There was a time when schizophrenia was blamed on bad mothering (“schizophrenogenic mother”), when some believed that racial differences in I.Q. were entirely genetic, and when it was almost unheard of to use studies of twins as a way of understanding profound questions about nature and nurture. All that and more changed significantly, thanks in large part to the career contributions of the brilliant scholar, Irving Gottesman. When he died on June 29, 2016, the mark he made on the fields of psychology and psychiatry merited a lengthy obituary in the New York Times.
To me, though, Irv was first and foremost a friend. Our own areas of professional expertise did not overlap, but I did appreciate the sensibility he brought to his studies. When I heard that the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day was “Dignity in Mental Health,” I knew that I wanted to put together a tribute to Irv that celebrated the dignity he accorded the people and the human conditions he studied.
I asked a few of the students he mentored to share their thoughts. Thanks to Professors Susan Trumbetta and Lisabeth DiLalla for their moving and insightful tributes. And thank-you, Irv, for your lifetime of friendship and scholarship.
Susan Trumbetta, PhD, Professor of Psychological Science at Vassar College, was a student of Gottesman’s and later, his colleague and research collaborator:
Irv’s brilliance as a scientist and clinician stemmed, in part, from his awareness of how thoroughly severe mental illnesses could shatter individuals and their families and, in part, from his incisive questions that took aim at the heart of these devastating conditions. From the perspective of a scientific reader, Irv’s (1990) Schizophrenia Genesis read like a great detective novel, full of the historic twists and turns of intriguing clues, red herrings, revealing evidence, dead ends, and paths forward, with new questions ever emerging. From the perspective of individuals and families affected by schizophrenia’s devastating effects, his book offered accessible chapters that alternately explained the disorder from a scientific perspective and offered moving personal vignettes that communicated with profound respect, “You are not alone.” Irv knew the personal costs that statistical tables could both tally and obscure, and so, kept human experiences of schizophrenia at the center of his writings, teaching, advocacy, and research.
Irv knew first-hand the dangers of dehumanizing ideologies, having lost all but two of his father’s many brothers and sisters to the Holocaust. Irv became a passionate champion of human rights and human dignity, testifying before the US Senate Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity in 1972, winning the Mortimer B. Goodman award for public service from the Missouri chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1984, offering with Peter McGuffin expert witness testimony against genetic discrimination and for disability rights in Hong Kong in 2000, and advocating tirelessly with Fuller Torrey and others for retaining and increasing NIMH funding designated for research on serious mental illnesses.
We will miss Irv more than we know. With purpose and grace, Irv walked the walk.
Lisabeth DiLalla, PhD, Professor at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, is a developmental psychologist and behavioral geneticist who was a student of Gottesman’s. She also edited Behavior Genetics Principles, a collection of readings from Irv’s Festschrift. Her introduction included this:
Dr. Gottesman’s treatment of his research topics is impressive in its mixture of science and compassion. He has always been sensitive to issues of genetic determinism and has been clear about the importance of both genetic and environmental influences on behavior. Even when there is clear evidence of a genetic effect on a disorder, he continues to espouse the importance of the individual. For example, in a recent NAMI (The Nation’s Voice on Mental Illness) pamphlet on Schizophrenia and Genetic Risks, by Gottesman and Moldin (1999), the authors answer the question of whether schizophrenics should have children with the following statement: “A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer cannot do justice to this very personal and delicate question that goes to the heart of personal liberty and civil rights in a democratic society.” Dr. Gottesman’s research has combined a compassionate treatment of the rights of individuals with a rigorous scientific approach to psychopathology, resulting in a career worthy of commemoration.