Former APA Medical Director, Melvin Sabshin, Dies at 85

Fran Lowry

June 07, 2011

June 7, 2011 — Melvin Sabshin, MD, medical director of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) from 1974 to 1997, died June 4 at the age of 85 years.

"Dr. Sabshin's exemplary leadership helped to shape a new American psychiatry at a time of great change," James H. Scully Jr., the APA's current medical director and chief executive officer, said in a statement. "His substantial skills and vision greatly enhanced the APA, leaving it much larger and stronger."

Dr. Melvin Sabshin

The son of Russian immigrants, Dr. Sabshin was born in New York City in the mid-1920s. He graduated from high school at the early age of 14 years and from the University of Florida at 17 years of age. After a stint in the US Army, he attended Tulane University School of Medicine and completed his psychiatry residency in New Orleans, Louisiana.

He then took a position at the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, and in 1961 became the head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. He also became active in the APA and was elected to the Board of Trustees.

After he retired from the APA, he took a position as clinical professor of psychiatry with the University of Maryland in Baltimore. He was an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, United Kingdom, where he lived a good part of the year with his wife, Marion Bennathan, who was born in Britain.

Accomplishments Numerous, Far-Reaching

According to a statement released by the APA, Dr. Sabshin's accomplishments during his time at the association were "numerous and far-reaching."

His tenure saw the publication of new editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the creation of the American Psychiatric Press Inc, development of practice guidelines, and strengthening research, advocacy, education, and public affairs.

He also increased the APA's international involvement to include working with the World Psychiatric Association and others, with the aim of ending the use of psychiatry to suppress political dissent in the Soviet Union and other parts of the world.

An article in the November 5, 2010, issue of Psychiatric News describes how Dr. Sabshin was himself the object of a certain amount of scrutiny on the part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the House Un-American Activities Committee because of his youthful flirtation with socialist ideology and Marxism.

Eventually, he became disenchanted and renounced Marxism, influenced by Arthur Koestler's Cold War novel Darkness at Noon and disillusioned by Stalinist atrocities.

Political Activist

When he visited the Soviet Union as medical director of the APA, he witnessed what he considered to be antisemitism on the part of some Soviet psychiatrists.

As a member of the executive committee of the World Psychiatric Association, he also confronted Soviet authorities about their practice of imprisoning political dissidents in psychiatric hospitals, thereby contributing to hastening the end of such abuses.

Dr. Sabshin was a prolific author of scientific articles and books. His last book, Changing American Psychiatry: A Personal Perspective, was published in 2008.

"Dr. Sabshin was an esteemed leader, an intellectual catalyst, and a consummate diplomat who was central to the evolution of American psychiatry," APA President John M. Oldham, MD, said in a statement. "As medical director of the American Psychiatric Association from 1974 to 1997, Dr. Sabshin understood that psychiatry, as a profession, needed a new direction, resolved to be part of the change, and succeeded."