Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Alexander Hamilton Leighton

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Alexander Hamilton Leighton

Article excerpt

17 JULY 1908 * 11 AUGUST 2007

ALEXANDER HAMILTON LEIGHTON passed away n August 2007 shortly after his ninety-ninth birthday. During his long life, he was dedicated to the written word as a way of communicating not only the results of research but also the products of thought and interpretation. At the age of eighteen, he published his first scientific paper based on his observation of porcupines (1). He authored, co-authored, or edited fourteen books, including a novel (2). He published a long list of journal articles, two of which were posthumous (3, 4).

He was a man of science and letters who had a profound appreciation of nature and of human beings in all their biological, personal, and cultural expressions. He was trained in biology as an undergraduate, then in neurophysiology, medicine, psychiatry, and, lastly, anthropology. In research, he was dedicated to work that would produce what Benjamin Franklin called "useful knowledge," useful especially in terms of understanding mental illness, cultural conflict, and social disadvantage.

A soft-spoken man with a keen sense of humor, Alec was an excellent raconteur whose stories were often enhanced by an Irish brogue based on ties to Ireland, where his parents had been born. He has been described as a "Renaissance man," as "the father of psychiatric epidemiology," and as a "banner carrier for interdisciplinary research and teaching."

Best known for the Stirling County Study, Alec instigated this endeavor in 1948. It is a psychiatric epidemiologic investigation of a typical general population in Atlantic Canada. It was begun when there were but a handful of such studies. Now, with hundreds of such investigations having been and still being carried out, it is the longest such study in North America and is still ongoing under the leadership of his wife and colleague of many years, Jane M. Murphy, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and professor of psychiatry in the faculty of medicine of Dalhousie University.

Alec received a B.A. in 1932 from Princeton, an M.A. in 1934 from Cambridge, and an M.D. in 1936 from Johns Hopkins, where he was strongly influenced by the internationally renowned psychiatrist Adolph Meyer. Meyer's view that psychopathology derives from multiple sources, including life experiences, left a permanent and indelible mark on Alec's thinking. He spoke often of being especially proud to have been one of Meyer's last chief residents.

During his training at Johns Hopkins, Alec married his first wife, Dorothea Cross, who also became a psychiatrist. Together they were granted a Social Science Research Fellowship to participate in anthropological seminars at Columbia University and then to be on leave during the spring of 1940 to conduct fieldwork among the Navajo of New Mexico and the Yupik Eskimos of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. The Navajo work had a strong influence on their future undertakings, especially Dorothea's (5-9).

As a psychiatric resident, Alec became interested in photography as a tool for accurate description, an interest that found expression in his work among patients, among the Navajo and Yupik, and also later as an aid in community development (10-12).

As a U.S. Navy Medical Corps reservist, Alec was called to service on the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was soon transferred to the Department of the Interior to do a study of a Japanese Relocation Center. The purpose of this research, reported in The Governing of Men (13), was to observe how a group of evacuees reorganized the social fabric of their human relationships so as to function in an artificially created social environment. Next he was transferred to Washington to become chief of the Foreign Morale Analysis Division (FMAD) in the Office of War Information and was charged with mapping attitudes about surrender through the Japanese press and such sources as prisoner-of-war diaries, as reported in Human Relations in a Changing World (14). …

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