Buxbaum, Edith (1902-1982)

  • By Esther Altshul Helfgott, Ph.D.
  • Posted 1/21/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3674
See Additional Media

The Viennese-born psychoanalyst Edith Buxbaum, author of Your Child Makes Sense (1949) and Troubled Children in a Troubled World (1970), arrived in Seattle on January 1, 1947. She was a leading psychoanalyst here for more than 30 years and was a principal founder of the Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute (later renamed Seattle Institute of Psychoanalysis). She served as its Child Analysis Division Head and as Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Washington. Her devotion to children, her desire to improve the quality of their lives and, thus, better the world, by emphasizing the child’s individuality and creativity -- with more listening, less discipline, a nuclear family with the mother preferably at home -- informed her philosophy and practice.

Beginnings in Vienna

Edith Buxbaum was born on April 20, 1902, the only child of Jeanette Seidler Buxbaum (1879-1962) and Samuel Buxbaum (1866-1934). Her mother was a housewife and her father a dry goods merchant. Although she was an only child, Edith grew up in an extended family with cousins as playmates. (One of her cousins was Bruno Bettelheim, later a renowned pyschologist.) She told an interviewer, "I was constantly going back and forth between my parents' and my grandparents' apartments" (Schwartz). But sickness and secrecy about an uncle's syphilis dominated her young life. (This uncle was Bruno Bettelheim's father.) "The life of my parents was a nightmare for them which they kept hidden from everybody, even their parents and siblings" (quoted by Sutton). Beyond her household, however, Buxbaum found intellectual stimulation and excitement in a topic that was all the rage in early twentieth century Vienna: psychoanalysis. She was going to lectures on psychoanalysis and reading such key books as Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams before she was 14 years old.

Buxbaum earned a Ph.D. at the University of Vienna, and taught high school history in Vienna. She used her earnings from this first discipline to undergo and study psychoanalysis, most notably with Anna Freud (1895-1982), daughter of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis. Buxbaum was a member of Anna Freud's first seminar on child analysis, created in 1927.

A Word About Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis was created and developed by Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth century. It is, on the one hand, a way of thinking about the self (literary critics, art critics, philosophers, and historians utilize its tenets); and on the other hand, it is a treatment method in which clinicians -- psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers -- analyze an individual's history with the notion that the child's first few years of life are most significant in the development of adult behavior.

The analysand (person being psychoanalyzed) lies on a couch or sits in a chair (depending upon the analyst's orientation) and through free association, dream recitation, and transference (that is, transferring feelings about one's parents or others to the analyst) allows unconscious thoughts to become conscious. In so doing, the individual learns that one's unconscious self has been leading one's conscious self around by the nose. Child analysis utilizes the fields of play therapy and art therapy, whereas adult analysis does not.

From Vienna to New York

In the 1930s, the Nazis began overrunning Europe, and in 1937, when she was 35 years old, Buxbaum, who was a Jew, fled Vienna for New York City. Her escape from Europe was made possible by Americans including the director of New York’s Bank Street Cooperative for Teachers, who created a fake job for her, providing her with a U S. visa.

In March 1938, after the Anschluss (the incorporation of Austria into the German Reich), Buxbaum, with the help of other analysts, was able to get her mother out of Europe, as well as her friend and soon-to-be-husband, the erudite Viennese lawyer Fritz Schmidl (1897-1969). Her father had died years earlier.

Buxbaum's upper East Side apartment bustled with relatives. Her mother had moved in with her; and when Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990), Buxbaum's maternal first cousin, was released from a German concentration camp in 1939, he moved into her apartment, as well. (Bettelheim was a psychologist renowned for his work with autistic children, and author of Love Is Not Enough, 1950, and The Uses of Enchantment, 1976, among other books.) Bettelheim’s mother and sister arrived in 1940 and moved in, as well.

Buxbaum worked as an analyst in Manhattan for 10 years; in so doing, she prepared herself for the work that lay ahead in Seattle. While in New York, she taught for the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and at the New School for Social Research, and worked as a consultant to the Little Red Schoolhouse, the Town School, the Children's Aid Society, and the Community Service Society.

Her work included a series of child development lectures and seminars for the Child Welfare League and the 69 Bank Street Cooperative for Teachers. The latter was "an expression of her gratitude to Bank Street, and [a way] to `legitimatize' her contract ..." wrote Eleanor Siegl (1917-1997), Seattle educator and founding director of The Little School of Bellevue, Washington.

