Michael Rutter, a pioneering child psychiatrist, died at the age of 88 on October 23. He is most widely known for his work uncovering the fact that autism has a genetic component and his practice of talking directly to his young patients—a novel approach at the time.
Rutter was born August 15, 1933, in Lebanon, where his English father worked as a doctor for a short time. He was sent to live with a different family in New Jersey at the beginning of World War II to escape the violence, and returned once the war was over.
He planned to become a medical doctor like his father, The New York Times reports; at the same time, his studies made him curious about the brain and how it works. He was advised to think about child psychiatry. In 1955 he graduated from the University of Birmingham Medical School in the UK, and he then completed fellowships in London and New York.
Rutter started work at King’s College London (KCL) in 1966 in what is now known as the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience. He was the first professor of child psychiatry in the United Kingdom. Over the years, he headed up different departments as the field grew, while continuing his clinical work and research.
In 1977, Rutter and Susan Folstein published a landmark study on 21 pairs of twins to reveal that autism spectrum disorder is highly heritable. At the time, Spectrum reports, autism was widely believed to have been caused by poor parenting, primarily from “frigid” mothers. The study found that in identical twins, where both siblings have the same DNA, if one twin is diagnosed with autism, using very strict criteria, the other twin had a higher-than-average chance of being diagnosed as well. With fraternal twins, who share only about half of their DNA, there was no such link. Subsequent studies have confirmed Rutter’s findings.
“Research is addictive—addictive because you find out what you didn’t know and what you may never even have imagined,” Rutter once said, according to a tribute from KCL.
In the early 1970s, Rutter penned “Maternal Deprivation Reassessed,” which took on a 30-year-old theory by John Bowlby that a lack of maternal attachment in a child’s earliest years inevitably led to lasting mental health issues. Rutter dismantled Bowlby’s theory, ultimately stating that lack of maternal attachment was a risk factor for issues, but not the sole cause.
Rutter found further evidence for this in the 1990s, after the conclusion of the Romanian Revolution laid bare what neglectful conditions children in orphanages were living in. The children were fed and changed in processes resembling assembly lines. There was no playing, no developmental enrichment, no comforting snuggles. Many of these orphans were adopted by British families, and Rutter was able to interview them some time afterward. He saw marked psychological and physical improvement compared to when they were first placed in homes, showing that a variety of caregivers—not only the birth mother—can nurture a child.
Another notable aspect of Rutter’s research is that he often talked directly to children while making his diagnoses. While that seems like an obvious task now, it wasn’t how things were done in the 1960s when he started in the field. This was one of many ways that Rutter changed child psychiatry into a more robust and scientifically rigorous discipline, Eric Fombonne, professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, tells Spectrum.
Rutter received many distinguished honors over his career, including becoming a fellow of the Royal Society in 1984 and receiving knighthood in 1992. He retired from clinical work in 1998, and focused on research for the rest of his career.
In July 2021, KCL announced Rutter’s retirement and his designation as Emeritus Professor after 55 years of service.
Rutter is survived by his wife Marjorie and their three children.