Herbert Spiegel, Doctor Who Popularized Hypnosis, Dies at 95
The following is an excerpt from the January 10, 2010 NY Times obituary by BENEDICT CAREYDr. Herbert Spiegel treated pain, anxiety and addictions by putting people into a trance. Broadway actors sought his help to overcome stage fright, singers to quit smoking, politicians to overcome fear of flying. For years he had a regular table at Elaine’s, as well as his own place on the national stage.
A New York psychiatrist, Dr. Spiegel, who died on Dec. 15 at the age of 95, was far and away the country’s most visible and persuasive advocate for therapeutic hypnosis, having established it as a mainstream medical technique.
Beginning in the 1950s, he described the technique, both its uses and misuses, in magazine articles and in courtrooms. In the 1960s, he developed the first quick and practical test for individual susceptibility to hypnosis; it is still widely used. In later decades he appeared on television programs like “60 Minutes” and he helped treat the woman known as Sybil, whose controversial case became the subject of a book and inspired two television movies.
In a famous course at Columbia University, Dr. Spiegel taught generations of doctors the art and science of hypnosis — how concentrated relaxation and suggestion can have a powerful effect on thinking and behavior.
His son, Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, said his father had died in his sleep at his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, not far from Elaine’s, where Dr. Herbert Spiegel’s regular table was near Woody Allen’s at what was a fixture of the New York intellectual and creative scene in the 1960s and ’70s.
A trained Freudian analyst, Dr. Spiegel came to see traditional, open-ended psychoanalysis as too costly and meandering for many patients — and hypnosis as a way to accelerate healing, effecting change in some people even in a single session. As Dr. Spiegel’s reputation grew, performers and politicians in New York and prominent people from around the world made their way to his office in Manhattan.
It was in the early ’60s that he filled in for Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur, the therapist who had been treating a troubled woman named Shirley Mason, who appeared to communicate through several distinct personalities. Her case became the basis for the popular 1973 book “Sybil,” by Flora Rheta Schreiber, and two television adaptations, one in 1976 with Joanne Woodward and Sally Field and the other in 2008 with Jessica Lange.
Critics later challenged Dr. Wilbur’s methods, saying they had encouraged the woman’s behavior.
Dr. Spiegel agreed. He argued that Sybil had disassociation disorder, not multiple personalities, and he voiced his reservations when the book became part of a debate in recent years over the causes of such disorders.
Yet more than anything, it was Dr. Spiegel’s rigorous studies of hypnosis, as well as his easygoing, matter-of-fact presence, that most impressed other doctors and patients.
“He wasn’t Svengali-like; he didn’t have this Mesmer voice,” said Dr. Philip R. Muskin, a psychiatrist at Columbia. “He was a regular guy with this Midwestern accent who explained in a very straightforward way that hypnosis was something you could learn that’s useful. He really took the techniques out of the dark alleys, out of Hollywood and the world of the circus, and moved them into mainstream medicine.”
We would do well to honor and appreciate the great work by pioneers like Dr. Spiegel who, like Dr. Erickson, blazed the trail that lets us do our work today.