Buxbaum had her family with her in New York and she had an active professional life; but she needed a professional life that she could mold and define. Within a few years of arriving in the U.S., her cousin Bruno Bettelheim was offered a job practicing psychology and teaching at the University of Chicago. Buxbaum wanted a niche of her own as well, one where she could display her brand of creativity and uniqueness and where she could reach the pinnacle of success within a psychoanalytic context.

Controversies and Personalities

This was virtually impossible for her in New York City. There, the psychoanalytic arena was fraught with controversy between analysts who wanted only medical doctors to practice and those who believed, with Freud, that lay analysts (those without a medical degree) were equally essential to the discipline. When Freud lost his battle with the American medical establishment, the careers of Buxbaum (who had a Ph.D., not an M.D.), and other lay analysts, many of whom were European refugees, were in jeopardy.

In addition, Buxbaum had personal conflicts with important New York child analysts, Bertha Bornstein and Marie Briehl, for example. Boston analyst-historian, Sanford Gifford told this writer that "some New York colleagues found Buxbaum arrogant and bossy." Indeed, these characteristics would follow her to Seattle, and remained with her for the rest of her life.

There were other reasons for Buxbaum to leave New York. Her husband Fritz Schmidl, having given up law to become a social worker, wanted to get out of New York. In a 1978 interview with Seattle analyst Dr. Lawrence Schwartz, Buxbaum said that Fritz could not get ahead in the New York social work field because it was "dominated by the ladies." He also wanted to get away from city life. Both missed the lakes and mountains of Vienna and according to the late Dr. Judith Kestenberg, Buxbaum's analysand and New York colleague, the couple looked for a place that would offer such attributes.

Edith Buxbaum in Seattle

Buxbaum came to Seattle at the invitation of Dr. Douglass W. Orr (1905-1990), a Menninger-trained psychoanalyst who encouraged her to help him build the psychoanalytic enterprise in Seattle. Fritz Schmidl would also become an important educational force in Seattle’s psychoanalytic community. They arrived on January 1, 1947.

In Seattle, lack of a medical degree did not hinder Buxbaum’s ability to develop a practice or a professional following. In fact, her connection to social work and education would ultimately allow her to extend her influence well beyond the psychoanalytic community that she helped form. Many of the social workers and educators whose lives she touched would remain in awe of her long after her death.

Buxbaum helped build the Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute (SIP), and became the Seattle Institute's Child Analysis Division Head, as well as Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Washington. She was consultant to the Family Society of Seattle, the Ryther Child Treatment Center, The Little School, and the Indian Headstart Program. She helped found and direct the Northwest Clinic, a school for disturbed children at the Northwest Clinic for Neurology and Psychiatry; and in 1969, she helped found Project P ("for the prevention of difficulties between parents and infants").

Buxbaum put Seattle on the psychoanalytic map. How could she not? Her connection to Viennese psychoanalytic society, particularly her studies with Anna Freud, gave Buxbaum an exultant, if not royal, status in this out-of-the-loop Northwest town.

Psychoanalytic Institutes in Seattle

The Seattle Institute of Psychoanalysis started out in 1946 as the Seattle Psychoanalytic Training Center with the already-established San Francisco Institute as its sponsor. The American Psychoanalytic Association granted SIP institute status in 1964. In 1980, after a bankruptcy, SIP became the Psychoanalytic Association of Seattle, which later became the Seattle Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

In the mid-1990s, two other psychoanalytic institutes formed in Seattle -- the Northwest Center for Psychoanalysis to counter the traditional Freudian bent of SIP, and the Center for Object Relations built by followers of child analyst Melanie Klein (1882-1960). The North Pacific Institute for Analytical Psychology, the Jungian training institute in Seattle, was created by followers of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). The Northwest Alliance for Psychoanalytic Study was formed in the late 1980s by a SIP analyst and other mental health professionals for educational purposes; though it had hopes of becoming a training institute, it did not.

Music, Hiking, Jewish Identity, Friendship

The Pacific Northwest offered Buxbaum and Schmidl the physical attractions they craved: Mountains, woods and lakes allowed them the opportunity to hike and to climb and swim, activities which both had enjoyed in Vienna. The University of Washington offered them the opportunity to develop a social life, friends with whom they would develop life-long relationships and who would band together in a friendship group called The Rainy City Chaverim. (Chaverah is Hebrew for friendship group).

