Dr. Joseph Schildkraut

My brother Aftab shared with me his fond memories of Dr. Joseph Schildkraut today. Dr. Schildkraut had been his supervisor during his psychiatry residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in 1994-95.

In a letter to The New York Times in 1994, Dr. Schildkraut observed that depression in artists “may have put them in touch with the inexplicable mystery at the very heart of the tragic and timeless art they aspired to produce.”—Jeremy Pearce

Dr. Joseph Schildkraut, at 72; shifted research on depression

Obituary by Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff | July 11, 2006

As a young researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health in the early 1960s, Dr. Joseph J. Schildkraut was among the physicians who witnessed a phenomenon that, in a way, was the birth of the era of antidepressants.

“He saw patients who had been unresponsive to talk therapy suddenly come alive when drugs were introduced, and he got very excited about that,” said his wife, Betsy Schildkraut of Chestnut Hill.

That enthusiasm flowed into a paper he published in 1965 that inspired a significant shift in the field of psychiatry. Dr. Schildkraut helped establish the biological basis for mood disorders such as depression and showed that the use of medications could provide a way to approach further research in clinical neuroscience.

“It crystallized a way of thinking about mood disorders. It provided a paradigmatic shift,” said Dr. Alan I. Green, chairman of Dartmouth Medical School’s psychiatry department. “I think he was a giant in the field. I think that initial paper, perhaps more than any other, defined the psychopharmacological era.”

Dr. Schildkraut, who also was devoted to bringing top-notch mental health care to those with limited financial resources, died at Brigham and Women’s Hospital on June 26. He was 72 and had been suffering from cancer of the esophagus .

His research paper “The Catecholamine Hypothesis of Affective Disorders” in The American Journal of Psychiatry became the publication’s most frequently cited article and one of the most cited ever in psychiatry.

“It provided a bridge linking neurochemistry and clinical psychiatry for the depressive disorders,” said Dr. John Mooney, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a former research collaborator. Dr. Schildkraut’s paper and subsequent research “really played a major role for setting the agenda for biological research on depression over the next quarter-century. His work was very important, particularly with respect to the depressive disorders.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Dr. Schildkraut graduated from Harvard University in 1955 and from Harvard Medical School four years later. He spent his residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston.

Two friends had suggested in 1965 that Dr. Schildkraut should ask Betsy Beilenson out on a date.

“He showed up an hour late, which was habitual, I later found out,” she said.

He decided within hours that they should marry; she needed another date or two to be persuaded. They would have celebrated their 40th anniversary in May.

When the couple met, Dr. Schildkraut was immersed in his work at the National Institute of Mental Health. A few years later, he returned to Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, where he became senior psychiatrist and helped found the Neuropsychopharmacology Laboratory. At the time of his death, Dr. Schildkraut was professor emeritus of psychiatry at the medical school.

“His work helped people understand that not all depressions were the same, and that you could subclassify depressions on the basis of different biology,” Green said. Dr. Schildkraut’s initial paper and his subsequent research, he said, put together evidence “in a way that absolutely captivated the field.”

Meanwhile, he worked through the mental health center to make the fruits of his research labor available to those who ordinarily could not afford medical care.

“He really was committed to public psychiatry,” Mooney said. “Put another way, he really was committed to bringing the latest and best treatments in psychiatry to people who were indigent and who had serious mental illness.”

Dr. Schildkraut also stretched his work days late into the night — sometimes into the early morning hours — so he could be available to what his wife called “his professional children.” One of them was Green, who collaborated with Dr. Schildkraut on some research.

“Joe Schildkraut was a very generous mentor to lots of people in the field of psychiatry and neuropsychology,” Green said.

Since the early 1990s he had researched the intertwining of spirituality and depression among the creative, particularly with Rembrandt and the Spanish artist Joan Miro. He edited “Depression and the Spiritual in Modern Art: Homage to Miro,” published in 1996. The interest in Miro dated to Dr. Schildkraut’s days as an undergraduate when he saw posters of the artist’s work in a bookstore across the street from Harvard Yard. Dr. Schildkraut bought as many of the posters as he could afford to decorate his room.

While he couldn’t afford to become a major collector on an academic’s salary, his wife said, he tried to accumulate the largest collection in Boston of books on Miro.

“For all the wonderful things he did for the world with that wonderful little brain of his, what I loved about him was his priorities,” said Patsy Kuropatkin, who was Dr. Schildkraut’s secretary for 20 years. “He’s in love with his wife for 40 years. His family came first.”

Kuropatkin said the photograph that accompanies this obituary was originally taken for the jacket of a book Dr. Schildkraut wrote. She complimented him on the photo and asked what he was pondering at the moment the shutter clicked.

“He said, `I was thinking about my first date with Betsy and how I knew right away I was going to marry her,’ ” she said. “And you could see that in his face.”

In addition to his wife, Dr. Schildkraut leaves his two sons, Peter of Chevy Chase, Md., and Michael of Chicago; his mother, Shirley, and sister, Shelley Gornish, both of Merion Station, Pa.—The Boston Globe


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