Former Head of NIMH, Lewis Judd, Dies

The UCSD psychiatry researcher championed the concept of mental illness as a neurobiological condition and helped form the US government’s Decade of the Brain initiative.

Jan 14, 2019
Kerry Grens
Lewis Judd
UCSD

Lewis Judd, the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health and chair of the University of California, San Diego’s psychiatry department for 36 years, died on December 16. He was 88 years old.

Judd was known for his push to recognize mental illnesses as conditions rooted in neurobiological processes, rather than matters of will or choice. “He was obsessed with educating the public and the profession . . . that mental illnesses were biological illnesses, that schizophrenia and depression were diseases of the brain,” Alan Leshner, who worked for Judd at the NIMH, tells The Washington Post. “At the time, that was a heretical thought.”

Judd was born in Los Angeles in 1930. He studied psychology at the University of Utah before earning a medical degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he later joined the faculty. In 1970, he moved to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where he stayed until his retirement in 2015, stepping away only from 1987 to 1990 to lead the NIMH.

Judd’s research early on in his career focused on phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disease that can cause neurological problems. According to a 2013 article from UCSD commemorating Judd’s career, the disorder led him to question whether mental illnesses such as depression were similarly based in the biological functions of the brain.

“There was a lot of resistance,” Judd said at the time. “It seemed like a revolutionary idea. A lot of folks back then looked at mental illness as something people brought upon themselves, rather than as a disease based upon biology.”

Judd’s career helped change doctors’ understanding of mental illness, and while at NIMH he pushed for lawmakers to likewise appreciate its neurobiological underpinnings and therefore the need for more support for neuroscience research. 

His legacy at NIMH is marked by a research initiative called the Decade of the Brain. That program “was the foundation of today’s NIH brain initiatives,” Igor Grant, chair of the psychiatry department at UCSD, tells Psychiatric News. The publication is produced by the American Psychiatric Association, for which Judd was formerly a vice president.

Judd is survived by his wife, Patricia Judd, who is also a UCSD psychiatry professor, three daughters, and four grandchildren.