John Elderkin Bell, a psychologist at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts, began seeing families in 1951. Although he may be considered the first family therapist (Broderick and Schrader, 1991; Nichols and Schwartz, 1998), he did not publish his ideas for several years and did not develop a clinical center or train well-known students. As a result, many of his ideas remained on the periphery of the field.


His most noteworthy contribution was a book, Family Group Therapy (1961), in which he described an approach to families based on the ideas of group therapy, a form of treatment in which individuals discuss their problems in a group setting, allowing them to receive support and feedback from other group members. Rather than thinking about a family as an interactional system, or a single unit in which all members interact as parts of a larger whole, he treated each family member as he would an individual group member. He would prod silent members to speak up and encourage more dominant members to speak less often. Some of his ideas led to the early belief that family therapy was similar to group therapy, but many issues distinguish the two.


First of all, group therapy brings several individuals together to form a temporary support group in which individuals work through their problems. Their relationship is temporary and often terminates when an individual leaves the group or the group disbands.