John Shlien   +  March 23, 2002                            

John M. Shlien, 1918-2002

Obituary Notice by his wife, Helen Shlien

John M. Shlien, a former Harvard professor who taught clinical psychology in the School of Education for 20 years and was a  favorite for many generations of students, passed away on March 23, 2002,  at his vacation home in Big Sur, California. He was approaching his  84th birthday, and had been suffering from cancer for several months.

After serving in World War II Mr. Shlien received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Originally a student of anthropology, his meeting with Carl Rogers lead him to change direction and study psychology. He developed a deep relationship with Carl Rogers  and the client centered approach. He taught with Carl Rogers, and continued to teach in the Human Development Program at the University of  Chicago until 1967, when he came to Harvard University.  At Harvard, during a time of student upheaval, he founded a program in Clinical Psychology and Public Practice, and a few years later, opened the Robert W. White School for adolescents who had failed in the city schools of East Boston. After his retirement from Harvard Professor Shlien lectured extensively throughout Europe on the principles and application of Rogerian psychotherapy.

He is survived by his wife, Helen Shlien, his three children, Andrea, Laura and David, all residing in
California, five grandchildren and three great grandchildren. A memorial service will be held in Cambridge, Mass, on May 29. It will be in the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard at 3 PM.


John Shlien was one of the pioneers of person-centred psychotherapy and a close friend of Carl Rogers. To many people in the person-centered community he was well known for his thought provoking questions and statements and his impatience with meaningless politeness when it came to issues. Often labelled as a purist, he was experienced as a challenging and encouraging person by many. As somebody put it on the CCTPCA network: 'He wasn't an "aha, yes"
person. He was a real person with passions sometimes close to the surface.  He would argue with me as well as help me explicate my views.'

Among his works outstanding contributions are the classics:

Time–limited, client–centered psychotherapy: Two cases (with Madge K. Lewis and Carl R. Rogers )
Client–centered psychotherapy and the person–centered approach, New York (Praeger) 1984 (with Ronald F. Levant, eds.)
and his 1984 paper A countertheory of transference, in ibid.

A list of his publications can be found here.

I had the chance to be in contact with him in the last months of his life. (Click here for some of his remarks.)

Peter F. Schmid


There will be a memorial service for John Shlien in Cambridge, Massachussetts in a few months. The date and arrangements have yet to be decided.

The September, 2002 issue of the American Psychologist contains an obituary for John Shlien.


John M. Shlien
Birth of a Poppy

One of the great experiences of my life is to watch the opening, unfolding of a poppy.
I do this every year.  Today, it happened for the first time this spring.  Takes an hour or two.  My wife called me when she saw it on the hillside.  I ran up, not to miss it, but it had twenty minutes still to go.
The poppy is hidden inside a green cone, which is its "cap".  As the poppy swells, it forces the cone (I guess this is the process) to slide upward.  The poppy is a folded spiral, so the cap turns slightly, slowly.  It didn't seem to make a full revolution.
As the cone rises, the color of the poppy shows in a tender blaze at its base.  It makes you want to see more.  Near the end, there is a strong temptation to "play Doctor", to assist in this birth.  The poppy really doesn't need me.  It has its own strength, in its own time, and only my vanity, and impatience, pushes me to act.  But there is some kind of prohibition for the witness.  Let  this  thing  unfold.
It has an exquisite design, whether through adaptation or/and creation!  Further, some research on egg-born creatures shows that the infant needs to crack the shell itself, from inside, if it is to have its full strength.  So know the temptation, yes, but why tamper?  Who needs it?  (I do, but not that much, having seen the whole thing many times.)
Finally, the cap drops off, the wind blows it away, and the gorgeous flower opens to full view.  I don't know what else it is doing, to/for itself or its world, but it has done a thing of beauty for me.
I told a little boy about it. He wanted to know how the plant got its muscles.
I tried to explain chemical transfer (sodium/calcium) in the membrane, but failed. Anyone know?  I remembered Titchener's saying that empathy "stretched the muscles of his mind."  It seems to me that the "mind" has no more muscles than the plant, and that the idea of a muscle is a metaphor imposed upon the plant/mind/engine/whatever, to "explain", in terms of our own experience, another phenomenon which has its own phenomenology.
Maybe you think I am talking about psychotherapy, or something like that.  No, just about a poppy.  You could look it up.

February 25, 1998

This text by John Shlien was shared on CCTPCA network.

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