Herbert Spiegal, Doctor Who Popularized Hypnosis Dies at 95



Published: January 9, 2010

Dr. Herbert Spiegel treated pain, anxiety and addictions by putting people into a trance. Broadway actors sought his help to overcome stage fright, singers to quit smoking, politicians to overcome fear of flying. For years he had a regular table at Elaine’s, as well as his own place on the national stage.

Duane Michals

Dr. Herbert Spiegel in 1974, working with a patient who wanted to stop smoking. Patients from near and far sought him out.

A New York psychiatrist, Dr. Spiegel, who died on Dec. 15 at the age of 95, was far and away the country’s most visible and persuasive advocate for therapeutic hypnosis, having established it as a mainstream medical technique.

Beginning in the 1950s, he described the technique, both its uses and misuses, in magazine articles and in courtrooms. In the 1960s, he developed the first quick and practical test for individual susceptibility to hypnosis; it is still widely used. In later decades he appeared on television programs like “60 Minutes” and he helped treat the woman known as Sybil, whose controversial case became the subject of a book and inspired two television movies.

In a famous course at Columbia University, Dr. Spiegel taught generations of doctors the art and science of hypnosis — how concentrated relaxation and suggestion can have a powerful effect on thinking and behavior.

His son, Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, said his father had died in his sleep at his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, not far from Elaine’s, where Dr. Herbert Spiegel’s regular table was near Woody Allen’s at what was a fixture of the New York intellectual and creative scene in the 1960s and ’70s.

A trained Freudian analyst, Dr. Spiegel came to see traditional, open-ended psychoanalysis as too costly and meandering for many patients — and hypnosis as a way to accelerate healing, effecting change in some people even in a single session. As Dr. Spiegel’s reputation grew, performers and politicians in New York and prominent people from around the world made their way to his office in Manhattan.

It was in the early ’60s that he filled in for Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur, the therapist who had been treating a troubled woman named Shirley Mason, who appeared to communicate through several distinct personalities. Her case became the basis for the popular 1973 book “Sybil,” by Flora Rheta Schreiber, and two television adaptations, one in 1976 with Joanne Woodward and Sally Field and the other in 2008 with Jessica Lange.

Critics later challenged Dr. Wilbur’s methods, saying they had encouraged the woman’s behavior. Dr. Spiegel agreed. He argued that Sybil had disassociation disorder, not multiple personalities, and he voiced his reservations when the book became part of a debate in recent years over the causes of such disorders.

Yet more than anything, it was Dr. Spiegel’s rigorous studies of hypnosis, as well as his easygoing, matter-of-fact presence, that most impressed other doctors and patients.

“He wasn’t Svengali-like; he didn’t have this Mesmer voice,” said Dr. Philip R. Muskin, a psychiatrist at Columbia. “He was a regular guy with this Midwestern accent who explained in a very straightforward way that hypnosis was something you could learn that’s useful. He really took the techniques out of the dark alleys, out of Hollywood and the world of the circus, and moved them into mainstream medicine.”

Many therapists now use hypnosis to aid treatment, and the National Institutes of Health have financed dozens of studies of the technique to reduce pain and accelerate healing.

Herbert Spiegel was born on June 29, 1914, in McKeesport, Pa., one of four children of Sam and Lena Spiegel. His father ran a successful wholesale grocery business; his mother, the household.

Their only son attended the University of Pittsburgh before enrolling in medical school at the University of Maryland, where he graduated in 1939. After completing his internship at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, he did a residency in psychiatry at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, where he first learned hypnosis.

But it was during World War II — Dr. Spiegel served as a battalion surgeon in North Africa from 1942 to 1946 — that the young doctor first witnessed the power of hypnosis. “I discovered that it was possible to use persuasion and suggestion to help the men return to previous levels of function” after severe combat stress, he later wrote. He used the same techniques on himself after suffering a shrapnel wound that earned him a Purple Heart.

Dr. Spiegel’s first marriage, to Dr. Natalie Shainess, ended in divorce. In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Dr. Ann Spiegel, a pediatrician in Phoenix; four grandchildren; and his wife, Marcia Greenleaf, a therapist who collaborated with him and who was with him at his death.

Dr. Spiegel received a long list of awards and held academic appointments at a number of institutions, including John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York University and, for more than 20 years, Columbia. His book “Trance and Treatment: Clinical Uses of Hypnosis,” written with his son, is a classic in the field.

But he was, until the end, a therapist. “He saw a patient a few days before he died,” his son said.

A version of this article appeared in print on January 10, 2010, on page A30 of the National edition.