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Life’s Work of John P. Wilson: An Overview

October 27, 2015

John P. Wilson, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Cleveland State University, and an internationally known trauma psychologist died July 6, 2015, in his home in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cleveland Plain Dealer obituary appeared a few days later. This brief article is not an obituary but, rather, a note of introduction to those who may not be familiar with his work.

John Wilson was a pioneer trauma psychologist who became involved in helping Vietnam War veterans and was intrigued as a psychology researcher about how memories could impact trauma survivors in similar but different ways. His life and works touched thousands of people throughout the world. He was a co-founder of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) and was elected President of the Society in 1987. He was instrumental in bringing attention to Vietnam combat veterans through his innovative and pioneering work in the study and treatment of trauma.

The photograph on the left appeared at the end of his autobiographical essay (Wilson, 2006) published as Chapter 17 in Mapping Trauma and its Wake (Figley, 2006). Much of Wilson’s life works can be found in his books. Six of his books represent his most significant contributions to trauma psychology.

Vietnam War Combat Veterans’ Struggles

Wilson (2004) notes in his chapter that he learned about trauma through interviews with war veterans. He received considerable support from the Disabled Veterans of America who supported his Forgotten Warrior Project that led to several unpublished papers (Wilson, 1977; 1980). Out of his work with Vietnam war combat veterans he wrote the chapter Conflict, Stress and Growth: The Effects of War on the Psychosocial Development Among Vietnam Veterans (Wilson, 1980). In it he presented a psychodynamic perspective of war stressors on ego-identity formation and PTSD. This perspective was represented in three subsequent chapters in two different books. He was among the first to find evidence that war-zone related stressors are primary predictors of PTSD symptoms as well as the role of personality.

Wilsonian Vision of Trauma

All of this is explained in more detail in his first sole-authored book, Trauma, Transformation and Healing (Wilson, 1989). In it he explained the "Person- Environment Approach to Traumatic Stress Reaction,” his theoretical model of traumatic stress. In this same book he wrote about the Sacred Pipe ceremony and examined Native American and cultural rituals in relation to recovery and healing from profoundly traumatic experiences.

In regard to the application of these models, Wilson & Raphael (2000) proposed the first precursor of what became Psychological First Aid. Here they attempted to help standardize research and training on crisis debriefings, spearheading the attempt to synthesize the literature on acute interventions following trauma.

Mechanisms of Emotional Reactions to Trauma

Another area of Wilson’s contributions was identifying the mechanisms that underlie a complex matrix of emotional reactions of trauma patients with PTSD, in collaboration with Jack Lindy in their book Countertransference in the Treatment of PTSD (Wilson & Lindy, 2013). Here they identified Type I and Type II countertransferences and four different modalities of empathic strain experienced during clinical work.

Building on this work, Friedman, Lindy and Wilson (2001) proposed a comprehensive psychobiological framework by which to understand the different psychosocial treatments for PTSD. They developed a “tetrahedral model of PTSD and dissociative processes” that enables the development of precise treatment plans with clearly identified treatment goals. They also attempted to provide a critical analysis of treatment approaches and where they succeed or fail in eliminating the emotional sting of memories.

Empathy in the Treatment of Trauma and PSTD (Wilson & Thomas, 2004) explores the matrix of empathy and its relation to the psychotherapy of PTSD. Here they build on Wilson & Lindy’s (1994) earlier work by analyzing empathy as the key to facilitating the transformation of trauma in patients as well as expanding into new areas. Equally important, they discussed how empathy is a key construct in predicting the psychologically impact on trauma mental health in their efforts to maintain therapeutic equilibrium and “empathic attunement” with the traumatized. This stance helped provide a useful understanding of the role of empathy and “empathic strain” as practitioners.

Effectively, Wilson (2006b) drew from his scholarship in personality to understand the need to restore meaning and a sense of wholeness following trauma. He acknowledged the research tends in noting post-traumatic growth and the positive effects of trauma on the development of the recovery of one’s identity, character, and purpose in the aftermath of trauma. Long before others, Wilson noted the importance of focusing on human resilience; while acknowledging pathological consequences of trauma, including the impact on the “inner self.”

Cross-Cultural and Global Understanding

Wilson’s humanitarian work and lecture invitations introduced him to war victims, refugees and displaced persons led to his greater awareness of the special needs of traumatized asylum seekers and refugees. In collaboration with Boris Drozdek of the Netherlands they edited two volumes (Wilson & Drozdek, 2004) in Hertogenbosch. This critically needed professional reference helped standardize the care for victims of terrorism, war and political oppression.

His humanitarian work, together with his experience in the cross-cultural and global understanding of trauma, is obvious in his international handbook he edited with Beverly Raphael (Wilson & Raphael 1993). This book was important because it was the largest book on trauma to date and was only slightly thinner than the 2012 Encyclopedia of Trauma. It also was significant because it was a more interdisciplinary effort to define and classify the field of traumatic stress (e.g., incorporating theory, assessment, research methods, victim populations, treatment methods, social policy issues), as was noted in the first issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress (Figley, 1988).

