For a lifetime of contributions to neuroscience— including discovery of a method for measuring cerebral blood flow that led to current brain imaging techniques, adoptive studies in schizophrenia that established its genetic origin, and visionary leadership in mental health that ushered psychiatry into the molecular era.
Many people will recall that during the 1950s and 1960s, it was common to blame schizophrenia on child-rearing. “Bad” fathers, or more usually mothers, were held accountable for this disorienting mental illness that is first recognized in patients in their late teens or early twenties. A terrible illness was compounded by often disabling parental guilt.
Seymour Kety, more than any single person, brought important scientific perspective to the etiology of schizophrenia through a series of landmark studies of the biological and adoptive families of schizophrenic adoptees. Kety initiated rigorous analysis of the incidence of the disease in biological and adoptive relatives of adoptees who became schizophrenic. The biological relatives shared the adoptee’s genetic endowment; the adoptive relatives shared the environment, permitting a separation of genetic from environmental influences.
Denmark was his principal laboratory. Relatively speaking, the Danes are fairly homogeneous genetically. Likewise, they share a homogeneous culture. Equally important, Scandinavian countries keep exceptionally good records on their citizens. Kety and his colleagues eventually gathered data on 14,500 adoptees and found that 75 of them were schizophrenic. Then, by examining the mental health of the patients’ biological and adoptive families, they found that schizophrenia ran in the biological, but not in the adoptive families of the patients, thus establishing the importance of genetic factors in schizophrenia.
Eric Kandel, Seymour Kety, Joseph Goldstein
Award presentation by Eric Kandel
Very few occasions in my professional life have given me quite as much pleasure as the privilege of introducing Seymour Kety today as the recipient of this year’s Albert Lasker Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Seymour Kety has been the single most important influence on American psychiatry in the second half of this century. More than anyone else, he has changed the direction of psychiatry from a discipline embedded in social engineering and psychoanalysis into one embedded in biology and medicine. Kety’s influence derives from two sources. First, from 1950 to 1956 he was the first scientific director of what was then the joint intramural program of the NIMH and NINDB. In that position he provided strong and imaginative leadership that tied psychiatric research inseparably to basic science. Second, he has made two fundamental contributions to brain science. Early in his career he developed the first reliable method for measuring cerebral blood flow. In so doing he laid the foundation for modern brain imaging. Later, he applied a novel variant of the family adoption methodology to the study of mental illness, and provided the first unequivocal evidence that schizophrenia is a genetic disease and not a defect in parenting as many psychiatrists at that time were advocating.
James Fordyce, Seymour Kety, Jordan Gutterman
Eric Kandel, Senior Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Professor, Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, Columbia University, interviews Lasker Award winner Seymour S. Kety, MD, August 1999.
Part 1: Early Years In Philadelphia
Dr. Kety describes a childhood accident, his emersion in the Book of Knowledge and his interest in chemistry during high school.
Kandel: Good morning. How are you?
Kety: Fine thank you, Eric.
Kandel: Is this a good time for you?
Kety: Sure. Anytime is a good time to talk to you.
Kandel: And the same. So listen, this is your interview. So we should structure it to cover the topics you think most important. In thinking about it, I thought that we would cover at least four topics: one is autobiographical details, you know, Philadelphia, Central High School, University of Pennsylvania, etc., etc.; two, the discovery of the nitrous oxide method in your early research career; three, the genetic studies later on in your career; and four, your leadership roles as head of the NIMH Intramural Program and other leadership roles that you had in American science. Does that seem like a…
Kety: Yes, that’s fine.
Kandel: Okay, so why don’t you begin with your early life, in a way that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to enjoy the marvelous contributions that you’ve made.
Kety: Well, how much detail do you want about that?
Kandel: I think it would be interesting in looking at your own autobiography, reading your sketch, I was struck with the fact that, you know, you touched on that and how important your family was. You might say a little bit about your father, even though he died early, and your mother.
Kety: Okay. I was born in Philadelphia and raised by two very, very lovely people, my mother and father. My father during the Great Depression lost his business, which was printing, and he became very depressed. I really didn’t have very much interaction with him. I was about 10 or 12 at that time. My mother and my father were very caring because at the age of 7, I was struck by an automobile and severely injured. I had a compound fracture of the femur, and my tongue was practically bitten off. I remember being awake in the operating room and having the surgeon sewing my tongue up and thinking, isn’t this a remarkable thing. Because of the fracture of my leg, I was in bed a great deal of time in traction. That’s the way they used to treat fractures.
And my parents bought me the Book of Knowledge, which was a 12-volume collection of chapters devoted to all of the humanities, the sciences, history, mathematics, astronomy—written for a young person. And being in bed most of the time, I read practically all of those volumes. I became very erudite. That took the place of any athletics, which I did not participate in. I went to Central High School, which was a remarkable high school. I think it was the second oldest high school in America coming after the Boston Latin, and it was very much like the Boston Latin in that we emphasized classical studies and science and the humanities. But this school had some remarkable teachers, who made a considerable impression on me.
It also had an astronomy club because on top of the school there was an observatory—a telescope with a dome that opened. And we in the astronomy club used to go up and look at the stars and planets with considerable frequency. There was a remarkable professor there, Professor Bradner MacPherson, who was a dear friend, a great friend of mine and was a great supporter of me. He took an interest in me. He and his wife had me to their house on the seashore for a weekend, and we had a great time there. After I left the school, I learned later that he had died of pneumococcus meningitis, which was a terrible, terrible thing. This was just before the discovery of the sulfonamides and the antibiotics, which would have caused this disorder to disappear. At the time he got it, it was 100 percent fatal.
Since my father died when I was young, my mother and my young brother, who was only about 2 at that time, moved, and we grew up with my mother’s siblings—four aunts and an uncle. And this was a very supportive and great Jewish home, not particularly observant religiously, but very much so ethically and with an interest in intellectual accomplishments and music. So I had a wonderful early life with that extended family. One of my aunts bought me a chemistry set after a birthday. And at first I amused myself with going through the little manual that came with it and turning water to blood and blood to stone and various magic tricks. But then I became interested in the chemistry itself and developed practically an obsession with chemistry.
I built up quite a laboratory in the basement and when I was in high school, Central High, I used to save my lunch money and go down to the company, George D. Fight Company, which was a wholesale chemical company. And I’d go down there and buy chemicals and beakers and retorts and developed quite a laboratory on that basis. As a matter of fact, when I got to college, I really didn’t have to spend much time studying chemistry, although I majored in chemistry—until I finally got to physical chemistry, where I wasn’t very accomplished, and I had to do some studying there.