In her journal, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote, “There is within each of us a potential for goodness beyond our imagining, for giving which seeks no reward; for listening without judgment; for loving unconditionally.” It was this spirit that directed much of her psychiatric work with terminally ill patients, AIDS patients, and maximum-security prisoners.
She was born in Zurich, Switzerland, a tiny two-pound baby, the first of triplets. In spite of her father’s objections, Elisabeth was determined at an early age to study medicine and in 1957 received her medical degree from the University of Zurich. She married Dr. Emanuel Ross, an American, who also studied at the university and they moved to the United States to fulfill their medical residency requirements.
During her first residency at Manhattan State Hospital, Dr. Kübler-Ross was horrified by the routine neglect and poor treatment of mental patients. It was here that she began her life-long approach to medical practice as she developed a program of individual care and attention for each patient. This protocol resulted in significant improvement in the mental health of 94% of her patients.
She continued in the field of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. There she became a teaching fellow and began a lecture series for medical and theological students on death and dying, with terminally ill patients as part of her presentations.
As an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago in 1965, Dr. Kübler-Ross continued these seminars, which were incorporated into her first book, On Death and Dying, a 1969 worldwide bestseller. This book and her lectures are credited with helping people put aside a long-held Western reluctance to openly talk about death and dying. This, in turn, helped to strengthen the hospice movement in the United States and to make the study of the psychological, social, and physical issues associated with dying an important and accepted part of medical training. Based on her many patient interviews, she identified the five now widely accepted stages that patients encounter as they confront death; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Today, these stages are associated with any major loss or life-changing experience.
During her career, Dr. Kübler-Ross was associated with 16 different hospitals and universities, wrote more than 20 books, many of which were translated into other languages, received many honors including Time Magazine, 1999, 100 Most Important Thinkers of the Century and numerous honorary degrees.