Remembering John G. Watkins, Ph.D. 1913-2012

Remembering John G. Watkins, Ph.D. 1913-2012

Written by Sandra Paulsen, Ph.D., Woltemade Hartman, Ph.D. , and Maggie Phillips, Ph.D.

From ESTD Newsletter Volume 2 Number 2, February 2012 > read the original article in our newsletter


We three speak with a common voice to pay tribute to this man who was our mentor, our teacher, our colleague and our friend. Although we only knew him in the final decades of his century long life, we share a view of a giant figure of immense humanity and gifts. In his youth, he sought wisdom in universities, and found that they teach only knowledge. Like a true Dao-Tsai, he searched for “The Way” – what man’s striving is all about.  He traversed “The Way” for almost a century discovering that all life is a promise, a challenge, an exciting exploration, and that one must become a complete individual on one’s own in order to experience true oneness with a universal ocean of life energy.  This required a curiosity so enduring and intense as to be a daily practice of intellectual and emotional courage, which was palpable in knowing him.

Dr Watkins trained countless students, many of whom taught those students who are now the senior teachers of hypnosis, dissociation and ego state therapy.  Few know that he published his first article in the Journal of the American Astronomical Society at age 12. His doctoral dissertation combined psychology with his passion for music, and became the Watkins-Farnum standardized achievement test, still widely used for evaluating musical proficiency. He was chief psychologist at the Welch Convalescent military hospital in Daytona Beach, Florida during World War II, discharged as First Lieutenant with an award for Meritorious Service. He taught at Washington State College and later was Chief Psychologist at the VA Hospitals in Chicago and Portland, Oregon, eventually coming to the University of Montana at Missoula from 1964 to 1985 as Full Professor and Director of Clinical Training.  He authored over 190 academic articles and 11 books, including General Psychology (1960), The Therapeutic Self (1977), Hypnotherapeutic Techniques (1987), Ego States: Theory and Therapy (1997), and a fascinating book of short stories named Adventures in Human Understanding (2001).  He was a co-founder of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. He is best known for his work in the areas of hypnosis, dissociation, and multiple personalities and his legacy there lies in his study and practice of hypnoanalysis. He believed that detecting and working with parts of the self that are separated by trauma-based dissociative barriers revealed both difficulties and resources to solve the deepest riddles of the human psyche. Together, he and his wife Helen Watkins created Ego State Therapy, which speaks in an honoring and curious way to the many parts of self as they unfold with direct investigation. Innumerable are the clients whose therapy has been given tremendous depth, power, revelation and new energy by the addition of ego state interventions which go past the facade of self that people present to the world and themselves. In their teaching, the Watkins held to the highest standard of ethics and were uncompromising in pursuit of the best outcome for each client.

Dr Watkins’ scholarly pursuits persisted well into his 90s, when he presented at conferences and became trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing out of scholarly curiosity, as he no longer practiced clinically.  He declared EMDR to not be hypnosis, and his evidence was that a childhood traumatic memory he had worked with using self hypnosis for most of a century became more clearly revealed to him during EMDR processing of it, so that he recalled the bully’s name for the first time. This insight required both enduring powers of observation in an experimental mind, and a non-territoriality. He was happy to learn something new, again.  

Jack’s life was a legacy of gifts, and he undertook a career of giving.  By painstakingly fashioning many a young psychologist, colleague, child and client, he gave them symbols of his wisdom about being human and of himself.  He gave them the gifts of learning, of laughter, of tears, of understanding, of love and above all, the gift of healing. Jack’s gifts matured into psychological wisdom that influenced the careers and lives of so many people, clients and professionals alike. He once said:  “Medical Practice can save a life; psychotherapy can improve its quality, creating love, peace and lasting happiness.”

In an effort to impart the sense of who this man was, we three each offer brief cherished memories of Jack. For Maggie, it is her recollection of fishing in a boat on Lake Mary Ronan with Jack in Montana. In her two visits there, one memorable discussion was of his connection and differences with another giant in hypnosis, Milton Erickson.  Where Watkins believed it was essential to use hypnosis directly to uncover past experiences and states to resolve current symptoms, Erickson preferred indirect suggestion that would bypass the conscious mind and its interferences. The two respected each other’s work in their later years. Both were interested in the use of hypnosis to travel back in time, to assist in healing, and to dismantle and defuse inner resistance and obstacles in complex patients.

For Sandra, who also visited Jack at Lake Mary Ronan, it was the many precious hours of discussion of theoretical nuances such as the importance of ego and object awareness as informed by Fenichel in 1950, or Jack’s experience of having been psychoanalyzed by Eduardo Weiss, student of Freud, or of teaching hypnosis to the venerable Erika Fromm, or his stories of so many others across most of the history of psychology whom he had known personally.   One such conversation occurred while Jack was driving the car in the evening by the lake, when suddenly the car’s progress was slowed by a lumbering bear in the lane in front of it.  Jack, ever a citizen of the American West, barely paused while making his point about hypoanalysis. On another occasion Sandra listened for hours as he described his life with his deceased wife Helen while walking cobblestone streets in a medieval village in Germany following the First World Congress of Ego State Therapy in Bad Orb. 

For Wally, it was most meaningful to have visited Jack in the month before his death, and the two planned for Jack’s vision of the future of ego state therapy.  That vision will be carefully fulfilled in part through the growth of Ego State Therapy International, which Dr Hartman will chair.  The primary function of this organization it to advance research and to coordinate training of professionals in the field of ego-state therapy worldwide.  Dr. Watkins’ wish was to support a methodology that can help clients to resolve personal issues and trauma in the most efficient manner. 

There is much else to say about Jack the person - his gusto for playing the vibraphone, his love of Dixieland Jazz, his corny sense of humor, his smile and blue eyes which twinkled well into his late 90s, his life with Helen Watkins and their cozy home in Missoula.  Those and many other poignant tales must be told elsewhere.

Many have been inspired by John G. Watkins academic self, his therapeutic self, his resonance and humanity in helping people to recognize the multiplicity of their inner resources and to actualize their potential.  Jack achieved true happiness through service to many students, trainees, clients, friends, colleagues, and organizations through the years. We are blessed to have known John G. Watkins and remain greatly enriched by all we learned and can now pass on to new generations of learners. John G. Watkins is dead at 98, but his work continues.