Tribute to Douglas H. Sprenkle

Doug Sprenkle, a cherished friend, colleague, and mentor to many in family therapy passed away on August 16th, 2018 after fighting pancreatic cancer. His remarkable kindness and warmth is celebrated by many in our community whose lives he touched. His contributions to our field were honored by NCFR, AAMFT and AFTA. In 2010, AFTA awarded him the Distinguished Contribution to Family Therapy Theory and Practice.

Susan Regas, Ph.D., President APA Division 43 Society for Couple and Family Psychology, shared “With great sadness, I learned today of Dr. Doug Sprenkle’s death. He was my mentor and great friend for the past 35 years.  Doug built one of the most influential AAMFT doctoral programs in the country and many of his graduates have gone on to be leaders in the field. He received numerous well-deserved honors, including the Osborne Award from the National Council on Family Relations for his outstanding teaching in family therapy, as well as the Distinguished Contribution to Marriage and Family Therapy Award from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. He was a prolific writer, the author of five books, and more than 100 scholarly articles. In fact, students weren’t allowed to leave his courses without a publishable paper!

Doug stayed in close contact with alumni who graduated from Purdue.  He always was checking to see where we were in our lives and what help we needed to enhance our careers. He was interesting, funny and so smart.  He was known for eating all of our leftovers when we would go to the  "all you can eat cafes" and giving out unsolicited financial advice.  Joking aside, Doug was the warmest, most giving, and kindest human being. I will miss him greatly.”


He is truly missed and remembered with great love and fondness as shared on the AFTA listserv, which is curated below:

Doug leaves an indelible imprint on the field of family therapy. His writing and presentations have deeply influenced so many. He developed and headed for several years the cutting edge Purdue MFT program and his devotion to teaching and  mentoring young people is well known. And for almost a decade he did a brilliant job editing JMFT; most especially there bringing a focus to the interface between research and practice. I had the privilege to  work with Doug on a few projects, including a book, and what was transcendent was that this was a wonderful caring human being who brought great effort, insight, and empathy for others to his work. He very much will be missed.

Family therapy evolved in the sixties and seventies and we are seeing the inevitable loss of many of the brilliant thinkers, practitioners, researchers, and teachers who emerged in the first and second generation of family therapy. I think this collectively is a great sadness for us all.
Jay Lebow, Ph.D., ABPP
Senior Scholar and Senior Therapist
Clinical Professor of Psychology
Editor: Family Process
The Family Institute at Northwestern


It is with great sadness that I learned today of Doug Sprenkle’s death. A friend and colleague for over 30 years, Doug epitomized the best of our field. His generativity was monumental, training multiple generations of leaders in family therapy from the doctoral program at Purdue that he and his colleagues, especially Fred Piercy, built into the premier scholarly training program in the field. Doug’s vision lives today in the people he trained who are active in almost every mft training program in the United States, Canada and around the world. Doug’s wisdom, his commitment to integrating research, training and practice, his effort to transcend the multiplicity of models with a common factors perspective, his kindness, warmth, humor and integrity, were all remarkably combined in one human being. He was a mensch—a person of noble character. We are simultaneously diminished with his passing and enriched with the personal and professional legacy he has left us. Fare the well friend.

With love and sadness,

William M. Pinsof, Ph.D., LMFT, ABPP
Pinsof Family Systems LLC


I  am very saddened to hear of our shared loss of Doug, whom I never got to know well, except through his written work, but who always was a warm, deeply kind, and intellectually rigorous presence at AFTA, as well as in his years of editing JMFT.  Most of my conversations with him involved trying to get him to run for president (he was always very honored, and always gave a firm no), but those conversations were memorable for his thoughtfulness, his care for AFTA, for the field, for the true integration of research and practice in a way that was bridging of two important aspects of our work.  I appreciate hearing of his message to AAMFT about its whiteness - I am gratified and unsurprised to hear it, because he had the unfailing ability to speak the truth to power in ways that it could be heard.

Pancreatic cancer is a tough way to go, and I am very sad for his and his family's and closest friends’ suffering. His memory, and his written works, will always be a blessing to our field and to AFTA.

Jodie Kliman, Ph.D.


I am deeply saddened to hear of Doug's passing.  I had the privilege of following him as JMFT Editor, when he so generously shared his his wisdom and experience -- and wry humor -- As he turned over heavy boxes of "in process" manuscripts (we worked with hard copies of submissions in those days), he advised, "Remember, you're in the rejection business!"  What he actually meant revealed his dedication to the highest standards of clinical and research scholarship, refusal to publish half-baked ideas or highly polemic rubbish.  He treating all authors, whether famous or  early career, with equal respect and fairmindness, always encouraging the best.  He set a standard for us all.
He's also been a model for many of us,  in graceful retirement - "preferment" -- to fully enjoy his later years in the Colorado rockies and leisure travels --  this is still a work in progress for me.

