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Dr. Norma Spielman Wohl

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1920

Medical School

Hahnemann Medical College



Career Path

Psychiatry: Child and Adolescent
Dr. Norma Spielman Wohl


During my childhood years of intense curiosity and seeking answers to deep teleological questions, it occurred to me that my purpose or goal in life might well be service to fellow travelers. If one individual had value, I reasoned, all creatures deserved to be helped when in need. I considered various careers and several occurred to me, among which were teaching and medicine. The latter intrigued me. I recall that one of my uncles, a dentist, was interested in me and he would encourage my budding interest. He told me, "Pray for early gray hair so patients will believe that you are old enough to be a good doctor."


In the 1970s Norma Spielman Wohl, M.D., became interested the growing phenomena of cult groups. As well as her work to promote better understanding of cults in the medical profession, she consulted and treated families who needed assistance.

Born in 1920 to Russian immigrant parents, Norma Spielman's father lost his business in the 1929 stock market crash. The Depression affected the whole family, so from first grade she saved for her education, saving a dollar each week. In 1938 she was accepted on academic scholarship to attend Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She decided on a double major in chemistry and psychology, and worked part-time to help pay for her education.

In 1942, again on a scholarship, she entered Philadelphia's Hahnemann Medical College. Norma Spielman was one of ten women in Hahnemann's second class to accept women. Condensing a four-year program into three years because of the constraints of World War II, she graduated second in her class in 1945. That same year she began her internship at Philadelphia General Hospital.

During her internship, Dr. Spielman married George T. Wohl, M.D., who had just completed medical military service in England and France. Soon after he began his radiology residency, the first of their four children was born in 1947. While her children were still young, Dr. Wohl focused on her responsibilities as a mother and pursued a part-time medical practice on the Philadelphia Board of Education and as a research assistant with her father-in-law, who was also a physician. In 1953, before beginning a psychiatry residency at the Philadelphia Psychiatric Hospital and Institute, Dr. Wohl persuaded administrators to allow her a flexible schedule to allow her to be home with her children in the afternoon. Again, for her training in psychoanalysis, Dr. Wohl negotiated with the physicians of Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute to make accommodations for her family responsibilities.

Completing her psychiatric and psychoanalytic training in 1960, Dr. Wohl served as director of psychiatry at The Training School in Vineland, New Jersey, from 1956 through 1965. Here, in addition to seeing patients, Dr. Wohl trained and oversaw the psychiatry staff and planned the school's expansion to include treatment of emotionally disturbed children.

While working in private practice and serving as psychiatric consultant for Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore colleges, Dr. Wohl was a director of child psychiatry training at Children's Clinic of Philadelphia Psychiatric Center from 1972 through 1980. During the 1970s, Dr. Wohl became deeply concerned with the growing cult phenomenon. She researched, wrote, and delivered papers on the topic to professional and lay groups and provided pro bono work for families whose children had become part of cult groups.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

My parents each came from large families. In the days of my youth the immigrant families provided education only for the male offspring. Not one of my many girl cousins was interested nor encouraged to seek a college education. All of the boys who so desired were given the opportunity. My father was the youngest in a family of one son and six daughters. My eldest aunt told me with authority that girls did not need to go to college. At age 4 when I learned the meaning of the word "college" I decided that I would certainly achieve that goal. My intelligent, hard-working father suffered loss during the depression. From early childhood I worked and saved enough to pay with added full scholarships at Bryn Mawr College and [Hahnemann] Medical School to cover all my educational costs without any financial support from parents or others. I was determined to achieve my educational goals and not to marry until I completed my degrees. In addition to my goal of education and medicine, I added a wish for a mutually loving marriage. I hoped for children to raise as a family in a warm artistic home filled with love and music. I felt confidant that I could be a good wife, loving mother and also have a fine career in medicine. It seemed like a big order, but I was confident enough to try to fulfill my dreams without compromise.

How do I make a difference?

I truly enjoy and love people. Moreover I feel happiest when I am able to do or say things which are understanding, helpful and when possible humorous. I believe in the enhancement of the vital immune system with positive input. There are a variety of positives: love must certainly be among the most important, adding the joys of nature, music, art, literature, socialization, physical activities, the knowledge and practice of healthy, happy, living behaviors. Standards of following the golden rule and the rewards of living life with high ethical goals, integrity, honesty, empathy and efforts to forgive and forget when others may on occasion throw sling shots our way.

Who was my mentor?

I pay tremendous tribute to my many remarkable mentors. To those from early years until this very day I am certain that any success I may have achieved and hope to continue is the result of influence by those who cared, loved, taught and guided me. I start with my loving, dedicated and sacrificing parents who were hard working devoted and encouraging of my dream fulfillment.

Then there was Jessie Taylor, the mother of my best friend Jeanne. Jessie was a model as a private kindergarten teacher in her home, and was my first piano teacher. With Jeanne I planted a flower and vegetable garden, read the exciting books such as Pinocchio, Heidi, A Christmas Carol, and took long hikes on freezing days.

Then teachers all through school from kindergarten through college, medical school, internship, residencies all the way were mentors, supervisors, teaching and encouraging and referring patients to me. I was truly a privileged child and adult all the years of my life beyond the bounds of any expectation.

How has my career evolved over time?

I deferred acceptance of marriage proposals until after my graduation from medical school. My medical school education was during the World War II when the Army and Navy enlisted male medical students in a program in which the service provided the tuition and expenses of the education in exchange for military service. The four years of medical school were compressed into three calendar years with only a few weeks of vacation each year such as Christmas week. I served my internship in Philadelphia General Hospital. It was much sought after, as it was a public hospital serving the indigent. Interns were given opportunities for more experience than that of most private hospitals. During my internship I married a physician. We started our family two years after we were married while my husband completed his radiology training. We had two sons (lost the second) and two daughters.

After the last child was born and had a good start (and after my impatient waiting), I began my training in psychiatry. That was accomplished with some creative compromises with the chief of psychiatry at the most sought after training institution in my city. I was given the privilege of working hard enough to complete my assignment in half a day and allowed to be at home with children the rest of the day. I took a complete psychoanalytic training with adults and children concurrently with my three-year psychiatric residency. On completion of my training, the children were all in school and I was able again to see patients and also teach residents half day and be at home when the children returned from school. My training in psychoanalysis included a personal psychoanalysis which, in addition to the value it provided in practice, was of great benefit to my family and me. My training psychiatrists were extremely generous in helping me build a practice. As the children grew older and developed many interests and activities it was easier for me to spend more time in teaching and practicing. My private practice was in my home, which was well suited because the office was well separated from the family rooms.

My husband and I shared many interests such as music, art, opera, biking, swimming, travel, and educational interests.