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Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Women’s History Month and Recognizing Women Immigrants and Refugees

By March 11, 2024No Comments

Today, we spotlight Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a driving force toward the acceptance of palliative care for the terminally ill in the U.S.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we continue to recognize the economic, cultural, political, and social contributions of notable immigrant and refugee women who’ve helped shape the vibrant tapestry of America. Today, we spotlight Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the driving force toward the acceptance of palliative care for the terminally ill in the U.S.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was born in July 1926 in Zurich, Switzerland.

Elisabeth’s father met her childhood aspirations to study medicine with resistance and told her she could either be a secretary for his own business or become a housekeeper. At 16, she left her home, working a handful of jobs and volunteering in hospitals during World War II, specifically assisting refugee patients. She continued volunteering post-war, lending her hands to rebuild numerous war-torn communities.

During a visit to the Maidanek concentration camp, Kübler-Ross viewed hundreds of butterflies carved into walls; the final artworks created by those facing the end of their lives strongly influenced her.

In 1951, Kübler-Ross embarked on her dream of becoming a doctor as a medical student at the University of Zurich. There, she met fellow medical student American Emanuel Robert Ross. The two married and moved to the U.S. in 1958, settling on Long Island and interning at a community hospital. She went on to specialize in psychiatry, eventually taking a residency at Manhattan State Hospital.

In 1962, Kübler-Ross moved to Denver to teach at the Colorado Medical School. That year, she gained her U.S. citizenship.

She later became an instructor at Chicago’s Medical School in 1965. Her practice of medicine left her disenchanted with the treatment of patients nearing the end of their lives, so she launched a modest project focused on death with a group of students. It soon evolved into a popular series of seminars featuring candid interviews with folks facing the end of their lives.

The series led to her book On Death and Dying, which first identified the five stages that most terminally ill patients experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although the concept was initially considered revolutionary, it has become widely accepted.

In the 1970s, Kübler-Ross launched the Kübler-Ross Center, where she worked with AIDS patients at the beginning of the epidemic. She later attempted to create a hospice center for children with the disease.

Kübler-Ross is credited with bringing acceptance and respect to thanatology, the study of death and the losses it causes, and the hospice care movement.

During her life, she wrote more than 20 books focusing on death and dying. She passed away in August 2004. In 2007, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her vigorous work advocating for better treatment and care for the terminally ill.

Others we are celebrating in honor of Women’s History Month:

  • Mother Cabrini, canonized Catholic sister and the patron saint of immigrants.