By Anne E. Kazak, Ph.D., ABPP
This article is based on an interview with Jonathan Kellerman on January 28, 2019 in Los Angeles.
Jonathan Kellerman may be best known for his success as a mystery writer. However, before he turned to writing best sellers, Dr. Kellerman was a pediatric psychologist who conducted research and started the pediatric psychology program in oncology at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles (CHLA). His work as a pediatric psychologist broke important new ground in the care of children with cancer and their families. He also demonstrated remarkable foresight into issues of psychosocial care of children with chronic conditions that have continued to be critically important 45 years later.
Dr. Kellerman received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1974 at the age of 24. He was hired as a psychologist at CHLA by David Rigler, Ph.D., chief psychologist at CHLA. He was approached by Stuart E. Siegel, M.D., a pediatric oncologist at CHLA, to join a project funded by the National Cancer Institute designing laminar air flow (LAF) rooms to prevent the risk of infection for immune-compromised patients. Dr. Kellerman recognized that this isolation and distortions of the child’s sense of time and space in addition to the impact of separating children from their families, could have important and potentially long-lasting effects. In a paper published in the first volume of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology in 1976, Dr. Kellerman and his colleagues described their experiences with eight children (whose average stay in the LAF room was 70 days). They evaluated the cognitive functioning of the patients and found no evidence of declines in intelligence (IQ). Most strikingly they eloquently described the experience of isolation, lack of privacy and separation from family and peers (Kellerman, Rigler, Siegel, McCue, Pospisil, & Uno, 1976). Dr. Siegel concluded that these findings were among the most important data from the project.
Dr. Kellerman notes that one of the advantages of his position was that he had the time to “sit and think” and develop treatment models that have endured to the present. In 1980 he published a prescient book which is an edited collection of papers on pediatric cancer, including paper on topics that remain critical today, such as siblings, adolescents, legal rights, hypnosis, and death (Kellerman, 1980). Dr. Kellerman describes important roles of psychologists in supporting the competence of families, avoiding stigmatization and providing a multidisciplinary team approach to support adaptive adjustment.
When asked about his legacy and what contributed to his success, Dr. Kellerman noted that being data-based and conducting research was a key aspect of his success that facilitated gaining the respect of physicians. Noting that in the 1970’s the popular perceptions of mental health focused on psycho-analysis, most physicians did not understand the training of psychologists nor their potential role in healthcare. He practiced in a manner that conveyed the normality and competence of children and families and gained their trust as a member of the treatment team, also recognizing the importance of providing training and consultation to medical and nursing staff.
The initial accomplishments of Dr. Kellerman and his students formed the basis for the HOPE (Behavioral Health, Neuropsychology, and Education) program at UCLA, led for many years by his former student, Ernest Katz, Ph.D. They studied 26 children with cancer and categorized their educational/school needs into four groups we still recognize today as essential components of psychosocial care – anxiety related to hair loss, school reintegration, preventative interventions at diagnosis, and evaluation and consultation for school placement (Katz, Kellerman, Rigler, Williams, & Siegel, 1977). Other close colleagues at that time were Leah Ellenberg, Ph.D. and Jerry Dash, Ph.D. Dr. Kellerman recognizes that the work of pediatric psychologists will always need financial support. Therefore he and his wife have provided philanthropic support for the psychology program at CHLA as well as for the psychology department at USC.
On a personal note, Dr. Kellerman and his wife Faye Kellerman, DDS (also an accomplished mystery writer) have four children, two of whom are psychologists. Ilana Kellerman Moss, Ph.D. is a pediatric psychologist (in Gastroenterology) at CHLA and Rachel Kellerman Kessler, Ph.D. is an adult neuropsychologist in Los Angeles. His son Jesse is a mystery writer. Another daughter, Aliza Kellerman (Ponedal), is also a writer and marketing professional.
Katz, E., Kellerman, J., Rigler, D., Williams, K., & Siegel, S. (1977). School intervention with pediatric cancer patients. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 2, 72-76.
Kellerman, J. (1980). Psychological aspects of childhood cancer. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas.
Kellerman, J., Rigler, D., Siegel, S., McCue, K., Pospisil, J., & Uno, R. (1976). Pediatric cancer patients in reverse isolation utilizing protected environments. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 1, 21-25.