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In memoriam: David A. Hamburg, MD

April 24, 2019

Dr. David A. Hamburg, a distinguished psychiatrist and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who pioneered research in the field of mental health, died April 21 in Washington. He was 93.

Dr. Hamburg completed his residency at Yale School of Medicine, where he met his wife, fellow psychiatrist and researcher the late Dr. Beatrix Hamburg. After moving to Stanford University in 1961, they forged parallel career paths, studying human coping processes under severe stress – from physical stress to mental illness, severe depression, poverty, and war.

David Hamburg established the first Mental Health Clinical Research Center at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and initiated a line of research on the role of stress biology in severe mood disorders, an area that continues to be a major focus of research.

As Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Stanford, he created a visionary, highly multidisciplinary department that became a prototype for others across the nation. The kidnapping of four Stanford students in rural Africa in 1975 brought him to the international scene and showcased his unique skills in negotiating complex situations in conflict.

His focus shifted to health and science policy as he became President of the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 1975, followed by a three-year stint at Harvard University beginning in 1980 as Director of the Division of Health Policy Research and Education, and then for 15 years as President of the Carnegie Corp., a multibillion-dollar charitable foundation. He was President and Chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science from 1984 to 1986.

He chaired commissions for both the United Nations and the European Union and was involved in discussions with leaders of the former Soviet Union – including its last president, Mikhail S. Gorbachev – on reducing the risk of nuclear war.

In 1996, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by President Bill Clinton. His citation honored him for “teaching us about the challenges and difficulties of raising children in a rapidly transforming world” while emphasizing the need for “families, schools, and communities to work together in our children’s interest.”

He authored many books, including “Preventing Genocide: Practical Steps Toward Early Detection and Effective Action” and “Today’s Children: Creating a Future for a Generation in Crisis.” He received numerous awards during his long career, including the 2015 Pardes Humanitarian Prize in Mental Health by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. He shared that award with his wife, who died last year.

Dr. Hamburg was generous in his support of the Yale Department of Psychiatry throughout his career. He gave a Grand Rounds lecture and assisted past Chair Dr. Benjamin Bunney in raising money for the department.

Dr. Bunney recalled that when Dr. Hamburg was head of Carnegie Corp. he arranged a luncheon and invited the heads of eight other foundations to hear Dr. Bunney speak. “I presented my vision for the future of treatments for mental diseases and what I saw as the Yale Department of Psychiatry’s role in it,” Dr. Bunney said.

Submitted by Christopher Gardner on April 24, 2019