Mclean Hospital

John Gunderson: Borderline Personality Disorder Trailblazer

January 29, 2019

As a young psychiatrist, John G. Gunderson, MD, was fascinated by certain patients that he, and even his more experienced colleagues, struggled to diagnose and treat. They were challenging and sometimes erratic. They would cut or burn themselves. Often, they would grasp on to one person as their savior and feel abandoned when that person set limits. At the time, these patients were called “borderline schizophrenic” or “borderline neurotic.” Dr. Gunderson went on to co-author a 1975 article that, for the first time, gave a name and diagnosis to this collection of characteristics: borderline personality disorder (BPD).

“That article suddenly transformed my career, and I was considered an expert on a group of patients whom we didn’t yet understand exactly how to help,” recalled Dr. Gunderson, who recently retired from his role as director of the McLean Borderline Center. “Then, I really got into the research and did the work that defined the disorder, and got it introduced into the classification system in 1980.”

John G. Gunderson, MD
John G. Gunderson, MD

Today, this diagnosis is the subject of international journals, organizations, and conferences. Dr. Gunderson and his colleagues have built one of the most respected borderline personality disorder programs in the world at McLean.

Because there is a dire shortage of clinicians trained to treat patients with BPD, Dr. Gunderson has made it his life’s work to train clinicians in the evidence-based treatments he has had a large role in developing.

“John is not only the ‘grandfather’ of the BPD diagnosis but has also been a major contributor to the research that has transformed the attitude toward the disorder from stigma and hopelessness to recovery and hope,” said Lois W. Choi-Kain, MD, MEd, director of McLean’s Adult Borderline Center and Training Institute and a close collaborator of Dr. Gunderson’s. “His work has touched the lives of countless patients and their families.”

Since the preparation of this story, Dr. Gunderson passed away on January 11, 2019.