Some of Buxbaum's colleagues thought she was not "Jewish-identified." One non-Jewish analyst told this writer: "She was completely non-Jewish." This was not so. She identified strongly with the Jewish community. A Jewish colleague stated that she did not want to attend psychoanalytic meetings at the Laurelhurst Country Club because it was restricted (supposedly, Jews were not welcome). Another friend and colleague stated that she and Fritz chose to live south of the ship canal because her mishpucha (family or landsmen) lived there -- in Seward Park.

Buxbaum felt an attachment to Israel. She and Schmidl lived in Israel during the 1965-1966 academic year when she was invited to work as a supervisor and consultant to educators and therapists at a child guidance clinic run by the kibbutzim. On her return to the States, she published an important article, "The Problems of Kibbutz Children." While in Israel Buxbaum kept a diary. In it she wonders if "people here [aren't] more in our own group than in [the] U.S."

Music was an important social vehicle for the couple. Edith took up violin and, later, the viola. She played the piano. A former student said Edith chose her friends as she did her students and professional connections. "I saw her looking at an individual; and if she thought they had what they needed to do the work, she would nurture them. And if they didn't, she didn't have much to do with them. I suppose she chose her friends that way as well. Could they play music with her? Go hiking? Were they professionals? Intellectuals? Could they offer good conversation?"

One Seattle analyst said: "I was invited over when they planned to play music. She wasn't the greatest musician in the world. I guess she took up the violin because she wanted to play with other people." This may be true, but she also wanted to accompany Fritz on the piano. Music was an integral part of Edith's life. She had played piano since childhood; in fact her mother would have much preferred that her daughter become a pianist, not an analyst. But Buxbaum's expertise was in psychoanalysis, and she did not claim to be an expert musician.

Edith Buxbaum, SIP, and the Woman Problem

In Seattle, Buxbaum became a celebrity and the only female training analyst associated with SIP (or its later incarnations) during her lifetime (and until 1994). A site visit to and evaluation of the Seattle Institute of Psychoanalysis by the American Psychoanalytic Association in 1993 severely questioned the Seattle Institute’s dearth of women and ethnic minorities in professional positions. The report connected the Seattle Insitute’s “woman problem” to Buxbaum:

“"Edith Buxbaum produced a powerful legacy, but one that needs to be put in perspective. She was a gifted female analyst of another era. She did not, maybe she could not, bring other women into the fold. Several said that she encouraged women to stay out, and to form their own group outside of the Institute.... "With all due credits assigned, with love for her for all the good she contributed, with acceptance and full use of her memorial library, and with an irreducible debt of gratitude, is it not time to say goodbye to Edith Buxbaum?”

Buxbaum had become such an icon in Seattle that until the 1993 site-visit team's report and this researcher’s probing a year later, her role in the psychoanalytic community had, for the most part, gone unquestioned, at least in public and on paper. (One year and two months after the site visit, during the May 1994, meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, two female M.D.s and two male M.D.s, all Caucasian, were appointed as training analysts.)

Buxbaum was not the cause of the Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute’s idiosyncrasies. And in fact, as one of the early mothers of psychoanalysis, she helped both women and children. As Elisabeth Young-Bruehl points out, Seattle became a satellite of Anna Freud's Hampstead Clinic in England as a result of Buxbaum's presence. In fact, given Buxbaum's propensity to link psychoanalytic principles to early childhood education, along with her connection to Seattle educators and social workers, she was instrumental in extending institutional psychoanalysis beyond its limited frontier.

As with Anna Freud and a host of other teachers, many of them women, Buxbaum was part of a movement of European educators who came to child psychoanalysis in their second careers. These child analysts entwined their previous learning experiences with psychoanalysis. Buxbaum was part of this movement to create a psychoanalytic pedagogy and bring it to the wider community. She had her conflicts with the institution she helped create, and many had conflicts with her, but as a Ph.D. within a growing group of white male M.D. analysts who would set up practice in Seattle from the 1950s on, Edith Buxbaum not only kept her balance; she found, as well, a niche of her own.

Edith Buxbaum died of ovarian cancer on July 14, 1982. Her ashes are interred at Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery, Seattle.


