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Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, born July 8th 1926 in Zurich, Switzerland developed an interest in medicine at an early age. Indeed, she expressed an early desire to become a doctor but her father, who was fiercely traditional in relation to what career direction females ought to take, expressly forbade this, insisting that she become a maid or work in his business in a secretarial role.

As one of a set of triplets, Kubler-Ross weighed a tiny 2lbs at birth, but those delicate beginnings belied the strength of character she would develop to defy her father by leaving home at the age of 16. She embarked on a series of jobs and when WW2 broke out she volunteered as a helper in hospitals and as a carer for refugees, going on to volunteer in several war ravaged countries. In Poland she visited the Maidanek concentration camp and was deeply affected by the carvings of butterflies on the walls, believed to have been done by prisoners facing death, and it is believed that this influenced her later attitudes to end of life care.

Early career

Kubler-Ross entered medical school at the University of Zurich in 1951 studying terminal illness and psychiatry, graduating from there in 1957. From then on she held many prestigious posts at various medical establishments and hospitals, including a Fellowship at Manhattan State Hospital from 1959-62, Instructor in Psychiatry at Colorado General Hospital from 1962-65 and Associate Chief of the Psychiatric Inpatient Service from 1966-67.

Whilst attending Zurich University she met fellow medical student Emanuel Robert Ross, whom she married in 1958 and they moved to the US where they both took up internships at the Community Hospital in Glen Cove, Long Island. They divorced in 1976.

Inspiration

During a spell of teaching at the University of Colorado Medical School Kubler-Ross became upset not only by the general treatment of dying people in the US but also that there was nothing relating to death and dying in the medical school curriculum. This accelerated her lifelong interest in how the terminally ill are treated and how terminally ill people themselves coped with the fact that they were dying.

Her extensive studies of terminal illness led her in 1969, to publish her influential work ‘On Death and Dying’ which for the first time outlined in detail the five stages experienced by the terminally ill these being: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Her pioneering presentation of these previously unknown ideas revolutionised the public’s acceptance of the normality of these stages of dying especially after Life magazine published an article about her work in November 1969. It also led to her ideas being adopted not just by those caring for those experiencing the end of their lives, but also led to the ‘Kubler Ross Change Curve’ being adopted by business leaders to help manage change within businesses across the globe.

Kubler-Ross wrote around 20 books on the subject of death and dying and travelled the globe to give workshops on the subject. She later worked with AIDS patients and the latter part of her career saw her become more interested in spirituality.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross retired in 1996 after a series of strokes which left her partly paralysed. After moving into a hospice she died on August 24th 2004 in Scottsdale, Arizona. Her final book, On Grief and Grieving, was published posthumously in 2005.

 

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