Distinguished Autism Researcher Dies

A child neurologist, Isabelle Rapin popularized the notion that autism was part of a spectrum of disorders.

Jun 13, 2017
Diana Kwon

Isabelle RapinALBERT EINSTEIN COLLEGE OF MEDICINEIsabelle Rapin, a child neurologist who spent her long career advancing the science behind autism spectrum disorder, died of pneumonia last month at age 89 (May 24).

“Calling her one of the founding mothers of autism is very appropriate,” Thomas Frazier II, a clinical psychologist and chief science officer of Autism Speaks, an advocacy group for people with autism and their families, tells The New York Times. “With the gravity she carried, she moved us into a modern understanding of autism.”

Rapin was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, and attended medical school at the University of Lausanne. She moved to Manhattan in 1953, where she worked at both Bellevue Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital before taking a position at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

During her long career, Rapin focused on communication disorders in children and made a number of significant contributions to the field of autism research, such as advancing the understanding of autism’s biological underpinnings and popularizing the notion that autism was part of a spectrum of disorders. “She called autism ‘a disorder of the developing brain’—a provocative idea early in her career,” Sylvie Goldman, a professor at Columbia University Medical Center, writes in Spectrum News. “Yet she emphasized that autism is a lifelong condition that affects children and adults alike.”

In addition to being a distinguished researcher, Rapin was also a dedicated mentor to other researchers. “There was no limit to what she was willing to do for her students,” Goldman writes in Spectrum.

“She was surrounded by intellectual giants, who were all men, and she always paid them deference,” Mark Mehler, chairman of the department of neurology at Einstein and a former student of Rapin, told The New York Times. “I don’t know if she ever realized that she was very much their equal.”