Albert Ellis Biography

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Albert Ellis was an influential psychologist who developed rational emotive behavior therapy. He played a vital role in the cognitive revolution that took place in the field of psychotherapy and helped influence the rise of cognitive-behavioral approaches as a treatment approach. According to one survey of professional psychologists, Ellis was ranked as the second most influential psychotherapist behind Carl Rogers and just ahead of Sigmund Freud. 

Albert Ellis is best known for:

  • Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)
  • Writings on human sexuality
  • The ABC Model
  • One of the founders of cognitive behavior therapy

Albert Ellis' Personal Life

Albert Ellis was born on September 27, 1913, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the oldest of three children. He would later describe his father as unaffectionate and his mother as emotionally distant. Since his parents were rarely around, he often found himself in the position of caring for his younger siblings. Ellis was often sick throughout his childhood. Between the ages of 5 and 7, he was reportedly hospitalized eight different times. One of these hospitalizations lasted about 10 months, during which time his parents rarely visited or offered comfort and support.

While he was often known for his outspokenness and was even described as the "Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy," Ellis recalled being quite shy when he was young. At 19, he set out to change his behavior and forced himself to speak to every woman he encountered at a park bench near his home. One month, he spoke to over 130 women and while only one agreed to go out with him and then she didn't show up for the date, he found that he had desensitized himself and was no longer afraid of speaking to women. He utilized the same approach to get over his fear of public speaking.

His first and second marriages ended in annulment and divorce. His 37-year relationship with a director of the Albert Ellis Institute ended in 2002. In 2004, he married Australian psychologist Debbie Joffe. Ellis died July 24, 2007, following a long illness.


After graduating high school, Ellis went on to earn a B.A. in Business from the City College of Downtown New York in 1934. He spent some time pursuing a business career, and later attempted a career as a fiction writer. After struggling with both, he decided to switch gears to study psychology and began his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Columbia University in 1942. He earned his M.A. degree in clinical psychology in 1943 and his Ph.D. in 1947.

After completing his degree, Ellis trained in psychoanalysis and initially practiced it, but he soon grew dissatisfied with what he saw as the weaknesses of the psychoanalytic method—its passivity and ineffectiveness. Influenced by the works of people such as Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, and Harry Stack Sullivan, Ellis began developing his own approach to psychotherapy.

By 1956, he presented his approach that he then referred to as Rational Psychotherapy. This method stressed a more direct and active approach to treatment in which the therapist helped the client understand the underlying irrational beliefs that lead to emotional and psychological distress. Today, the method is known as rational emotive behavior therapy or REBT.

Ellis also wrote a great deal about human sexuality. He began seeing clients before he had even completed his Ph.D. At the time, there was no formal licensing of psychologists required in New York state.

Ellis maintained a rigorous work schedule even up to the end of his life. He continued to work even in the face of multiple health problems, reportedly seeing as many as 70 patients a week in his late 80s and up to 10 patients a week in his last years.

Contributions to Psychology

While REBT is often described as an off-shoot of CBT, Ellis's work was truly part of the cognitive revolution and he helped found and pioneer the cognitive-behavioral therapies. He is often described as one of the most eminent thinkers in the history of psychology.

Ellis also authored more than 80 books, many of which became best-sellers. Of his influence in the field of psychotherapy, Psychology Today suggested that "No individual—not even Freud himself—has had a greater impact on modern psychotherapy."

Selected Publications by Albert Ellis

Ellis. A. (1957). How To Live with a Neurotic. Oxford, England: Crown Publishers.

Ellis, A. (1958). Sex Without Guilt. NY: Hillman.

Ellis, A., Harper, R. (1961). A Guide to Rational Living. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Ellis, A., Greiger, R. (1977). Handbook of Rational-Emotive Therapy. NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Ellis, A. (1985). Overcoming Resistance: Rational-Emotive Therapy With Difficult Clients. NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Ellis, A., Tafrate, R. C. (1997). How to Control Your Anger Before It Controls You. Citadel Press.

Ellis, A. (2003). Sex Without Guilt in the 21st Century. Barricade Books.

Ellis, A., Abrams, M., Abrams, L. (2008). Personality Theories: Critical Perspectives. NY: Sage Press.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Farley F. Albert Ellis (1913–2007)Am Psychol. 2009;64(3):215–216. doi:10.1037/a0015441

  2. Smith D. Trends in counseling and psychotherapyAm Psychol. 1982;37(7):802–809. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.37.7.802

  3. Ellis DJ. Rational emotive behavior therapy and individual psychology. J Individ Psychol. 2017;73(4):272-282. doi:10.1353/jip.2017.0023

  4. Ellis, A. The revised ABC's of rational-emotive therapy (RET)J Rational-Emot Cognitive-Behav Ther. 1991;9:139–172. doi:10.1007/BF01061227

  5. David D. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). In: Cautin RL, Lilenfeld SO, eds.,The Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2015. doi:10.1002/9781118625392.wbecp077

  6. Psychology Today. The prince of reason.

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."