University of California: In Memoriam, 1986

Selma H. Fraiberg, Psychiatry: San Francisco


Selma H. Fraiberg, psychiatric social worker, child psychoanalyst, and professor in the Department of Psychiatry, UCSF School of Medicine, died on December 19, 1981 at the age of 63. Selma was internationally known for her studies on “infant psychiatry” geared to therapeutic interventions in the earliest stages, literally even in the first days of life, where disturbed mother-infant interactions can go so tragically awry. She came to UCSF on July 1, 1979 to continue these studies and clinical services at the San Francisco General Hospital with the multi-ethnic and multicultural populations that it serves. By the time of her death, a scant two and a half years later, the Infant-Parent Program was solidly established as a research and training program within the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and as a clinical service program to the patients at the San Francisco General Hospital, and also as a valued consultation service and job training service for the network of health and social service agencies in the San Francisco community, both voluntary and governmental.

Selma was born in Detroit, Michigan on March 8, 1918 and educated there at Wayne State University, receiving the B.A. degree in 1940 and the M.S.W. in 1945. Her first teaching appointments were as a lecturer in mental hygiene and casework at the University of Michigan (1947-1952), lecturer in child development at the Wayne State University Department of Psychiatry (1952-1958), and instructor and lecturer in normal development of the individual at the Wayne State University School of Social Work (1953-1954). In 1958 she went to Tulane University as associate professor of social casework in the School of Social Work and lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry of the Medical School and from there went in 1961 to Baltimore where she was affiliated as a lecturer in the Baltimore Psychoanalytic Institute. In 1963 she moved to the University of Michigan (where she remained until her last move--to UCSF--in 1979) as associate professor, and then professor of child psychoanalysis in the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine, and as a lecturer in child development from

the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute. In 1971 she was certified for the practice of psychoanalysis by the Board of Professional Standards of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Over her professional lifetime Selma was the author of more than 100 articles in the professional literature plus three major books. Her first book, The Magic Years, initially published in 1959, catapulted her immediately into national and international recognition; it was that rare book written to appeal to both professional and intelligent lay audiences as well, and was hailed by many as the best treatise on the emotional life and development of children up to the age of five ever written. It was subsequently translated successively into Danish, Hebrew, Swedish, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Italian, German, Spanish, and Japanese and has been repeatedly reprinted in England, Canada, and the United States. Her second book, Insights from the Blind: Comparative Studies of Blind and Sighted Infants (1977) was based on pioneering studies during Selma's Michigan years of the difficulties in ego development of congenitally blind children and the way in which mothers could be taught to employ other sensory modalities in their interactions with blind infants in order to compensate as much as possible for the lack of visual contact and prevent otherwise grave derailments of the ego developmental process. Her third book, Every Child's Birthright: In Defense of Mothering, in the same year (1977) was a polemical response to some of the radical feminist disavowal of the need for the traditional caretaking and nurturant role of the mother in the early life of the child. Overall, Selma's scholarly studies over her lifetime dealt with the normal child developmental process, the understanding of child psychotherapy and child psychoanalysis, the developmental problems of the blind and otherwise handicapped, and at the end, the development of therapeutic and ameliorative interventions in earliest infancy (“infant psychiatry”) where the customers cannot talk and where pathological mother-child interactions can lead to devastating and irremediable lifelong psychopathology.

Professionally, Selma was a member of the Society for Research in Child Development, the Association for Child Psychoanalysis, and the American Psychoanalytic Association. Since 1975 she was a member of the National Advisory Council on Clinical Infant Programs of the National Institute of Mental Health. Throughout her career she was very successful in garnering research grant support from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, from the federal Office of Education, from the National Institute of Mental Health, from the Michigan Department of Health, and here in San Francisco, from a consortium of private foundations.

Among the many honors that came to Selma over this productive lifetime were the Outstanding Book of the Year Award (for The Magic Years) from the Child Study Association of America in 1959, the Distinguished Alumna

Award of Wayne State University in 1963, the Franklin Lectureship of Wayne State University in 1966, a visiting professorship at the School of Social Work of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1978, the Robert Waelder Memorial Lectureship in 1979, and a visiting professorship at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York in 1979. The New York Times cited Every Child's Birthright (1977) as one of the twenty “Outstanding Books of the Year.”

Those who knew Selma as a friend and colleague will remember fondly her intellectual vigor, her scholarly breadth, her fierce devotion to the cause of her young subjects and her uncompromising and even adamant stands on behalf of her concept of their absolute requirements. She was a passionate advocate for the rights and needs of infants and children as she felt them and articulated them and this often did not make it easy to advance a contrary view. Everyone, however, even when on the opposite side of what could be a more complex professional or scientific issue than she was willing to concede, always respected her absolute conviction and absolute integrity. Her death was a great loss to us all; in her life she enlarged our understanding of children and their growing up, normal and handicapped and disturbed. The children, and therefore the people, of the world will have benefitted by her work amongst us.

Selma is survived by her husband, Louis, a retired professor of English literature whose helpful collaboration did much to grace her literary style, and one daughter, Lisa.

Robert S. Wallerstein

About this text
Courtesy of University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
Title: 1986, University of California: In Memoriam
By:  University of California (System) Academic Senate, Author
Date: 1986
Contributing Institution:  University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
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