Irving Gottesman, Who Tied Schizophrenia to Genes, Dies at 85

By Goode, Erica | International New York Times, July 8, 2016 | Go to article overview

Irving Gottesman, Who Tied Schizophrenia to Genes, Dies at 85


Goode, Erica, International New York Times


Dr. Gottesman was perhaps best known for a study of twins that found a genetic link to mental illness, changing how people thought about its origins.

Irving Gottesman, a pioneer in the field of behavioral genetics whose work on the role of heredity in schizophrenia helped transform the way people thought about the origins of serious mental illness, died on June 29 at his home in Edina, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. He was 85.

His wife, Carol, said he died while taking an afternoon nap. Although Dr. Gottesman had some health problems, she said, his death was unexpected, and several of his colleagues said they received emails from him earlier that day.

Dr. Gottesman was perhaps best known for a study of schizophrenia in British twins he conducted with another researcher, James Shields, at the Maudsley Hospital in London in the 1960s.

The study, which found that identical twins were more likely than fraternal twins to share a diagnosis of schizophrenia, provided strong evidence for a genetic component to the illness and challenged the notion that it was caused by bad mothering, the prevailing view at the time.

But the findings also underscored the contribution of a patient's environment: If genes alone were responsible for schizophrenia, the disorder should afflict both members of every identical pair; instead, it appeared in both twins in only about half of the identical pairs in the study.

This interaction between nature and nurture, Dr. Gottesman believed, was critical to understanding human behavior, and he warned against tilting too far in one direction or the other in explaining mental illness or in accounting for differences in personality or I.Q.

"He came to terms with the fact that this was just all so complex," William Thompson, a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a former student of Dr. Gottesman's, said in an interview. "It's a challenge, and you can't simplify any of it. You can't say it's 80 percent genetic or 80 percent environmental."

And when other scientists chose to ignore that complexity for their own ends, Dr. Gottesman did not hesitate to point it out.

In testimony before Senator Walter F. Mondale's Select Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity in 1972, Dr. Gottesman challenged assertions being made at the time that racial differences in I.Q. scores were entirely genetically determined, rather than influenced by inequalities in income, nutrition or other environmental factors. …

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