Thank you Doug, for all you have given us,
Froma Walsh, Ph.D.
Co-Director, Chicago Center for Family Health
Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor Emerita, SSA
The University of Chicago

When I joined AFTA in 1996, I was a bit overwhelmed to be meeting the people behind the seemingly omnipresent, legendary names (the two other writers in this email chain, Froma and Jay, being among them!). Doug Sprenkle was certainly one of them.  I admired his brilliant writings on integration, on linking research and practice, among many others. But my most powerful memory of Doug was from a Men’s Institute meeting, where he bared his soul and heart in a most moving way about some personal family issues.  He showed me by example that one can be a productive professional in our field and still struggle as a human being with one’s own family issues. When years later I went through a very hard time myself with my family, I remembered Doug at that meeting and it helped me not feel like a complete fraud and failure continuing to do and teach family and couple therapy whilst struggling with my own intimate relationships. Thanks, Doug, for being so soulful and brilliant and vulnerable, all at the same time.

Peter Fraenkel, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology,
The City College of the City University of New York


Doug died after a brief struggle with pancreatic cancer. He was until a few months ago, climbing mountains and traveling. We have lost one of the big ones.

He publicly, once at an AAMFT Leadership meeting, told the board and the ED that AAMFT has been for too long the American White Association of MFT. That statement deepened my admiration for Doug. We will miss him.

One more memory, I met Doug personally for the first time in a flight from Houston to Mexico City in 1995, we were going to an IFTA meeting. He had a Newton Message Pad 100, the first portable device that was ten times bigger than an iPhone. Of course, being a fanatic of new technologies, he spent time explaining the damn thing to me, all while he was probably handling papers, edits, his whole family therapy writing office in the plane. I asked Doug: Do you just do family therapy stuff? and with his particular sense of humor, he said: "Of course and otherwise where would my friends be..." When he finally retired from Purdue, we maintained communication via social media, but he was cool really, he had this understated way of being around while always handling tons of information and ideas. Sending my hugs to all those who worked closely with him and were his mentees and friends.

Gonzalo Bacigalupe, EdD, MPH
University of Massachusetts Boston


I did not know Doug Sprenkle well enough to write deeply about him. But being truly saddened by his leaving us, I started to reflect on the reasons for my feelings of loss. I think more than a few times, when I despaired about the polarizations that plague us as a field, whether it is because researchers and clinicians do not connect, or practitioners advance single theories or ways of working as being the only correct ones to be trained on, I found myself turning to Doug’s life work as a rigorous clinical researcher and a devoted teacher respectful of many approaches. I particularly gravitated towards his incisive and not simplistic work on “common factors in couple and family therapy” — a legacy that could be very useful to our field in our current attempts to become post-oppositional. I am truly thankful to Doug for his intense, valuable and yet unassuming dedication to integrate and advance family therapy.

Celia Jaes Falicov, Ph.D.
Family Therapy Author, Teacher, and Clinical Psychologist
University of California San Diego

I have been thinking about Doug a lot since I heard of his untimely death.  Doug and I had parallel career paths, both getting our doctorates about the same time, then we both took jobs in academic institutions, both of us combining our clinical interests with research.  I echo my colleagues wonderful inspirational insights about Doug.  His contributions to our field are many and varied.  His 1985 book on divorce and his article examining outcomes of divorce therapy are important contributions to researchers and clinicians working in the area of divorce.  He took being a mentor very seriously and at every major conference Doug always had a few students under his wing that he introduced to family therapy colleagues; what an important way to usher students in to the field.  I had the opportunity to read several letters he wrote in support of his students.  They were rich in detail and clearly written by a professor who truly cared about his students and helping them further their careers.

My memories took me back to 1991 when Doug and I gave plenary addresses at an International Conference on Family Therapy that focused on divorce and remarriage.  It was in Jerusalem and since neither one of us had been to Israel we decided to play hooky one day and go to the Dead Sea.  On the long bus ride there, we talked about some of the difficulties in combining clinical work with research, my dilemma of being in an academic department that placed a low value on clinical practice, and why it was important that MFT programs be free-standing.  After floating around in the Dead Sea for several hours, our discussion when we headed home was more about our families and other activities.  Doug surprised me with his knowledge of the stock market and investing and what he learned about saving money from his father.  I learned a lot of lessons from Doug on that ride home.  The MFT Program at Purdue is fortunate to be the recipient of a large endowment gifted by Doug Sprenkle.

On a less serious note, if anyone would like to have a vintage 1991 picture of Doug, covered in mud, please email me, and in the Subject line write "Doug--mud" and I'll send you a jpg.

Although Doug is no longer with us, his students and his ideas will carry forward.

Constance Ahrons, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita of Sociology, University of Southern California
Former director, Marriage and Family Therapy Doctoral Program


Doug’s longtime friend and colleague, Fred Piercy, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech wrote a beautiful tribute on the AAMFT Blog. A Celebration of Life will be held on October 7th at 3:00pm at Heart of Steamboat UMC. For details view his full obituary here.

The AFTA family sends our thoughts and wishes to Doug’s family and friends. His presence in our community will be greatly missed.

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