Leading psychiatry researcher Lee Robins dies

Lee Nelken Robins, Ph.D., professor emeritus of social science in psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, died peacefully at her home Sept. 25, 2009, following a long battle against cancer. She was 87.

Lee Robins

Robins was a world leader in psychiatric epidemiology research and had worked in the Department of Psychiatry for more than 50 years.

“Washington University has lost a dear friend with the passing of Lee Robins,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “She was a distinguished member of the faculty on both the Danforth and Medical campuses, and her important work contributed to our understanding of how children grow and develop. Professor Robins will be missed.”

Born Aug. 29, 1922, in New Orleans, Robins earned a doctoral degree from Harvard University/Radcliffe College in 1951. She joined the faculty at Washington University School of Medicine in 1954 as a research assistant in psychiatry and rose to full professor in 1968. She is the founder and former director of the Master’s Program in Psychiatric Epidemiology at the School of Medicine, a program that still flourishes.

On the Danforth Campus, she also served as a lecturer and an adjunct associate professor of sociology from 1957 until 1963, professor of sociology from 1969 to 1991. And she served as a professor in the Program for Social Thought and Analysis from 1991 until her retirement in 2001.

Her early research made key observations about how psychiatric disorders early in life can affect adults, revealing that antisocial behavior in childhood is a major predictor of psychiatric problems later. Those studies forced mental health professionals to rethink topics from teen suicide to drug abuse. Her first major study eventually became the book, “Deviant Children Grown Up,” published in 1966.

Data from that study surprised many when antisocial behavior proved to be more important than social class or even family background and childhood fears and depression as a predictor of which children would do well as adults and which ones would have problems such as alcoholism, bad marriages or incarceration.

Charles F. Zorumski, M.D., the Samuel B. Guze Professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, says Robins was one of the important creators of tools that can measure the prevalence of psychiatric illness in the general population.

“Lee Robins was truly one of the leaders in psychiatric epidemiology,” Zorumski says. “She was one of the field’s great pioneers in developing methods to measure and assess psychiatric illness in various populations. Her accomplishments allowed Lee to enrich both our department and the entire field of psychiatry. Those in Lee’s family and we in her extended Washington University family already miss her wisdom and good humor.”

Over the years, continuously supported by the National Institutes of Health, Robins gathered data on Vietnam veterans, disaster survivors and others. She wrote the Diagnostic Interview Schedule and was one of the principal investigators for the landmark Epidemiologic Catchment Area study in the 1980s. That study involved more than 20,000 Americans who were interviewed to determine the prevalence of psychiatric illness in the general population. The training programs she ran in administering her diagnostic interviews hosted researchers from all over the world.

With her husband, Eli, she raised four sons, and they had eight grandchildren. Eli passed away in 1994, but the family continued to grow when Robins remarried, settling down with another member of the Washington University family. On Aug. 5, 1998, she married Hugh Chaplin Jr., an emeritus professor in the Departments of Medicine and Pathology and the former head of the Irene Walter Johnson Institute of Rehabilitation.

Robins is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Society for the Study of Addiction to Alcohol and Other Drugs. She also was a member of the Institute of Medicine. Her other awards include the Paul Hoch Award from the American Psychopathological Association, the Nathan B. Eddy Award from the College on Problems of Drug Dependence and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs section of the American Public Health Association. She also was an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists and of the American Society of Psychiatrists. In 2005, she served as honorary grand marshal at the University’s Commencement.

In addition to Chaplin, she is survived by her sons Paul of Redwood City, Calif.; Jamie of Cambridge, Mass.; Tom and his wife Bonnie Kay of Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Nick and his wife Tracy Freedman of San Francisco. She also leaves behind eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Burial will be private. There will be a memorial service held at Washington University’s Graham Chapel in the future. If desired, memorial contributions may be made to the Lee Robins Lectureship in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, 660 S. Euclid Ave., Box 8134, St. Louis, MO, 63110.