Joseph Wolpe (20 April 1915 in Johannesburg, South Africa – 4 December 1997 in Los Angeles) was a South African psychiatrist and one of the most influential figures in behavior therapy.
Wolpe grew up in South Africa, attending Parktown Boys' High School and obtaining his MD from the University of the Witwatersrand.
In 1956 Wolpe was awarded a Ford Fellowship and spent a year at Stanford University in the Center for Behavioral Sciences, subsequently returning to South Africa but permanently moving to the United States in 1960 when he accepted a position at the University of Virginia.
In 1965 Wolpe accepted a position at Temple University.One of the most influential experiences in Wolpe's life was when he enlisted in the South African army as a medical officer.
Wolpe was entrusted to treat soldiers who were diagnosed with what was then called "war neurosis" but today is known as post traumatic stress disorder.
The mainstream treatment of the time for soldiers was drug therapy.
Doctors would use a type of "truth serum" to get soldiers to talk about their experiences.
It was believed that having the soldiers talk about their experiences openly would effectively cure their neurosis.
However, this was not the case.
It was this lack of successful treatment outcomes that forced Wolpe, once a dedicated follower of Freud, to question psychoanalytic therapy and search for more effective treatment options.
Wolpe is most well known for his reciprocal inhibition techniques, particularly systematic desensitization, which revolutionized behavioral therapy.
A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Wolpe as the 53rd most cited psychologist of the 20th century, an impressive accomplishment accentuated by the fact that Wolpe was a psychiatrist.