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IoPPN honours Professor Irving Gottesman

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Visiting Professor, Honorary Fellow of King’s College and generous supporter of the IoPPN, Professor Irv Gottesman.

Professor Gottesman was world-renowned as one of the pioneers of modern psychiatric genetics. His early career notably included a period as NIMH/USPHS Special Fellow in Psychiatric Genetics at the MRC Psychiatric Genetics Unit at the Institute under the Directorship of Eliot Slater. Coming from Harvard University in 1963, Gottesman worked closely with Jerry Shields using the Maudsley Twin Registry to carry out a landmark study on the genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia. In addition to performing the most convincing and methodologically sophisticated twin study to date, Gottesman and Shields were the  first to put forward a plausible polygenic  model of schizophrenia. Controversial in its day, the polygenic model has now convincingly been proven by recent molecular genetic studies. After Gottesman returned to Minnesota in 1966, he continued to collaborate closely until Shield's early death, publishing several books on their research in schizophrenia, twin studies and epigenetics.  Gottesman subsequently continued many fruitful collaborations with other Institute researchers including Professors Anne Farmer, Robin Murray and Peter McGuffin.  

Professor Gottesman has kindly sponsored the Gottesman Shields Prize at the IoPPN for the last 3 years and the prize will continue to run thanks to his generous donation. The £1000 is awarded annually to the PhD student (or two PhD students jointly) in the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre who completed their studies to an outstanding level. The winner(s) is also invited to give the Gottesman-Shields prize lecture. A Film of a recent awards ceremony can be found here, and includes a talk giving a very personal taste of the work that Irv did with Jerry Shields. The next Gottesman Shields prize lecture is scheduled for the autumn of 2017.

 Professor Peter McGuffin, close colleague of Irv, says:

“I first met Irving I (Irv) Gottesman at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) in London in 1979 when he came to give a lecture on the genetics of  schizophrenia, a topic on which he was the undisputed world leader. I was by contrast just a psychiatric trainee but he was kind and not at all condescending as we discussed my ambitions to learn genetics. He even seemed, to my delight and surprise, to be familiar with a paper I had just published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (In retrospect I guessed that he had refereed it). The following year I was awarded a fellowship by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) to train in psychiatric genetics and jumped at the chance to study with Irv and with Theodore (Ted ) Reich at Washington University in St Louis, which was then arguably the leading centre for psychiatric genetics internationally. Irv often commented on the twist of history whereby he and Ted had made pilgrimages as fellows from the USA  in the 1960s to study in the UK. But psychiatric genetics had by 1980 become unfashionable here and had all but died out, so that fellows like myself were now pilgrims in the opposite direction. Despite his fame Irv was ever approachable and generous with his time and attention. He taught with great wisdom and with wit. On the other hand he could be blisteringly scathing and turn his sense of humour to devastating effect  on confronting arguments that he saw as lacking the highest standards of  scientific rigour. Thereafter he remained a close friend as well as a banteringly-lively, ever- razor-sharp colleague until his unexpected but peaceful end on 29th June 2016. Coincidentally Anne Farmer and I both gave talks at the RCPsych conference in London that same day. Our session’s topic was “what I have learnt in my career as a psychiatrist” and pictures of Irv were shown. His continuing significant influence was acknowledged and he was remembered warmly. Unbeknownst to us, his demise must have occurred at around the same time.

He will be remembered by the World both for his landmark studies, particularly on schizophrenia and related disorders  and his theoretical contributions to behavioural genetics, including on endophenotypes and polygenic liability threshold models, but he will be remembered also by his many former students and post docs as their mentor nonpareil.