Erik Erikson’s Legacy at Riggs and Beyond



As part of our Winter Chat series provided for patients and staff, Jane Tillman, Ph.D., APBB facilitated an informative and truly engrossing overview and discussion of Erik Erikson’s life, his contributions to Riggs and his contributions to the field of psychoanalysis.

Born Erik Salomonsen in 1902 in Frankfurt, Germany, Erik Erikson never knew his biological father.  He was adopted by his mother’s second husband and was then Erik Homburger. According to Lawrence Friedman’s biography, Erikson was often teased as a young child, both for his Nordic physical traits and his Jewish faith. After graduating high school, he wandered across Europe, eventually landing in Vienna where he became acquainted with psychoanalyst Peter Blos and then, through his work as a teacher at a private school, to Anna Freud. He entered into daily psychoanalysis with Freud (at a cost of approximately $7 a month!) and it was this experience that led him to become an analyst himself, studying at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute.

In 1930, he married Joan Serson and shortly thereafter the two immigrated to the United States where Erik worked in child development at Harvard Medical School, studying the play of children cross-culturally. After moving to California, he opened a private practice and developed an affiliation with the University of California Berkley.

Shortly after publishing his most notable work, Childhood and Society in 1950, Erikson was forced to leave UC Berkley after refusing to sign a “loyalty oath”.  The Medical Director of Riggs at the time, Robert Knight, M.D., recruited Erikson as a staff psychologist and he stayed on at Riggs until 1960.

While at Riggs, Erikson’s work on the construct of identity and development across the lifespan continued to expand and to deepen. A painter in adolescence and early adulthood, Erikson befriended Norman Rockwell and served as his analyst for several years. Erikson also used a case study from Riggs to frame his book Young Man Luther, an early attempt at psychobiography published in 1958. Meanwhile, Erikson’s wife Joan was instrumental in creating a revolutionary Activities Program at Riggs, the main concept of which continues to exist today.

At the height of Erikson’s career in the 1960s and early 1970s, he was a professor at Harvard and earned a reputation as someone who college students flocked to and could relate to during the turbulent social upheaval at the time. 

It was the late 1980s when the idea of the Erikson Institute at Riggs was born and during Ed Shapiro, M.D.’s tenure as Medical Director/CEO that the idea was formalized and realized as an institute which promotes education and research in psychodynamic thought and treatment, by working to generate new knowledge in partnership with a range of disciplines, and brings a clinically informed, psychosocial perspective to societal problems.

From the introduction of the eight stages of psychosocial development, which postulated that identity is a fluid process of development that continues throughout our lives marked by eight specific stages/age ranges, Erikson’s lifelong interest in deciphering what identity is, how it changes over time and what influences those changes led to a revolutionary way of thinking about human development that persists and continues to inform the way we think about identity today.

Thank you to Jane Tillman, Ph.D., APBB and all who attended for a lively and thought-provoking evening.