Nathan Ackerman was a dynamic individual who did much to introduce family therapy to the mental health profession. Originally trained as a child psychiatrist, he developed a method of family therapy that reflected his original psychoanalytic orientation. Ackerman believed that although a family may appear united, its members are often split into competing factions and coalitions—similar to how Freud saw the human psyche caught in a battle among the components of id, ego, and superego.


In 1937, Ackerman became chief psychiatrist of the Child Guidance Clinic at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. He initially followed the traditional child guidance model in which a psychiatrist saw the child in therapy while a social worker consulted with the mother. He began to question this approach and in the 1940s experimented with having the same therapist treat both. It was also during this time that he became concerned with the legitimacy of the individual approach to mental illness and started to view it as a family phenomenon. In 1950 he wrote “Family Diagnosis: An Approach to the Preschool Child” (Ackerman and Sobel, 1950), which some consider to be the article that started the family therapy movement (Kaslow, 1980).


Ackerman was a daring and innovative clinician. He was an “agent provocateur” (Nichols and Schwartz, 1998) who promoted the open and honest expression of feelings and the confrontation of issues within the family. He was known for his ability to use wit and personal charisma to enable families to develop new ways of relating; this was more closely related to modern family therapy approaches of changing family interaction than to the psychoanalytic and group format that dominated the early approaches. His style later evolved more fully through the work of his student Salvador Minuchin, whose structural family therapy approach attempted to alter the organization of a family to enable them to solve their problems.