Helen Flanders Dunbar

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Helen Flanders Dunbar (May 14, 1902 - August 21, 1959) — later known as H. Flanders Dunbar[1] — is an important early figure in U.S. psychosomatic medicine and psychobiology, as well as being an important advocate of physicians and clergy co-operating in their efforts to care for the sick.


Eldest child of a well-to-do family — her father was the electrical engineer and patent attorney Francis William Dunbar (1868-1939) and her mother was the professional genealogist Edith Vaughn Flanders (1871-1963) — Helen Flanders Dunbar was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 14, 1902.

As a child she suffered from malnutrition; and despite Dunbar's later misleading claims that she had suffered poliomyelitis, and a childhood pediatrician's diagnosis of a muscular form of rickets ("rachitic pseudo-paralysis"), it seems far more likely that she was displaying what was known as "failure to thrive".[2]

A diminutive adult — she was 4'11" (150 cm) — she always wore platform shoes.

She married her first husband Theodor Peter Wolfensberger (1902-1954) in 1932 — he was eventually known in the U.S. as Theodore P. Wolfe — and they were divorced in 1939 (Wolfe arranged for the immigration of Austrian psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich in 1939, and was the translator of most of Reich's books and articles).

She married her second husband, economist and editor of The New Republic, George Henry Soule (1888-1970), in 1940. A daughter, Marcia was born in 1942.


Dunbar was taught by private tutors and at private schools. She graduated from Bryn Mawr with a B.A. (dual major in mathematics and psychology) in 1923.[3] She held degrees in theology (B.D. from Union Theological Seminary, where she encountered the psychologist of religion James H. Leuba, in 1927), philosophy (Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929), and medicine (M.D. from Yale University 1930).

She also trained with Anton Boisen (1876-1965), a co-founder of the Clinical Pastoral Education Movement, at the Worcester State Hospital in the summer of 1925, and in 1929 with both Helene Deutsch and Felix Deutsch in Vienna, and with Carl Jung at the Burghölzli, the psychiatric clinic of Zurich University. In pursuit of more knowledge in relation to the psychic aspects of healing and disease she visited Lourdes and a number of other healing shrines in Germany and Austria.


She was the first Medical Director (1930-1942) of the Council for the Clinical Training of Theological Students in New York City. She was also the Director of the Joint Committee on Religion and Medicine of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America and The New York Academy of Medicine from 1931 to 1936. She was an instructor at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute from 1941 to 1949. She founded the American Psychosomatic Society[1] in 1942, and was the first editor of its journal Psychosomatic Medicine.


On 21 August 1959 Dunbar was found floating face down in her swimming pool; and, although some spoke of suicide, the coroner simply recorded a death by drowning.


Dunbar's life and contributions have been studied and documented by multiple scholars, most notably Robert C. Powell, MD, PhD. Dr. Powell's dissertation, "Healing and Wholeness: Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959) and an Extra-Medical Origin of the American Psychosomatic Movement, 1906-1936" is the most comprehensive manuscript on her work.[4] As a result of the extensive scholarship that Dunbar has received, the College for Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy gives out the annual "Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959) Award for Significant Contributions to the Field of Clinical Pastoral Training” in her honor.[5]


  1. ^ "During her 1929 trip to Europe… she began signing her name "H. Flanders Dunbar". This choice is easy to understand in a male-dominated medical establishment. She kept her maiden name throughout her life and later took to shortening her signature to "Flanders Dunbar"" (Hart, (1996), p.50.
  2. ^ Hart, (1996), p.48.
  3. ^ Hart, (1996), p.49.
  4. ^ McGovern, Constance. "Helen Flanders Dunbar". Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society. Retrieved 28 March 2011. 
  5. ^ Powell, Robert C. "How to Function as a Knowledgeable Professional AND Retain One’s Soul". CPSP. Retrieved 28 March 2011. 


  • Anon, "Dr. Dunbar Found Dead in Her Pool", The New York Times, (23 August 1959), p. 95, col.D.
  • Hart, C.W., "Helen Flanders Dunbar: Physician, Medievalist, Enigma", Journal of Religion and Health, Vol.35, No.1, (Spring 1996), pp. 47–58.
  • Kemp, H.V., "Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959)", The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Vol.28, No.1, (Winter 2001).[2]
  • Powell, R.C., "Mrs. Ethel Phelps Stokes Hoyt (1877-1952) and the Joint Committee on Religion and Medicine (1923-1936): a brief sketch", Journal of Pastoral Care, Vol.29, No.2, (June 1975), pp.99-105. [Dunbar was Director of the Joint Committee.]
  • Powell, R.C., "Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902–1959) and a Holistic Approach to Psychosomatic Problems: I. The Rise and Fall of a Medical Philosophy", Psychiatric Quarterly, Vol.49, No.2, (June 1977), pp.133-152.
  • Powell, R.C., "Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902–1959) and a Holistic Approach to Psychosomatic Problems: II. The Role of Dunbar's Nonmedical Background", Psychiatric Quarterly, Vol.50, No.2, (June 1978), pp.144-157.
  • Powell, R.C., "Emotionally, Soulfully, Spiritually ‘Free to Think and Act’." The Helen Flanders Dunbar Memorial Lecture on Psychosomatic Medicine and Pastoral Care, delivered November 1999, at the Columbia Presbyterian Center of the New York Presbyterian Hospital, New York, New York. Journal of Religion & Health Vol.40, No.1, (2001), pp.97-114. on the internet at http://www.pastoralreport.com/the_archives/2002/04/emotionally_sou.html [This essay explores an earlier era's understanding of the "spiritual" and the more "soulful" components of healing and how Dunbar combined these to focus on helping all peoples become "free to think and act."]
  • Powell, R.C., “ ‘Be Strong! Take Courage! All Ye Who Hope in the Lord’ ” [has passage & footnote re Dunbar’s mother, Edith Vaughn Flanders Dunbar (1871-1963)] on the internet at http://www.pastoralreport.com/Be%20Strong!%20Take%20Courage!%20%20plenary%20comments%20%2011-apr-%202010%20-%20final%20-%20PR%20version-.pdf
  • Powell, R.C., “Clinical Pastoral Psychology of Religion: ‘A Peculiar and Dynamic Play between the Mundane and the Sublime’ “ [has passage & footnote re Dunbar’s father, Francis William Dunbar (1868-1939)] on the internet at http://www.pastoralreport.com/the_archives/2011/04/clinical_pastor_2.html#more


  • Dunbar, H.F., Emotions and Bodily Changes, Columbia University Press, (New York), 1935.
  • Dunbar, H.F., Mind and Body: Psychosomatic Medicine, Random House, (New York), 1947.
  • Dunbar, H.F., Psychiatry in the Medical Specialties, McGraw-Hill, (New York), 1959.
  • Dunbar, H.F., Psychosomatic Diagnosis, P.B. Hoeber, Inc., (New York), 1943.
  • Dunbar, H.F., Symbolism in Medieval Thought and its Consummation in The Divine Comedy, Yale University Press, (New Haven), 1929.
  • Dunbar, H.F., Your Child’s Mind and Body; a Practical Guide for Parents, Random House, (New York), 1949.