Dr. Eleanor Galenson, a psychoanalyst whose research demonstrated that children are aware of sexual identity in infancy, even earlier than Freud had propounded, died on Jan. 15 at her home in Manhattan. She was 94.
Her son Paul Himmelstein confirmed the death.
Dr. Galenson, who in her 65-year career was a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, spent thousands of hours observing and documenting the actions and reactions of infants.
In 1981, with Dr. Herman Roiphe, she published "Infantile Origins of Sexual Identity.” Considered a significant book in the field, it refined existing Freudian theory about when children begin their sexual development. Dr. Roiphe died in 2005.
Freud postulated that awareness of genital difference does not affect children until the Oedipal stage — around 4 to 5 years old — when boys become competitive with their fathers for their mothers’ attention and girls turn more toward their fathers.
But Freud’s writing on psychosexual development was based on work with adult patients, said Dr. Nellie Thompson, a historian of psychoanalysis.
"What Galenson and Roiphe were doing was observing very young children in the nursery over time,” Dr. Thompson said. "They concluded that children make the discovery of genital difference between the ages of 15 to 19 months, and that this has an impact on their play, their relationship with their own bodies, their relationship with their parents.”
Dr. Galenson and Dr. Roiphe wrote in the book that as their research proceeded "we became increasingly convinced that we had been engaged in tracing the development of the sense of sexual identity from its vague beginnings during the earliest weeks and months to a definite conscious awareness of specific gender and genital erotic feelings and fantasies by the end of the second year.
"This definitive awareness,” they continued, "has turned out to be a critical factor in ongoing psychological development and has therefore been designated as the beginning of a new psychosexual phase.”
Later research by Dr. Galenson documented that subtle differences exhibited by children during the new psychosexual phase could indicate lasting effects. Her observations, said Dr. Patricia Nachman, a clinical psychologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center, "led to the idea that some of these children with very early sexual awareness may be more anxious children.”
Dr. Galenson was an advocate of early counseling for those children and their families — including play therapy, with the parents participating — for almost half a century "during a time when there were very few champions of this view,” Dr. Nachman said.
Eleanor Galenson was born in the Bronx on Oct. 28, 1916, one of two children of Louis and Libby Galenson. She graduated from Barnard in 1936 and was one of the first women to attend the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, from which she received a medical degree in 1940. She went on to train as a psychoanalyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, graduating in 1950.
Research was only a part of Dr. Galenson’s work. For many years she directed therapeutic nurseries at Mount Sinai and the Albert Einstein Medical Center. She also helped create clinics for troubled children in East Harlem and the Bronx. She was a founder of the World Association for Infant Psychiatry, now called the World Association for Infant Mental Health.
Dr. Galenson’s husband, Leonard Weinroth, died in 1988. Her first husband, Aaron Himmelstein, died in 1959. Besides her son Paul, she is survived by another son, David Himmelstein, and two grandchildren.