübler-Ross changed all that. She befriended thousands of terminally ill patients and interviewed them personally to find out how to meet their needs. She published her findings in a 1969 best-seller titled On Death and Dying, which ultimately helped transform the way the medical community dealt with terminally ill patients. In the book, Kübler-Ross categorized the five stages of grief terminally ill patients go through—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The book, which sold millions of copies, provided a vocabulary for doctors, patients, and families to use when discussing the process of death. In the end, her work helped spawn the hospice-care movement.

Kübler-Ross, a triplet, was born on July 8, 1926, in Zurich, Switzerland, to Ernst and Emma Villiger Kübler; she weighed just two pounds. By sixth grade, Kübler-Ross had decided to become a doctor. Her father, believing this was a foolish pursuit for a girl, tried to force her into becoming a secretary in his office supply business. Rebellious and free-thinking, Kübler-Ross, just 16, left home and supported herself by working as a cook, a mason, a roofer, and assisting in an eye clinic. During this time she also became familiar with hospitals while working as a volunteer helping refugees from Germany.

After World War II came to an end in 1945, Kübler-Ross traveled across Europe helping set up first-aid clinics in war-torn countries. In her journeys, Kübler-Ross met refugees and survivors of concentration camps and visited the Majdanek death camp in Poland. Afterward, she decided to become a psychiatrist so she could help people deal with the grief of death.

Kübler-Ross graduated from Switzerland's University of Zurich medical school in 1957. There she met her future husband, a Jewish-American neuropathologist named Emanuel Ross. They married in 1958 and settled in New York City. She became a research fellow at Manhattan State Hospital and was instantly alarmed by the way doctors there treated the dying. Often, they were isolated and ignored. Kübler-Ross noticed that doctors would not even give them pain medication for fear of addiction.

Intrigued by the process of dying, Kübler-Ross began talking with the terminally ill in an attempt to understand their misery and loneliness. She was eventually given permission to care for them and offer counseling. According to the London Independent, Kübler-Ross berated the medical community for teaching "everything about your liver and nothing about you as a person."

In 1961, Kübler-Ross became a U.S. citizen and in 1962 she and her husband accepted teaching positions at the University of Colorado medical center in Denver. One day, when asked to fill in for a well-liked instructor, Kübler-Ross brought in a 16-year-old girl who was dying of leukemia. The students, who had never spoken with a terminally ill patient, were teary by the end of the class. Afterward, Kübler-Ross regularly offered similar lectures.

In 1965, Kübler-Ross joined the faculty at the University of Chicago medical school, where she served as an assistant professor of psychiatry. While there, some theology students asked her for help on a research project concerning death. To help with the project, she began holding intimate interviews with terminally ill patients in front of hospital staff members, medical students, and theology students. Initially, the medical community shunned her seminars but in time they became so well-attended they had to be moved to a large auditorium. Eventually, her seminar became an accredited course. Today, courses on death and dying are included in medical school curriculums.

These interviews, as well as others, became the basis for Kübler-Ross's book On Death and Dying, where she identified and described the five psychological stages terminally ill people go through. The book became popular beyond the medical community and helped open up discussions on death in a culture that was generally uneasy with the subject. After the book's publication, Kübler-Ross was a household name. She also advocated that the dying need respect and dignity. Her work was integral in generating the creation of the U.S. hospice system.

Kübler-Ross left the academic setting after the University of Chicago began to question the validity of her work as genuine medical research. She went into private practice and spent her time writing, speaking, and giving workshops on "Life, Death, and Transition." She began interviewing patients who had had near-death experiences and these discussions led her to an investigation of life after death. As Kübler-Ross began to explore this phenomenon and talk freely about out-of-body experiences and spirit guides, the medical community lost faith in the science of her work and her credibility waned. However, as the 20th century drew to a close in 1999, Time magazine named her one of the "100 Most Important Thinkers" of the century.

Throughout her career Kübler-Ross maintained a heavy travel schedule and her husband eventually left her. They divorced in the 1970s and he raised their two children. In the early 1980s, she established the Kübler-Ross Center, a healing facility, on a 300-acre farm in Virginia. Kübler-Ross also began working with AIDS patients, babies in particular. In 1985, she tried to open a home for AIDS-infected children at the center; however, nearly every adult in the area signed a petition to bar the center from opening. In 1994, the center burned in an arson-suspected fire. Kübler-Ross's life's work—her notes, journals, and photos—were lost in the blaze.

Later in life, Kübler-Ross relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona, where her son and former husband lived. In the 1990s, Kübler-Ross suffered a series of strokes that left her partially paralyzed. She continued working on books, though, and moved into a hospice in 2002.

Kübler-Ross died on August 24, 2004, of natural causes at a group home in Scottsdale, AZ; she was 78. A week before her death, Kübler-Ross had lost consciousness and suffered from infections. She is survived by her son, Kenneth; her daughter, Barbara; her sister, and two granddaughters. Her exhusband preceded her in death.


CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/US/Southwest/08/25/obit.kublerross.ap/index.html (August 26, 2004).

Independent (London), August 28, 2004, p. 48.

New York Times, August 26, 2004, p. B8.

Washington Post, August 26, 2004, p. A1, p. A11.

—Lisa Frick

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