The first born of triplets in Zurich, Switzerland, on July 8, 1926, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross became a psychiatrist, best known for her pioneering work in the care of dying patients. Her pathway to medicine was not without obstacles. Her father wanted her to join him in his business as a secretary, and when she refused, he insisted her only alternative was to work as a domestic. After working for a family in Germany, she rejoined her family in 1943 and again defied her father by entering an apprenticeship in biomedical research. Elisabeth was restive in the laboratory and found herself drawn to direct interactions with patients. She volunteered as a relief worker in rebuilding the French town of Ecurcey after World War II and later served as a volunteer in the International Volunteers for Peace organization, helping the survivors of the war rebuild their lives and villages. Such experiences convinced her that she could contribute most through a life in medicine and claimed as one of her sources of inspiration the work of Albert Schweitzer.
Kübler-Ross entered medical school at the University of Zurich in 1951 and graduated in 1957. She married an American whom she had met in medical school, Emanuel R. Ross, MD, and together they served as interns at Glen Cove Community Hospital, Long Island, New York. After her internship, she accepted a research fellowship at Manhattan State Hospital, where she went beyond her initial job description to provide compassionate care for her mentally ill patients. Kübler-Ross then entered a psychiatry residency at Montefiore Hospital in 1961. She broke with traditional Freudian practices in the care of patients and had remarkable success in helping patients through intuitive and innovative practices.
In 1962, she and Emanuel accepted joint positions at the University of Colorado, and Kübler-Ross served as assistant professor of psychiatry at Billings Hospital in Chicago from 1965 to 1970. Although she was hired to teach the psychiatric aspects of patient care to medical students, she was increasingly drawn to share the lessons she had learned in caring for dying patients through seminars and lectures on this topic.
Her research and clinical experiences with dying patients took the form of a book published in 1969, On Death and Dying, in which she chronicled her observations that many patients go through five “stages” after being diagnosed with a fatal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The book was an immediate success and had a profound affect on the subsequent behavior of health care professionals, many of whom were empowered by Kübler-Ross to emulate her compassionate treatment of the dying.
Kübler-Ross subsequently moved her home to Scottsdale, Arizona. Her health was impaired by a series of strokes in 1995 and 1996 and afterward lived in a group home that provided appropriate care. Kübler-Ross died on August 24, 2004. Just before her death, she was interviewed by National Public Radio and filmed by a crew from Vermont making a film about hospice. Stefan Haupt, a Swiss film maker, recently completed a film on her life that has received popular acclaim in the country of her birth.
- Gill, (1980). Quest: The life of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.New York: Harper & Row.
- Haupt, (Producer). (2002). Facing death [Videorecording].Brooklyn, NY: First Run/Icarus Films.
- Kübler-Ross, (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.
- Kübler-Ross, (1997). The wheel of life: A memoir of living and dying. New York: Scribner.
- Rosen, J. (1995, January 22). Rewriting the end: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. New York Times Magazine, pp. 22–25. Retrieved from http://www.elisabethkublerross.com/pages/html