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The Society for Psychotherapy Research was founded by Kenneth Howard and David Orlinsky, with the support of Hans Strupp and Lester Luborsky and many others in 1969. Howard and Orlinsky recognised that there was an unhelpful demarcation between research in clinical psychology and general psychotherapy.  SPR was founded to facilitate communication and collaboration with fellow researchers across disciplines and in the newly emerging field of psychotherapy research. 

Read the story in David Orlinsky’s words:
David Orlinsky


This is an adaption of the article published in Psychotherapy Research, 1995, 5(4), 343-350.

When a new field of scientific research emerges, the initial phase of development usually includes construction of effective means of communications and collegiality. Since new fields tend to arise through a process of specialization within established disciplines, and through crossfertilization at points of contact between related disciplines, researchers in the new fields generally rely at the outset on the societies, conferences, and journals of older fields. When the number of investigators in a new field and the volume of work they produce increase beyond a critical threshold, more and more of them tend to seek opportunities and means to have their own societies, their own conferences, and eventually their own journals as well.

A pattern of this sort can be documented for the field of psychotherapy research (Hill & Corbett, 1993; Orlinsky & Russell, 1994; Strupp & Howard, 1992), whose first growth occurred during the late 1940s through contact between the expanding field of clinical psychology and those segments of the psychiatric and educational professions promoting psychotherapy and counseling, respectively. From a state in which scattered individuals in these diverse fields could only rely on the printed word for communication, and had to hunt through unspecialized professional journals to find each other’s research reports, we have reached the point where communication with multiple colleagues on virtually every continent is an almost daily affair. We have our own societies and, thanks to these, our own conferences and journals.

I was asked to share my reminiscences about the forming of SPR. Personal memory, of course, is highly selective, and likely (as Alfred Adler observed) to be as emblematic of a valued lifestyle as literally representative of events as they occurred. For aging individuals, too, reminiscences of early times can come to have a legendary quality, mixing the ideals we aspire to with the actualities we recollect. Bearing these facts in mind, and writing to add a little to the historical record, I shall try to tell what I recall of the founding and subsequent shaping of SPR. The story as I know it starts with the prehistory of SPR.

Psychotherapy research began as a continuous field of inquiry about mid-century. Although a few scattered publications can be found in the 1940s, the field really began to develop in earnest in the early 1950s. It was not long before investigators felt the need to meet face-to-face in order to discuss their work and the problems they encountered in this new field of study. In 1958, a first conference on research in psychotherapy was held in Washington DC under the joint auspices of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Clinical Psychology and the National Institute of Mental Health (Rubenstein & Parloff ,1959). A second conference in this series was held three years later in 1961, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Strupp & Luborsky 1962), and a third was held three after that in June 1966, in Chicago (Shlien, Hunt, Matarazzo, & Savage 1968). That last conference was the immediate, albeit negative, cause for organizing the group that became our Society for Psychotherapy Research.

The three APA conferences were grand affairs, and those invited to attend constituted a “Who’s Who” of psychotherapy researchers. It was a remarkable strength of these conferences that attendance at them essentially defined the psychotherapy research Establishment of that time. However, it was also a remarkable limitation that attendance at the conferences was effectively limited to the members of that Establishment. When the third APA conference was held on the campus of the University of Chicago in June 1966, I was a new assistant professor at that institution. The previous year, Ken Howard and I had launched our own psychotherapy research program at the Illinois Institute for Juvenile Research, and in June 1966 we were about to present our first paper at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association (Orlinsky & Howard, 1967). Naturally I was excited to hear that a special conference on psychotherapy research was to be held at my own university, and I telephoned the organizers to ask whether Ken Howard and I, as newcomers to the field, could attend the sessions. I was told politely that attendance at the conference was by invitation only. I pleaded our case, citing our credentials and promising not to speak but only to listen, yet I was told again, politely but firmly, that attendance at the conference was by invitation only. This treatment at my own university, in our newly chosen field of research, made me mad as hell. Righteous anger sparked a sense of rebellion against an Establishment that shortsightedly turned its back on its own younger generation. That anger provided the energy it took to organize SPR, and that sense of rebellion in defense of the young and unestablished became one of the core values of SPR.

As usual, however, a period of gestation was most important for future events. During this period we came to know and feel supported by Hans Strupp and Lester Luborsky. I met Lester Luborsky at the 1966 APA convention and was invited to Philadelphia for a most friendly and encouraging visit with him and his collaborators. Ken and I also discovered that a form of almost-quasikinship relationship with Hans Strupp. When Strupp visited us in Chicago, we floated an idea that had been percolating ever since the previous year when we were rebuffed in our attempt to join the research community. We said something like, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an open conference on psychotherapy research, to which all who had an interest in the field could come!” My recollection is that Hans thought it might be a very nice thing indeed. Being young and brash, that was all the encouragement we needed.

The 1968 APA convention was scheduled to be held in San Francisco, and Ken and I set about organizing a day-long meeting of psychotherapy researchers to be held the day before the convention started. We searched the Psychological Abstracts for the names of all who had published research on psychotherapy during the preceding five years, and sent an open invitation to all. We contacted our Chicago colleague, Dr. Nathaniel Raskin, who at the time chaired the research committee of APA’s newly formed Division of Psychotherapy, and held the same position in the American Academy of Psychotherapists (Raskin, 1965) — which at the time I was serving as Treasurer. With sponsorship by the APA Division of Psychotherapy, and with funds from the American Academy of Psychotherapists, we secured space for a preconference meeting on psychotherapy research at San Francisco State College. The turnout was impressive both quantitatively and qualitatively, filling a small auditorium and including several already well-known figures in the field. It was agreed that a longer meeting should be called for the following year, at a time not linked to the APA convention, so that it would appeal to interested members of other professions and not just to psychologists.

For the second meeting, a group of 60 to 70 of us alternated small group discussions on specific research topics with plenary sessions for two days. We took our meals together, sat on the floor wearing bell-bottom jeans and tie-dyed shirts, the men sporting beards and shoulder-length hair. It was 1969: the best and worst of times in America. The sense of personal freedom and political consciousness we all shared became another legacy of SPR. Our SPR tradition of openness, anti-elitism, and welcome to younger members, began at the first meeting in 1968. Another tradition of informal encounter and personal friendship became firmly set in 1969. When that meeting ended the group decided to organize itself as a specialized scientific society. Ken and I agreed to host another meeting the next year, in 1970, and to draft a constitution for the new society. I remember sitting in a local tavern after the meeting with Ken, Hans, Irene (Elkin) Waskow, and Art Auerbach. I think it was there that we decided to name our group the “Society for Psychotherapy Research–An International, Multidisciplinary, Scientific Organization.” The name has stuck with us, and so have most of the people.

From that point on, the SPR just grew. Meeting succeeded meeting as the years past. Hans Strupp was the third president, Lester Luborsky the fourth, and they in turn were succeeded by a score of worthy colleagues — most of them friends as well as colleagues — most of whom understood and embraced the distinctive values of SPR. Over the years, international SPR conferences have grown in length, complexity, and the sheer number in attendance, inevitably reflecting the general growth of the field.

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