Clara Thompson

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For the American educator, Latinist and suffragette, see Clara Louise Thompson.

Clara Mabel Thompson (October 3, 1893 in Providence, Rhode Island – December 20, 1958) studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University and in her last year she was introduced to psychoanalysis. In the future years she developed as a psychoanalyst working with people like William Alanson White, Adolf Meyer, Harry Stack Sullivan, Joseph Cheesman Thompson, and Sándor Ferenczi. In the early 1940s Thompson founded the William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation in New York together with Erich Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, David Rioch and Janet Rioch (see She worked there until her death on December 20, 1958[1]

Thompson's contribution to psychoanalysis[edit]

Clara Thompson’s main contribution to the field of psychoanalysis consists of an extensive overview of the field. She wrote books and papers about the origin and development of psychoanalysis, because her students were confused by the varied approaches of different psychoanalytic schools: in her own words because"if one stopped emphasizing differences and tried to note the general stream of development one would find that this infant science (...) has a forward moving direction to which all of the different schools have contributed". Thompson had an extensive knowledge of the field of psychoanalysis regarding both developments [2] and the different positions and schools.[3] In describing the different schools Thompson took a position in the middle of the psychoanalytic spectrum; she always stressed what different views could add to the field and always spoke with great respect about representatives of the different schools.

Thompson divided Psychoanalysis’ development into four periods:

(1) 1885–1900: In this period the majority of the basic ideas of psychoanalysis were born out of Freud’s mind and remain at the center of some schools up till the present day.

(2) 1900–1910/1920: Stressed the importance of the biological sexual development of the child.

(3) 1910–1925: The focus extended itself to the entire personality.

(4) 1925–present: The view on psychoanalysis expanded from internal forces only (the classic psychoanalysis) to the influences of culture and other persons on the patient and its psychoanalysis. This is also the view that Thompson herself embraced: the influence of culture and interpersonal relationship can never be discarded in psychoanalysis.

In theory and practice she emphasized and analyzed what went on between people to facilitate the growth of a human relationship. She passionately believed in the value of psychoanalysis for enhancing the humanity of persons, no matter how sick they appeared to be.

Her book “Psychoanalysis: Evolution and Development” (1951) is a comprehensive documentation of the course of psychoanalytic theory and practice and Thompson's main point is that psychoanalysis has changed since its Freudian theorisation. Specifically, although she recognises Freud's genius, she notes his limitations in the theory and focuses on the changes that occurred due to the contribution of great therapists that followed Freud. Thompson also refers to cultural anthropology research as another contributor to further evolution of psychoanalysis. Moreover, in this book she investigates how the therapist-patient relationship has been viewed in the course of time. She underscores the importance of this relationship in the therapeutic procedure.

In her paper, “The different Schools of Psychoanalysis” (1957), Thompson notes some of the basic concepts of Freud, Adler, Jung, Rank, Ferenczi, Horney, Sullivan and Fromm. She concludes that, despite the differences between these approaches to the field of ego psychology, all these writers are aiming at “the creation of a science of man built on the foundation Freud has laid”.

Psychology of women in a cultural context[edit]

Clara Thompson presented an outline of the main facts towards the psychology of women [4] and established this within the context of the assignment of social meanings that are given to biological differences between the two sexes within different cultural contexts. The main purpose of this outline was to stimulate further exploration along the various paths in this issue. Thompson considered the status of women in relation to men in regard to its fluctuate development in the course of the centuries and in different cultures and societies. In formulating a psychology of women, she stated that one has to consider first, what is basically different about man and women and second, what variations on this basic pattern have been produced by cultural tradition, and thirdly, how these variations seem to promote or inhibit the basic biological strivings.

Thompson saw gender most fundamentally as a cultural creation: gender characteristics are established by the assignment of social cultural meanings to biological differences. She saw the most problematic phase for girls in adolescence, in the perception of differences in social constraints and power. Thompson suggested that, because of economic disparities and the use of seductiveness as an understandable compensatory commodity, “woman's alleged narcissism and greater need to be loved may be entirely the result of economic necessity”. In her paper “Towards a Psychology of Women” Thompson (1953) tries to find some general elements of the psychology of the American woman in her time. She focuses on ways in which society frustrates or distorts basic biological drives of women.


  1. ^ Green, M.R. (1964). Interpersonal psychoanalysis: the selected papers of Clara M. Thompson New York: Basic Books Inc.
  2. ^ Thompson, C. & Mullahy, P. (1951). Psychoanalysis: evolution and development (3rd ed.). New York: Hermitage House
  3. ^ Thompson, C. (Ed.), Mazer, M. & Witenberg, E. (1955). An outline of psychoanalysis. New York: Random House
  4. ^ Thompson, C.M. (1953). Towards a psychology of women. Pastoral Psychology, 4 (34), 29-38


  • Mitchell, S. A. & Black, M. (1995). Freud and beyond: A history of modern psychoanalytic thought. New York: Basic Books.
  • Thompson, C. M. (1957). The different schools of psychoanalysis. American Journal of Nursing, 57, 1304–1307