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Remembering Irving Gottesman

July 1, 2016

Major accomplishments

Published 17 books and roughly 385 articles, chapters, and book reviews.

Work has been cited in other publications more than 2,269 times (Google Scholar).

Created the first U.S. academic program on behavioral genetics.

With researcher James Shields, developed a model of schizophrenia that “Gave rise to the concept of ‘endophenotypes,’ or measurable traits in people without discernible mental health disorders who could be at risk of developing them. (This work has also become the basis for explanations of other psychiatric conditions, including autism, alcohol dependence and bipolar disorders.)

Awards and personal recognition

Honorary Fellow, Royal College of Psychiatrists, London

Honorary Fellow, King’s College, London

American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award

American Psychological Foundation’s Gold Medal for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology

International Society for Psychiatric Genetics’ Lifetime Achievement Award

National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Depression’s Lieber Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Schizophrenia Research

Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award in 2001 from the APA is the profession’s highest honor  (previous honorees include Jean Piaget and B.F. Skinner)

The first psychologist to win the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Psychiatric Genetics in 1997

Note: Professor Irving Gottesman passed away at the age of 85 on June 29, 2016. Here we remember and honor this giant in the field of behavioral genetics by re-publishing this profile from 2014.

When Irving Gottesman–emeritus Irving and Dorothy Bernstein professor of adult psychiatry and current Senior Fellow in the Department of Psychology–was invited to an interview, he swiftly emailed a reply: “Let me know what to wear and when to shave.”

This is quintessential Gottesman–charming, witty, modest, even self-deprecating, but also attentive to his reputation in a field whose researchers, practitioners, and students regard him as a giant and a legend. And at 85, more than a decade beyond “retirement,” he is still working, still making waves, still piling up accolades.

When Gottesman joined the clinical psychology graduate program as a student in the Department of Psychology in 1956, an academic battle that had been raging in the discipline for some time–nature v. nurture–had been all but settled at US universities (on the nurture side of the equation). But not at the University of Minnesota. With interests at the intersection of behavioral psychology and genetics, Gottesman found a receptive and congenial home in a department already known for its rigorous adherence to methods of empirical observation and measurement. The climate was ripe for a bit of scientific cage rattling. New data were shaking up the discipline, and twin studies would soon be underway, promising a sea change in psychology research.

At Minnesota, Gottesman took a class on individual differences (taught by Donald G. Paterson and James Jenkins) that he says “changed [his] whole life.” Intrigued by the question of causation, he began his own twin research–using the MMPI–for a doctoral dissertation that made a strong case for a genetic basis for individual differences. He was well on his way toward creating a new field, behavior genetics.

Like all great researchers, Gottesman approached his work from the beginning with more questions than answers, challenging prevailing orthodoxies and their true believers. Among other things, he took on the “atrocious” idea that people developed mental illness because of bad mothering. And as paradigm shifts inevitably do, his recalibration of the nature-nurture balance raised some eyebrows and hackles.

Early in his career, Gottesman spent three years as a lecturer at Harvard, where he was was viewed by more senior colleagues with both skepticism and condescension as bringing “dustbowl empiricism” from the Midwest. “They set out to smooth the rough edges,” he says. “They were theorists. They saw collection of data to be pedestrian. They were already famous. I was trembling in in my boots.”

As it turned out, those boots would leave some mighty large footprints for the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Some years later, students he taught at Harvard would thank him for rocking their academic world. In 1966, he would return to Minnesota to launch the Behavioral Genetics Center. Today, Gottesman’s work is the coin of the psychology realm, not only in the classroom but also in clinical and laboratory settings throughout the world. And his landmark work has brought his way a steady stream of prizes–including the 2013 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology, which he views as his proudest achievement.

Nature-nurture questions continue to vex researchers today, even as Gottesman’s findings are confirmed by continued large-scale studies and brain imaging. As the neurological roots of human behavior have become more discoverable, the balance has tilted away from good/bad mother explanations toward a far more nuanced and elastic view of human behavior, rooted in genetics but also shaped by pre- and post-natal environment.

As for those who insist on the primacy and determinacy of genes, Gottesman has as little patience for them as he does for the nurturists. Wary of absolutism on either side, he goes out of his way to testify against “wholly unsupported” beliefs in such “nonsense” as inherent racial differences in intelligence.

“Enlightened views never put down environment as unimportant. We just begin from a biological point,” he says, adding that genes may influence IQ, for example, but only in conjunction with such factors as education, money and social class, nutrition, and social relationships.

Gottesman’s most enduring legacy? Students, he says–his “intellectual offspring.” In 1966, he taught a class in behavior genetics that had never been taught before–and then taught 55 students a year until 1979. “You do the math,” he says, grinning.
He has also advised 36 PhDs and seven post-docs, many of whom are continuing and expanding his work–investigating, for example, how genes interact with environment to affect propensity for criminal behavior, addiction, attachment disorders, and more. “I threw a rock into a pond,” he says. “Or maybe I’m the rock. These are the ripples.”

Over the decades, those ripples have built to a tidal wave, transforming the way we think about human behavior and personality and treat mental illness. Today, we are closer than ever to solving the intricate puzzle of who we are (and why) and what makes our brains—and our behavior—go awry. We have incontrovertible evidence that nature and nurture operate in tandem to create our selves. We know that mental illness and many personality characteristics have a neurological basis, and that we are bundles of nature poised to be leavened and activated (or not) by nurture. Biology is not destiny, nor is bad parenting.

This integrative view, once so subversive of the status quo, is now widely accepted. But it is also provisional and evolving–in a field that is very much a work in progress–especially in an age of increasingly sophisticated biotechnologies.

“We’re panning for gold dust,” Gottesman says, “and we will eventually find nuggets. The gold bars will be actual genes involved in neuropathology.”

“I’m happy that I’ve lasted long enough to see this. But I would like to be 50 years younger, to be part of the developments in imaging and genotyping.”