Dr. Lewis L. Judd led the National Institute of Mental Health from 1988 to 1990. (National Library of Medicine)
By Emily Langer
Lewis L. Judd, a nationally known psychiatrist who helped turn the focus of his profession from psychoanalysis to neuroscience, an approach that sought to destigmatize mental illness by treating it as cancer, heart disease or any other medical problem, died Dec. 16 in La Jolla, Calif. He was 88.
The cause was cardiac arrest, said his wife, Pat Judd.
For decades, psychiatrists were schooled in the theories of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who posited that mental disturbances could be treated through dialogue with a therapist. Practitioners sought to interpret their patients’ dreams, giving little attention to the physical functioning of the brain or the chemicals that regulate it.
Dr. Judd agreed, he once told the Associated Press, that a physician must look at patients as a “whole individual,” with all their “worries, concerns, aspirations and needs,” and not resort to simply “popping a pill in their mouth.” But he found the long-prevailing psychoanalytic approach too limiting to explain or treat afflictions such as depression, bipolar disorder, severe anxiety and schizophrenia — “these serious mental disorders that have defied our understanding for centuries,” he once told the Chicago Tribune.
Instead, he advocated a biological approach, starting at the molecular level of the brain. As director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md. — a post he held from 1988 to 1990, during a hiatus from his decades-long chairmanship of the psychiatry department at the University of California at San Diego — he helped launch a federal research initiative known as the “Decade of the Brain.”
“He was obsessed with educating the public and the profession . . . that mental illnesses were biological illnesses, that schizophrenia and depression were diseases of the brain,” Alan I. Leshner, Dr. Judd’s deputy at NIMH and later chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in an interview. “At the time, that was a heretical thought.”
Today, the biological component of many mental illnesses is widely accepted. When Dr. Judd led NIMH, it was not; he once cited a survey in which 71 percent of respondents said mental illness was a result of personal weakness and a third attributed it to sinful behavior. Poor parenting was another common alleged culprit.
Dr. Judd argued that the biological approach to psychiatry held the promise not only of deepening understanding of the body’s most complex organ but of improving lives: If mental disorders could be shown to be a result of brain chemistry or of physical dysfunction, patients might feel less stigmatized and therefore more willing to seek treatment.
“We look at the homeless and feel that if they only got their act together, they could lift themselves up,” Dr. Judd told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, discussing the prevalence of mental illness among homeless people. “We would never believe that about someone who has cancer or some other physical disease.”
As head of NIMH, which is an arm of the National Institutes of Health and the chief federal agency for research on mental illness, Dr. Judd oversaw more than $500 million in research money. He described the Decade of the Brain — a designation conferred by Congress and President George H.W. Bush — as a “research plan designed to bring a precise and detailed understanding of all the elements of brain function within our own lifetimes.”
During his tenure at NIMH, scientists for the first time successfully grew brain tissue in a laboratory. Dr. Judd was among those scientists who touted the potential of medical imaging, such as MRIs and PET scans, to reveal the inner workings of the brain and the potential causes of diseases such as schizophrenia.
Almost 30 years after the Decade of the Brain began, much about the organ remains elusive. Leshner credited the initiative with helping bring attention to the importance of brain research as well as inspiring the Brain Initiative, a public-private research effort advanced by the Obama administration.
“The brain is really the last frontier for scientists,” Dr. Judd said.
Lewis Lund Judd was born in Los Angeles on Feb. 10, 1930. His father was an obstetrician-gynecologist, and his mother was a homemaker. Dr. Judd’s brother, Howard Judd, also became an OB/GYN and a noted researcher in women’s health at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Dr. Judd received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Utah in 1954 and a medical degree from UCLA in 1958. In the early years of his career, he served in the Air Force as a base psychiatrist.
He joined UC-San Diego in 1970 and became department chairman in 1977, helping grow his faculty into one of the most respected the country. He stepped down as chairman in 2013 and retired in 2015.
Dr. Judd’s first marriage, to Anne Nealy, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 45 years, the former Patricia Hoffman, who is also a psychiatry professor at UC-San Diego, of La Jolla; three daughters from his first marriage, Allison Fee of Whidbey Island, Wash., Catherine Judd of Miami and Stephanie Judd of Chevy Chase, Md.; and four grandchildren.
Ever exploring the outer reaches of his field, Dr. Judd participated in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama in 1989 about life and the mind.
“Our model of mental health is mostly defined in terms of the absence of mental illness,” Dr. Judd told the New York Times, reflecting on the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s discussion of wisdom and compassion. “They may have more positive ones that might be worth our study.”