Death of Aaron T. Beck, MD

November 1, 2021

To:Penn Medicine Community

From:J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, EVP/Dean
Kevin B. Mahoney, CEO, UPHS

We are saddened to announce the passing of Aaron T. Beck, MD, an esteemed colleague, beloved mentor and teacher, and outstanding researcher, scientist, and therapist in the Department of Psychiatry, whose fundamental contributions to psychology revolutionized the practice of psychotherapy in the United States and around the world. The Beck Institute announced Dr. Beck’s death this morning. He was 100.

“Tim” to his friends, Dr. Beck is remembered with fondness and admiration by his colleagues at Penn. He joined the Department of Psychiatry in 1954, developed his pioneering theories of psychopathology and psychotherapy in the early 1960s, and became globally recognized as the originator of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). He spent much of the early part of his career studying and researching psychoanalysis, particularly in the treatment of depression, but came to believe that the psychoanalytic approach lacked scientific rigor and empirical evidence for its efficacy. A scientist at heart and champion of evidence-based medicine, Dr. Beck shifted his focus to the cognitive approach to therapy. His work in this area intensified after he came to Penn, where he established a depression research clinic and went on to lead numerous research studies and direct the Psychopathology Research Unit, which at the time was the parent organization of the Center for the Treatment and Prevention of Suicide.

Tim’s transformative insight was his discovery that his depressed patients often experienced spontaneous negative thoughts about themselves, the world, and others. He helped patients identify these “automatic” thoughts in order to minimize negative thinking patterns that contribute to depression. Over the years, his research expanded to include schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, suicide, and many other medical conditions with psychological components, including anxiety, eating disorders, and addiction. He found that different disorders were associated with different types of negative thinking, but that successfully treating any disorder involved making patients aware of these thought patterns, one of the central precepts of CBT.

Over the course of a career spanning more than 70 years, Tim published more than 600 scientific papers and 24 books. Widely considered one of the most influential psychotherapists of all time and someone who changed the face of American psychiatry, the magnitude of his impact is truly extraordinary. Therapists around the world have adopted CBT and thousands of clinical studies have validated its efficacy in treating a wide range of disorders. Up until the time of Dr. Beck’s work, a lack of assessment tools hampered empirical proof of psychotherapy’s impact. He developed self-report measures of depression and anxiety, including the Beck Depression Inventory and the Beck Hopelessness Scale, which are widely used today in clinical practice as well as research. Tim’s work has also influenced numerous psychologists, including his daughter, Dr. Judith Beck, clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and President of the Beck Institute, and Martin Seligman, Zellerbach Family Professor in the Department of Psychology.

Tim assumed emeritus status in 1992, but remained actively engaged with Penn in subsequent decades, as his research interests, outreach activities, and leadership of the CBT movement continued to expand.  With his daughter, he founded the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in 1994. Thousands of therapists from around the world travel to the Beck Institute for training. The Bala Cynwyd headquarters is also a hub for online resources for CBT and provides clinical services to patients.

Among many awards and honors, Dr. Beck received the 2006 Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research. Other major recognition includes the Gustav O. Lienhard Award for the Advancement of Health Care from the National Academy of Medicine of which he was a member, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Beck also received the American Psychiatric Association Adolf Meyer Award for Outstanding Contributions to Psychiatry and the American College of Physicians William C. Menninger Memorial Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Science of Mental Health. In 2007 he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania and was recognized with the School of Medicine’s William Osler Patient Oriented Research Award. As one measure of his worldwide renown, the 2005 International Congress of Cognitive Psychotherapy in Göteborg, Sweden, featured “A Meeting of the Minds” conversation between Dr. Beck and the Dalai Lama.

Tim was born on July 18, 1921, in Providence, RI, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants and the youngest child in his family. He graduated from Brown University in 1942, where he majored in English and Political Science. He then earned his MD from Yale University in 1946. In 1950, he married Phyllis W. Beck, the first woman to serve on the Pennsylvania Superior Court and a former Vice Dean of Penn’s Law School. The Becks had four children.

Dr. Beck’s penetrating insights into human psychology and cognitive approach led to the development of evidence-based therapies that have alleviated untold human suffering. His daughter Judith aptly summed up his exceptional impact, observing: “My father dedicated his life to the development and testing of treatments to improve the lives of countless people throughout the world facing health and mental health challenges. He truly transformed the field of mental health with his development of and decades of research in cognitive behavior therapy.”