Irving I. Gottesman now works with many of the researchers he trained.

Photo by Kathryn Forss

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Back to Table of Contents | October 2012

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■ Irving I. Gottesman, Ph.D.

Pioneer in behavioral genetics

Irving I. Gottesman was one of the first to show the genetic underpinnings of mental illness.

By Suzy Frisch

When Irving I. Gottesman worked on his doctorate in psychology at the University of Minnesota in the late 1950s, the predominant thinking was that poor parenting—especially by one’s mother—caused people to develop schizophrenia. Gottesman wasn’t so sure, and he set out to see if there was a biological basis for the mental illness.

He did just that and over the course of a career spanning more than 50 years has become one of the world’s most influential voices on the causes of schizophrenia. His abundant work, which includes nearly 250 articles and 20 books and monographs, has been cited in other publications more than 20,400 times. He wrote several of those just in the past decade, including a 2011 chapter in Psychology and the Real World called “Predisposed to Understand the Complex Origins of Behavioral Variation” and a 2010 article in Archives of General Psychiatry, “Severe Mental Disorders in Offspring of Dual Matings with Two Psychiatrically Ill Parents.”

Gottesman, who at 81 years of age exudes the energy of someone much younger, could have retired long ago, assured of a stellar reputation in both psychology and psychiatry. But he hasn’t slowed down, continuing to go to his Elliot Hall office on the University of Minnesota campus several times a week to write and shape thinking about the complicated causes of mental illnesses. Although still involved in research, he admits his role has changed.

Highly decorated
Irving I. Gottesman, Ph.D., has won numerous awards. Among them:
He became an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 1988, a rare honor for a psychologist.
He was the first psychologist to win the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Psychiatric Genetics in 1997.
In 2001, he earned the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award from the American Psychiatric Association—one of the highest honors a psychologist can receive, given previously to the likes of Jean Piaget and B.F. Skinner.
This month, he travels to London to receive an Honorary Fellowship from King’s College.

“I’ve shifted from being a fighter pilot to being a navigator or a bomber,” says Gottesman, who is a senior fellow in the university’s department of psychology and the Bernstein professor in adult psychiatry (retired) at the medical school. In making that shift, he continues to engage with many of the 36 Ph.D.s and seven post-docs he has produced who are currently investigating how genes interact with environmental factors to influence IQ, personality, propensity for criminal behavior, predisposition to alcoholism and more.

“Irv has been retired more than 10 years, and he’s been just about as productive being retired and maybe more so,” says Matt McGue, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who took graduate classes with Gottesman 35 years ago. “He’s done some of his best work in the past 10 years.”

One notable article, “The Endophenotype Concept in Psychiatry,” published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2003, has been cited nearly 2,500 times—an astounding number of citations in the field of psychology, where articles typically are cited only once or twice. Gottesman’s thinking about how biological phenomena such as brain-wave patterns interact with genes to cause mental illness has caught fire in human genetics circles as well as in psychology. “He’s considered one of the world’s experts on genetic schizophrenia, and to this day the books he’s written on that are considered standards,” McGue adds.

Minnesota ties
Gottesman’s Minnesota roots run deep, starting when he was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where he earned his doctorate in psychology in 1960. In 2001, he and his wife moved back to Minnesota from Virginia, where he served on the University of Virginia faculty, to be closer to family, including two children and three grandchildren. Although that was the main draw, Gottesman also felt a debt of gratitude to the university that launched his career. “I was prepared at this university to think properly, and it has paid off in dividends,” he notes.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, to parents who immigrated from Hungary, Gottesman joined the U.S. Navy after high school and in 1949 headed to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago through NROTC. He intended to major in physics because his favorite high school teacher encouraged him to enter that field. But a class in abnormal psychology piqued his interest, and Gottesman ultimately switched to psychology.

During the Korean War, he served as a communications specialist on several ships, earning enough combat credits for four years of graduate school on the GI Bill. Gottesman was attracted to the University of Minnesota, whose researchers had developed the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) not many years earlier and were focusing on the biological and genetic roots of personality and psychological conditions—a stark contrast to the prevailing Freudian and nurture theories of the time.

For his doctoral dissertation, Gottesman used the MMPI to study the personality traits of identical and fraternal twins. He determined that certain characteristics such as social introversion and aggressive tendencies were under strong genetic control. Gottesman’s work inspired numerous other important twin studies, including Minnesota researcher Thomas Bouchard’s work on identical twins separated since birth. After graduating, Gottesman spent three years at Harvard University as a lecturer in psychology before winning a fellowship in 1963 from the National Institute of Mental Health and the U.S. Public Health Service to study psychiatric genetics at the University of London and the Institute of Psychiatry, where more groundbreaking work ensued.

