Virginia M. Satir, 72; Family Therapy Pioneer

Times Staff Writer

Virginia M. Satir, an internationally known pioneer of family therapy who was one of the first to recognize the importance of self-worth as a concept, died Saturday of pancreatic cancer at her home in Menlo Park. She was 72.

Satir, called the “Columbus of family therapy,” was known around the world for the philosophy she developed for treating troubled families.

“Life is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference,” is the way she expressed it at a 1986 meeting of 600 Los Angeles-area psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.

“I think if I have one message, one thing before I die that most of the world would know, it would be that the event does not determine how to respond to the event. That is a purely personal matter. The way in which we respond will direct and influence the event more than the event itself.”


Satir discussed her concept of individual self-worth in landmark works on family therapy such as “Conjoint Family Therapy,” published in 1964, and later books that included “Self-Esteem,” “Helping Families to Change” and “Meditations and Inspirations.” But it was her presence, her warmth and ability to work with people, rather than her writings that those familiar with her say was so remarkable.

“I almost refuse to even discuss Virginia with people who haven’t seen her work in person,” said her book editor, David Hinds of Celestial Publishing in Berkeley. “The rapport she establishes with the audience--even large audiences of a couple of thousand people--is incredible.”

The 1986 session in Los Angeles gave proof: During breaks and at the end, she was surrounded by people who wanted to tell her how much she meant to them, by people seeking autographs, and by some who sought--and got--a hug.

Satir grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and wrote of her girlhood experiences in her most recent book, “The New Peoplemaking,” published this year. The original work, “Peoplemaking,” was first published in 1972 and sold 700,000 copies.


She was a member of California’s Commission to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. In 1959, Satir helped found the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, and in 1979 founded the International Human Learning Resource Network.

Before her illness started in June, Satir had presented 430 workshops in the United States. Satir received her bachelor’s degree in 1963 from the University of Wisconsin and earned several graduate degrees, including a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1948. She is survived by her daughters, Mary Harrell and Ruth Turpin; her sister, Edith Hardell; two brothers, Russell Pagenkopf and Ray Pagenkopf, and one granddaughter.