Interview with the worlds oldest living child psychotherapist: 98 yrs old Isca Wittenberg
When Isca Salzberger-Wittenberg was 11 years old she wrote in her diary, ‘I want to help people when I grow up.’ She is now probably the oldest living child psychotherapist and without a doubt has fulfilled her young self’s wish.
Over the course of a career which has extended more than 70 years, Isca has had a lasting impact on mental health services for children and adolescents at the Tavistock Clinic in London. She has also helped shape the thinking of generations of child psychotherapists whom she trained.
Isca was one of the first people to undertake the child psychotherapy training at the Tavistock Clinic, London, set up by John Bowlby and Esther Bick after the Second World War.
Isca’s contribution is made all the remarkable having fled Nazi Germany as a child. But perhaps surviving the trauma of the holocaust has made her a particularly good guide for others experiencing loss. In her book ‘Experiencing Endings and beginnings’, she wrote:
‘What makes it possible to accept the transience of life, to bear increasing losses, face the loss of one’s own life, and yet go on growing, gaining, or at least maintaining emotional and spiritual strength?’
During this challenging time of the Covid pandemic, many of us have had to endure the death of loved ones, illness and loss of freedom. Isca says that no matter what is happening, we must be thinking about and preparing for the loss of others and even our own demise.
For over fifty years Isca worked at the Tavistock Clinic in London, where she eventually rose to be its Vice Chair. Her colleagues were some of the greatest names in psychotherapy such as Donald Meltzer and Neville Symington.
Isca was in analysis with Dr Sonny Davidson for four years when he tragically died. Hear her reflections on why she decided she wanted Wilfred Bion as her analyst.
Having taught infant observation for over 50 years, Isca explains her passion for it and why it is an essential part of understanding babies and their parents. She also reveals the challenges of working with one of the key creators of Infant Observation, Esther Bick.
Isca discloses how her own experience growing up led her to gravitate towards helping adolescents experiencing mental health difficulties. She developed a young peoples counselling service at the Tavistock where for the first time they could refer themselves.
Hear too why a deep interest in spirituality alongside psychoanalysis runs through Isca’s life and work and why at 98 she’s learning to play the piano!
Remarkably, Isca is continuing in her work as a Consultant Psychoanalytic Child and Adolescent psychotherapist and Adult Psychotherapist from her home in North London.
Interview recorded 2019 with Jane O’Rourke
Tributes from colleagues for Isca:
If you would like to write a tribute to Isca, please email:
From Paul Jenkins, CEO, Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust
“In the year in which the Tavistock Clinic is celebrating its centenary it’s a great privilege to be able to pay tribute to the work of Isca Wittenberg whose career spans back to the earliest days of the development of child psychotherapist.
In her career Isca worked alongside so many important names from our history such as John Bowlby and Esther Bick and is still, today, practicing at the grand age of 98. Isca’s work stands out not only for its longevity but also for the deep humanity she has brought to the task of supporting young people in need grounded in her personal experience of having escaped the trauma of the Holocaust.”
The Association of Child Psychotherapists welcomes the film on Isca Wittenberg and talked to Ricky Emanuel, ACP Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist about Isca. This is what Ricky said:
“Isca is one of the last remaining child psychotherapists still alive who trained in one of the first cohorts of the child psychotherapy training at the Tavistock set up by John Bowlby and Esther Bick.
She was a refugee from Nazi Germany coming to this country when she was 16. She worked as a nursery nurse where she developed her interest in babies which she has never lost. She found a home for this interest in her life long devotion to infant observation, as well as her ability to find the infant in her patients and in the infantile aspects of group functioning.
She trained as a social worker in Birmingham where she excelled at her studies and was invited onto the staff to teach shortly after her qualification. She found her way to the Tavistock to train as a child psychotherapist and entered analysis with Wilfred Bion. He has been very influential in her work especially in his encouragement to find her own voice and be her own person. She embodies Bion’s concept of ‘K’ more than anyone I know, the desire to understand or get to know which is an ongoing process never completed. Isca has always been interested to find out more, to learn new things and to develop her mind.
She has deep-seated conviction about the value of connection, and she lives her life this way. Even at the age of nearly 98, she is still wanting to connect and share her ideas with others as well as hear from them what is happening “out there”. Her last book on Experiencing Endings and Beginnings is being republished and she felt she wanted to add to it about her experience of the last years of life, a profound ending experience when there can be a sort of return to infantile dependency for physical care.
How this is managed is so dependent on early beginnings and other endings throughout the life cycle. Despite everything she has gone through and witnessed she says she never has given up hope and this quality is so evident even in these last years of her life. Bion‘s maxim is that the purpose of development ( or analysis) is to enhance the person’s capacity to experience experience. Isca is still developing in this sense, experiencing endings and beginnings as fully as she can. She is an inspiration to all of us.”
David Morgan, Psychoanalyst, Consultant Psychotherapist & Fellow of British Psychoanalytic Society
“Isca was one of the first people that I saw lecturing at the Tavistock, as a young clinical psychologist I was bowled over by someone who could put things into words the way she was able too. So began an analytic career.
You never realise the effect a lecture or seminar can have on people who are new to psychoanalysis, one is lucky if someone engages with the mind in the way Isca did on that evening.”