There, Gottesman, working with James Shields at Maudsley-Bethlem Hospital, proved the genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia. They compiled 57 case studies of same-sex twins (one or both had schizophrenia) and discovered that if one twin had schizophrenia, the other would as well in about half of the cases, while fraternal twins did so only 10 percent of the time. They also found that multiple genes, combined with environmental factors, were responsible for the disease. Gottesman and Shields published their findings in Schizophrenia and Genetics: A Twin Study Vantage Point, which has become a bible in the field and has been translated into Japanese and German.

“It’s probably the best twin study to this day that’s ever been undertaken,” McGue says. “That study, along with some other research at the time, really led to the current model of schizophrenia and most mental illnesses—that they are neurological disorders that are in part inherited. It’s really changed the way people do research on mental disorders.”

Gottesman talks fondly of the work he did in London: “I think it moved the field in the direction of biological psychiatry and psychology, which then turns to all of the contemporary techniques like brain imaging in connection with genetic research.”

Mind shift
Returning from London to Minnesota in 1966 to launch the university’s Behavioral Genetics Center, Gottesman continued his thought-changing work, including finding a genetic link for alcoholism in men and women. In 1972, he took a Guggenheim Fellowship–funded sabbatical to do research at Denmark’s Psykologisk Institut, Kommunehospitalet, and serve as a visiting professor at the University of Copenhagen. There, Gottesman again studied sets of twins in which one had schizophrenia, this time focusing on their children. They found the children of the identical twin without schizophrenia were just as likely to develop schizophrenia as the children of the twin with schizophrenia. “We wrote a paper to explain our theory called unexpressed genotypes—that just because you have a gene doesn’t mean that it’s turned on,” he explains. They also found factors including divorce, and drug use also played a significant role in determining whether an individual developed the disease.

After leaving Minnesota in 1980, Gottesman spent time at Washington University in St. Louis and Stanford University, where he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He headed to the University of Virginia in 1985 to establish a research-based clinical psychology training program and stayed there until he retired in 2001.

Gottesman doesn’t travel much these days, preferring instead to connect with former colleagues and fellow researchers online and in Minnesota. His work has been especially influential in Japan and China; he helped Chinese post-docs who did work at the University of Minnesota set up a twin registry in Beijing and guided them in their research. Gottesman’s eyes light up when he talks about his work in Denmark, which has been going on for 40 years. Today, he is examining whether the grown children in families where both parents are mentally ill are more likely to develop mental illnesses than children of just one parent with a psychiatric illness. So far, he has found that they are, “but not as likely as you would fear,” he says. “I’m using an extremely rare sample and strategy, and I love rare strategies because I won’t be imitated right away. I can only carry it out because I have connections to people in the Danish system.”

Gottesman is clearly still motivated by the same goal that drew him to study schizophrenia in the first place: finding the cause of the disease so it can be cured. “The thing that keeps me going is that we don’t yet have an answer, but we’re always on the verge of an answer,” he says.

The impact of his work becomes most real when he meets parents of children with schizophrenia, who inevitably ask how their son or daughter became ill and how the latest thinking might help their child. “I have to tell them that I regret I can’t answer either question, but we’re working on it,” he says.

A multifaceted legacy
Gottesman has influenced the way psychologists, psychiatrists and others think about the causes of mental illness. For that, he has received numerous awards. Modest about these accolades, he says he was fortunate to work with talented colleagues and cites the famous phrases “It takes a village” and the Beatles’ “With a little help from my friends.”

Those who’ve worked closely with him talk about the personal impact he has had. Bill Iacono, Ph.D., a Regents professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, says Gottesman has an ability to connect people who have common research interests. “He has a catalytic effect on how people think about things,” Iacono says. “He’s skillful at bringing people together with different points of view in ways that produce a few sparks that get people closer to common ground.”

Because he has trained and mentored many other researchers, Gottesman’s influence will be felt for generations. Of that he seems especially proud. “It’s sort of like throwing a rock in the pond and watching all of these ripples. They keep going and going,” he says. “There is a tremendous bibliography, if you look at mine and each of my Ph.D.s, and then each of their Ph.Ds. If I’m the rock in the water, I’m happy to have these ripples.” MM

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