His last book (Wilson & Lindy, 2013) explores the language of both individual and collective trauma, which is often ignored by Western scholars and practitioners. In a systematic way, these scholars built a conceptualization of the etymology of trauma-related terms used in non-Western countries and their counterpart concepts. Together with his other works that tried to bridge cultures, this book succeeded in providing both researchers and practitioners with a framework for working with trauma survivors using a cross-cultural vocabulary?one often based in metaphor?to fully address the experience of trauma and to begin work on reconnection and self-reinvention.

Trauma Measurements

Another area of Wilson’s contribution was in collaboration with Terrence Keane (Wilson & Keane, 1997; 2004), in which they produced a reference book for trauma scholars and practitioners, the only one of its kind. The second edition of the book was published in 2004. The increase in the quality and quantity of the instruments they included reflects the extraordinary increase in interest in trauma and especially PTSD. It remains the gold standard reference volume for clinicians and research throughout the world.

In his only autobiographical work, Wilson concluded with this observation that, perhaps, illuminates the single most focused objective of his life’s work:

If there is an overarching humanitarian mission for future scholars, it is to find a way to prevent the conditions in the world that produce trauma, violence, war and human suffering. Until that occurs, the scientific knowledge about trauma and PTSD is critical for the evolution of the species. As Freud (1917) understood, love and hate (Eros and Thanatos) are rooted in the psychology of humans. The forces of hate lead to trauma. The forces of love lead to peace and altruism.


John Wilson’s leadership beyond his term as the second President of ISTSS is his successful effort to bring critically needed attention to Vietnam War veterans in the decade following the end of that war. This led him to study and lead a movement to improve the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD, including the role of personality, empathy, psychobiology, culture, countertransference, and measurement in understanding and mitigating the unwanted impact of trauma and celebrating new and profound awareness it can bring to the survivors.

Note: A website to discuss his work was established at the John P Wilson Page within the Trauma Pioneers site.

About the Author

Charles R. Figley, PhD, is the founding president of ISTSS, and the founding editor of the Journal of Traumatic Stress. He currently holds the Paul Henry Kurzweg, MD Distinguished Chair in Disaster Mental Health and heads the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University where he also serves as Associate Dean for Research in the School of Social Work. The author of over 150 journal articles and 25 books, his current research interests include trauma resilience among Native Americans. Email:


Aronoff , J. & Wilson, J. P. (1985). Personality in the social process. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbum.

Figley, C. R. (1988). Toward a field of traumatic stress studies. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1(1), 1-13.

Freud, S. (1917). Introductory lecture on psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton.

Raphael, B. & Wilson, J. P. (2000). Psychological debriefing: Theory, practice, evidence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, J. P. (1977). The forgotten warrior (Vol I). Washington, DC: Disabled American Veterans.

Wilson, J. P. (1980). The forgotten warrior (Vol II). Washington, DC: Disabled American Veterans.

Wilson, J. P. (1980). Conflict, stress and growth: The effects of war on psychosocial development among Vietnam veterans. In C. R. Figley & K. S. Leventman (Eds.), Strangers at home: Vietnam veterans since the war (pp. 123-165). New York: Preager Press.

Wilson, J. P. (1989). Trauma, transformation and healing. New York: Brunner-Mazel.

Wilson, J. P. (2006a). From crisis intervention to Bosnia: The Trauma Maps of John P. Wilson. In C. R. Figley (Ed.). Mapping Trauma and Its Wake: Autobiographic Essays by Pioneer Trauma Scholars. NY: Rutledge.
Wilson, J. P. (2006b). The posttraumatic self: Restoring meaning and wholeness to personality. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Wilson, J. P., & Drozdek, B. (Eds.) (2004). Broken spirits: The treatment of traumatized asylum seekers, refugees and war and torture victims. New York: Routledge.

Wilson, J. P., Friedman, M., & Lindy, J. (2001). Treating psychological trauma and PTSD. New York: Guilford Publications.

Wilson, J. P., Harel, Z., & Kahana, B. (1988). Human adaptation to extreme stress: from Holocaust to Vietnam. New York & London: Plenum Press.

Wilson, J. P. & Keane, T. M. (1997).

Wilson, J. P. & Keane, T. M. (2004). Assessing psychological trauma and PTSD (2nd Edition). New York: Guilford Publications.

Wilson, J. P. & Krauss, G. E. (1979). Vietnam era stress inventory. In J. P. Wilson (Ed.), Trauma transformation and healing (pp. 265-308). New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Wilson, J. P. & Lindy, J. (1994). Counter-transference in the treatment of PTSD. New York: Guilford Publications.

Wilson, J. P. & Lindy, J. (2013). Trauma, culture, and metaphor: Pathways of transformation and integration. New York: Routledge.

Wilson J. P. & Raphael, B. (Eds.) (1993). International handbook of traumatic stress syndromes. New York: Plenum Press.

Wilson, J. P. & Thomas, R. (2004). Empathy in the treatment of trauma and PTSD. New York: Brunner-Routledge.