Famous Researchers' Ultimate Stress: When Doing Science Leads To Suicide

[Editor's note: Earlier this year, California researchers Molly Gleiser and Richard H. Seiden concluded an investigation of the precipitating factors in the suicides of 37 famous male scientists from eight European countries, the U.S., and the Soviet Union. Their findings are summarized below.] For some scientists at the pinnacle of their careers, learning to manage stress can have life-saving consequences. In our recent study of suicide among famous scientists, we found stress--both the job-

Nov 26, 1990
The Scientist Staff

[Editor's note: Earlier this year, California researchers Molly Gleiser and Richard H. Seiden concluded an investigation of the precipitating factors in the suicides of 37 famous male scientists from eight European countries, the U.S., and the Soviet Union. Their findings are summarized below.]

For some scientists at the pinnacle of their careers, learning to manage stress can have life-saving consequences. In our recent study of suicide among famous scientists, we found stress--both the job-related and the personal varieties--to be a contributing factor.

The noteworthy researchers we studied range from the Greek philosopher Socrates to Valerii Legasov, the Soviet physicist in charge of investigating the Chernobyl disaster, who committed suicide in 1988. They included four Nobel Prize winners: Emil Fischer (1852-1919), Hans Fischer (1881-1945), Percy Bridgman (1882-1961), and Stanford Moore (1913-1982), as well as others of similar caliber, like the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906).

We defined "famous" scientists as those who had won a national or international prize, were included in a compendium of famous scientists, or were regarded by other scientists as famous. We studied data from obituaries; various "who's who" directories; and biographical compendia, determining the precipitating factors by interviewing friends and colleagues when possible, examining suicide notes, and, in the case of historic figures, reading biographies.

* The median age of suicide among these noted individuals, 61, was relatively high, probably because scientists do not become famous at an early age.

* The leading contributing factors were: isolation, 50 percent; physical illness, 47 percent; politics as both a precipitating and background factor, 42 percent; and depression (sometimes hereditary), 31 percent. The percentages add up to more than 100 because most suicides had more than one cause.

* Isolation and depression are generally accepted in suicidology as common precipitating factors. It is surprising, however, that isolation is the leading factor in the suicides of famous scientists. Unlike run-of-the-mill researchers, most famous scientists lead full social lives, almost overloaded with trips, visits, collaborations, and conferences with strong social overtones. Among the scientists examined, the divorce rate, at 3 percent (only one divorce among 37 men), was low. Even so, a third of our sample experienced isolation to some degree, generally from living alone, never having married, or being separated or widowed.

* Among 10 minorities in our sample were eight cases of discrimination leading to suicide. In an extreme case, English computer pioneer Alan Turing (1912-1954) was found guilty of homosexual activity in 1952 and sentenced in quarter sessions (a former English local court) in the Cheshire town of Knutsford to receive an implant of female hormones in his thigh that chemically castrated him. He eventually killed himself by biting into a cyanide-laced apple.

* The greater the number of stress factors, the higher the likelihood of suicide. We found some overlap and interaction between categories, such as isolation and political factors, or political factors and discrimination.

* Minor precipitating factors were: death of a close relative, 17 percent; overwork, 14 percent; business or legal problems, especially common among inventors, 11 percent; grant problems, 8 percent; problems with the administration or boss, 3 percent.

* Overall, as might be expected among famous scientists, the percentage suffering from non-work-related causes, at 86 percent, was almost double that from work-related causes, at 44 percent.

Molly Gleiser, a chemist, is the founder of Suicide Prevention Among Scientists, based in Berkeley, Calif. Richard H. Seiden, a former professor of suicidology at the University of California, Berkeley, is a consultant at the Glendon Association, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit research and education foundation in the field of psychology.