skip to main content

Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959)

by Hendrika Vande Kemp, Fuller Theological Seminary*

Biography of Helen Flanders Dunbar

Helen Flanders Dunbar was born in Chicago on 14 May 1902. She was the oldest child of Edith Vaughn Flanders (1871-1963), an Episcopalian clergyman's daughter who was a professional genealogist, and Francis William Dunbar (1868-1939), an electrical engineer and patent attorney. Helen's brother Francis was born 8 March 1906; he earned an M.A. in botany at Stanford University. The household included Dunbar's grandmother, Sarah Anne Ide Flanders (1827-1920), and her maiden aunt, Ellen Ide Flanders (1868-1961). Dunbar received her early education from tutors and at private schools. She published her 1929 dissertation as H. Flanders Dunbar, and after 1939 was known simply as Flanders Dunbar. She married Theodor Peter Wolfensberger (a.k.a. Theodore P. Wolfe, 1902-1954) in 1932; they were divorced on 12 December 1939. On 13 July 1940 she married George Henry Soule (1888-1970), an economist and editor of The New Republic. Their daughter Marcia Dunbar-Soule [Dobson] was born within two years.

Issues related to her own embodiment awakened Dunbar's later interest in psychosomatic medicine. As a child, she suffered from pseudo infantile paralysis, a "rachitic, weakening disease" (Powell, 1974, pp. 81-82), and in adolescence she was diagnosed with a "metabolic disturbance" (p. 86). As an adult, she stood a mere 4'11", and her Bryn Mawr schoolmates (B.A. 1923) dubbed her "Little Dunbar"; later, she always wore custom-built platform pumps. The "shy, unsophisticated, and extremely vulnerable" (p. 87) Dunbar earned four graduate degrees (in theology, philosophy, and medicine) from three different institutions in seven years. She managed these studies in New York and New Haven in part by employing two secretaries/research assistants: Rosamund Grant and Mary Ewer.

Dunbar's interest in theology was reinforced by undergraduate courses with the eminent psychologist of religion, James Henry Leuba. Dunbar wrote her B.D. thesis (Union Theological Seminary, 1927) on Methods of Training in the Devotional Life Employed in the American Churches: this involved the study of symbolism and ritual. During the summer of 1925, she was among the four seminary students who trained at Worcester State Hospital with Anton Boisen, one of the co-founders of the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) movement. Dunbar's thesis won her an Ely-Eby Landon Traveling Fellowship, and in late 1929 she traveled to Europe to study "religion as the unifying power in personal life and ... its relation to healing and development" (Powell, 1974, pp. 87-98). She studied under the psychoanalytic internist Felix Deutsch at the General and Psychiatric-Neurological Hospitals of the University of Vienna, and commuted to Zürich to study at Jung's Burghölzli Clinic. She conducted research on psychic factors in disease by traveling to Lourdes and to other healing shrines in Germany and Austria.

Dunbar studied philosophy at Columbia University. She wrote her MA thesis (1924) on The Sun Symbol in Medieval Thought, and drafted a manuscript on The Medieval Mass in the West (1923-1924). Her PhD dissertation (1929) on Symbolism in Medieval Thought and its Consummation in The Divine Comedy earned her a permanent place in Dante scholarship: she applied biblical exegesis to her interpretation, and demonstrated that "religion and science are not antagonistic but complementary through symbolism" (Powell, 1974, p. 91), an idea that recurs in her psychosomatic medicine and links her work to that of Boisen and Elwood Worcester.

Dunbar matriculated for medical school at Yale University, where classmates called her "Pocket Minerva" (p. 95). Before leaving for Europe, Dunbar completed a subinternship in medicine and obstetrics, as well as work in "fluoroscopy of the heart and electrocardiography" (p. 99). Her M.D. thesis (1930) was on The Optic Mechanisms and Cerebellum of the Telescope Fish (Carassius Auratus Var.). From 1930 to 1942 Dunbar was the medical director of the newly formed Council for Clinical Training of Theological Students, a role that immortalized her as the matriarch of the CPE movement (see Holifield, 1983). Her departure from the Council was due in part to her Freudian and Reichian ideas (Theodore Wolfe translated and advocated Reich's work). Dunbar directed the Joint Committee on Religion and Medicine of the New York Academy of Medicine (1931-1936): her book Emotions and Bodily Changes: A Survey of Literature on Psychosomatic Interrelationships: 1910-1933 was a report to this committee. It became a classic, reprinted in 1938, 1946, and 1954.

Within psychology, Dunbar is generally known as "the mother of holistic medicine" (Stevens & Gardner, 1982, p. 93). In the early 1930s, Dunbar completed her residency and served as an instructor at Columbia Medical College. As director of the psychosomatic research program (1932-1949), she conducted holistic evaluations of more than 1,600 patients at the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital that established the relationship between "personality constellation" and psychosomatic disorder. Dunbar's books in this field are still "classics": Psychosomatic Diagnosis (1943) was the first handbook: Mind and Body: Psychosomatic Medicine (1947) was the first best-seller. Her other books include Synopsis of Psychosomatic Diagnosis and Treatment (1948), Your Child's Mind and Body: A Practical Guide for Parents (1949), and Psychiatry and the Medical Specialties (1959), which appeared on the day of her death.

Dunbar founded the American Society for Research in Psychosomatic Problems (American Psychosomatic Society) and its journal Psychosomatic Medicine: Experimental and Clinical Studies. She edited Psychosomatic Medicine (1939-1947), Psychosomatic Medicine Monographs (1939-1946), and Psychoanalytic Quarterly (1939-1940), and served on the editorial board of Personality: Symposia on Topical Interests (1950+). She was an instructor at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute (1941-1949).

Dunbar's last years were difficult, and she sometimes handled the stress with alcohol. Soule's views on social medicine created problems for her with the New York Academy of Medicine; a secretary committed suicide in 1948, a patient (Raymond Roscoe Squier) in 1951; Dunbar was in a near-fatal auto accident 1954; she had to defend herself against a senseless and sensational lawsuit. On 21 August 1959 Dunbar was "found floating face down in her swimming pool" (Powell, 1974, p. 275). The New York Times and Herald-Tribune reported her death as a suicide; the coroner ruled it simply death by drowning.


Holifield, E. B. (1983). A history of pastoral care in America. New York: Abingdon Press.

Powell, R. C. (1974). Healing and wholeness: Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959) and an extra-medical origin of the American psychosomatic movement, 1906-1936. Ann Arbor, MI: Xerox University Microfilms, 75-2415.          

Stevens, G., & Gardner, S. (1982). The women of psychology. Vol. II. Cambridge, MA: Schenckman.


*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 28, Number 1, Winter, 2001.  Appearing with permission of the author.

Date created: 2010