Margaret Jeffrey Rioch, Ph.D.

Psychologist, Teacher, and Leader
1907 - 1996

by Nancy Adams, Gary Ditto, and Roger Shapiro

with additional details (2015) by Ron Sharrin

Margaret Jeffrey Rioch, Ph.D., an internationally renowned clinical psychologist and retired Professor Emerita of Psychology at The American University, died of a heart attack on 25 November 1996.  She died at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at the age of 89.  She had lived in the Washington, D. C. area since the mid-1940's.

She was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1907.  She received her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and her doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1933.

In her first career, Dr. Rioch was Assistant Professor of German at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she met her husband, the late David MacKenzie Rioch, M.D., then Professor of Neuroanatomy at Harvard Medical School in Boston.  Soon after their marriage, they moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Dr. David Rioch was appointed the first Chairman and Professor of Neuropsychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine.  Dr. Margaret Rioch realized that her real career interest lay in psychology, in which she received a master's degree from Washington University in 1943.

Dr. Rioch had a long and illustrious career in psychology.  In the mid-1940's, she moved to Rockville, Maryland, where she worked at the Community Mental Hygiene Clinic.  Later, she became the first clinical psychologist employed at Chestnut Lodge Hospital.  Through the Washington (D.C.) School of Psychology and Chestnut Lodge, Dr. Rioch was taught and greatly influenced by Dr. Harry Stack Sullivan and Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichman.  She was also a lecturer in psychology at The Catholic University of America (Washington, D. C.), where she specialized in and was an early researcher of the Rorschach test.

While at Chestnut Lodge Hospital, Dr. Rioch began to explore the relationship between psychotherapy and religion.  Her interest in this relationship endured throughout her career.  She became one of the early psychologists in the West to be trained in Zen Buddhist teachings, under the tutelage of Dr. Hubert Benoit, in Paris, France.  She collaborated with Professors Alan Watts, Daisetz Suzuki, and Martin Buber.  She may have been the first clinically trained psychologist to study Zen seriously.  Her collaboration with Suzuki, author of Psychoanalysis and zen, and with Buber, author of I and thou.  These collaborations may be seen as formative for her subsequent interests and influence in group relations work.   In their view, and also in Bion's thinking, the self is mutable, contextual, and impermanent, dependent upon immediate context and history.  This viewpoint is at some odds with the psychoanalytic and National Training Laboratories' conception of the self as being, at its heart, an authentic core that can be brought out and developed.

In 1960, Dr. Rioch joined the staff of the National Institutes of Mental Health as the director of a pilot project in training mental health counselors.  In response to a growing awareness of the need for community-based, low-cost mental health  services, Dr. Rioch developed a two-year intensive program in psychotherapy, which trained groups of middle-aged women who had raised their children.  Applying her characteristic creativity and practicality, she solved multiple problems: she increased the then very small number of community mental health workers, while also providing women with meaningful second careers.  This project launched the "third revolution" in mental health, the paraprofessional movement, which has since blossomed into the ubiquitous services which employ indigenous mental health workers (e.g., support groups and crisis hotlines).

Dr. Rioch brought "group relations" work to the United States.  While "open systems" thinking was an important part of the work in England, Dr. A. Kenneth Rice said, "The systems piece was dropped somewhere in the Atlantic [Ocean]."  This was true perhaps because Dr. Rioch's primary and largely implicit interest was in the nature of the self and its interdependent relationship with human social systems.  Thus, the theoretical matrix out of which Tavistock group relations work in the United States arose lay in the emphasis on the self rather than on systems.  Dr. Rioch trained various  male psychoanalysts younger than herself in the conference work.  This line of succession given to psychoanalysts may have further emphasized the psychodynamic and individual psychology ways of thinking and diluted or deferred the systems perspective in group relations work in the U.S. 

In 1965, in collaboration with Dr. A. Kenneth Rice of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London, England, Dr. Rioch organized the first group relations conference in the Tavistock tradition to be held in North America.  This conference was designed to explore the irrational forces affecting leadership, authority, and personal responsibility in group and institutional life.  Such conferences and professional interest in them proliferated in the United States, under Dr. Rioch's leadership.  She directed many of these conferences both in the United States and in Europe.  In 1969, she founded a national organization, the A. K. Rice Institute, to manage and promote these learning conferences.  She was its first Executive Director and was for many years President of the Washington-Baltimore Center of the A. K. Rice Institute.

Through the years, conflicts and difficulties have arisen in the conference work negotiation between Directors, often male, primarily interested in psychoanalytic perspectives and conference organizers, often females, and staff primarily interested in systems dynamics.  This kind of difference continues to be present, in the U.S. and in Britain.  Garrett O’Conner, an Irish proponent of group relations work, speaking about Dr. Rioch in an interview,  says:  "In talking about the relationship about the part to the whole and the whole to the parts, and the mutuality of influence between them, Dr. Rioch admits, rather shyly I think, that the idea is a religious one as much as being a purely scientific document.  It is in this are that she finds the deepest reasons for her involvement in the work.”  Dr. Rioch herself answers:  “What is my relationship to the whole is an essentially religious problem.  It has to do with my relationship with life in general, and death, of course.  Everything that I do, the more that I realize, is just a part of a tremendously large and meaningful whole."

In 1969, Dr. Rioch was appointed Professor of Psychology and, in 1975, Professor Emerita in Residence at The American University, where she taught until she retired in 1991.  Her scholarly work included a book, Dialogues for therapists, written with Drs. Winifred R. Coulter and David M. Weinberger, and over 50 papers on psychotherapy, supervision in psychotherapy, and group relations work.  In addition, she was on the faculty and was a member of the Board of Directors and Executive Council of the Washington School of Psychiatry. 

She was a Fellow of  the A. K. Rice Institute, the American Psychological Association (as well as of its Divisions of General Psychology, Clinical Psychology, and Psychotherapy).  She was a founding member of the Division of Group Psychology of the American Psychological Association.  She was a Diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology.  For years, she was on the editorial board of the professional journals, Psychiatry and Psychotherapy.

Dr. Rioch remained active as a teacher, supervisor, psychotherapist, and Board member until 1993, when advanced Alzheimer's disease made it impossible for her to continue her work.  Her husband, Dr. David Rioch, died in 1985.

Although Dr. Margaret Rioch is survived by no living relatives, her spirit continues in the many friends, professional colleagues, followers, students, and patients whose lives have been immensely enriched by her dedication and wisdom. 


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