Edith Buxbaum Library, Seattle Institute for Psychoanalysis Seattle, WA.; A.A. Brill Library, New York Psychoanalytic Institute, New York, NY; Little School, Bellevue, WA.; Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery, Seattle; State of Washington Corporations Division; Northwest Collection, University of Washington; Ryther Treatment Center, Seattle; Edith Buxbaum, Your Child Makes Sense: A Guidebook for Parents (New York: International Universities Press, 1949); Edith Buxbaum, Troubled Children in a Troubled World (New York: International Universities Press, 1970); Edith Buxbaum, "Introduction," in Fritz Schmidl, On Applied Psychoanalysis (New York: Philosophical Library, 1981); Edith Buxbaum, Personal Papers, author’s possession, courtesy of Herbert J. Belch; Nathan G. Hale, Jr., The Rise and Crisis of Psychoanalysis in the United States: Freud and the Americans, 1917-1985 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Bruno Bettelheim, Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1989); Richard Sterba, Reminiscences of a Viennese Psychoanalyst ( Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982); American Psychoanalytic Association, Preliminary Site Visit Report, March 1993; Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute, "A Tribute to Edith Buxbaum, Ph.D.," 1973; Interviews by Esther Helfgott take place in Seattle unless otherwise noted: George Allison, M.D., 1994; Maxine Anderson, M.D., 1994; Anonymous, September 20, 1994; Herbert J. Belch, December 5, 1994; Myrtle Dingfield, August 18, 1994, Eugene Goforth, M.D., September 24, 1994, Adolph Gruhn, M.S.W., August 29, 1994; Catherine Henderson, Ph.D., RN., September 2, 1994; Edward Kaplan, M.S.W., November 11, 1994; Judith Kestenberg, M.D., NY, December 16, 1994; Heidi Kirschner, M.D., August 1994; Charles Mangham, M.D., August 23, 1994; Linda McDonald, M.S.W., August 30, 1994; Gerald Olch, M.D., September 8, 1994; Else Pappenheim, M.D., NY, December 15, 1994; Eleanor Siegl, Ph.D., 1995; Henry Siegl, 1995, Lawrence Schwartz, M.D., 1994; Daniel R. Szekely, M.D., 1994; Morry Tolmach, M.S.W., September 29, 1994; Professor Joan C. Ullman, 1994; Interviews by others: Sanford Gifford with Edith Buxbaum, June 16, 1979; Sanford Gifford with Marie Briehl, 1975; Lawrence H. Schwartz, M.D. with Edith Buxbaum, published as From Vienna to Seattle: Dr. Edith Buxbaum Remembers (Seattle: Seattle Institute for Psychoanalysis, 1990); Sol Cohen, "In the Name of the Prevention of Neurosis: The Search for a Psychoanalytic Pedagogy in Europe 1905-1938," pp. 184-219, in Regulated Children/Liberated Children: Education in Psychohistorical Perspective ed. by Barbara Finkelstein (New York: Psychohistory Press, 1979); David James Fisher, "The Suicide of a Survivor: Some Intimate Perceptions of Bettelheim s Suicide," The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 79, No. 4, Winter 1992, pp. 590-602; Richard Pollak, The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997); Janet Sayers, Mothers of Psychoanalysis: Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein (New York: Norton, 1991); Emanuel Rice, "The Jewish Heritage of Sigmund Freud," The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 81, No. 2, Summer 1994, pp. 237-258; Eleanor Siegl, A Very Personal History of the Little School, Ph. D. Dissertation, The Union Graduate School, November 1977; Nina Sutton, Bettelheim: A Life and Legacy Translated from the French by David Sharpe (New York: Basic Books, [1995] 1996); Nellie L. Thompson, "Early Women Psychoanalysts," International Review of Psycho-Analysis Vol. 14 (1987), pp. 406-407; Elisabeth Young Bruehl, Mind and the Body Politic (New York: Routledge, 1989); Emmett Watson, "Buxbaum: Analyst ... And A Lot More," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 7, 1975, p. A-8; Emmett Watson, "A New Way," Ibid., September 26, 1976, p. B-1; Note: Evidence that Buxbaum's arrival date in Seattle was January 1, 1947, and not January 1, 1948, as she remembered in an interview is provided by her 1947 Seattle phone number listed in Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co., Seattle and Vicinity Telphone Directory, August 1947, p. 357.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You