Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Spitzer died Friday, December 25 in Seattle at the age of 83. Spitzer’s wife, Columbia University Professor Emerita Janet Williams, said he died of heart problems at the assisted living facility where he resided. He and his wife had moved to Seattle from Princeton, New Jersey, just this year.
According to the New York Times, Dr. Spitzer developed the first set of rigorous standards in the field of psychiatry to describe mental disorders and provide a framework for diagnosis and research. He also worked to define the line between what constitutes as normal behavior and what is abnormal behavior.
— Intl. Business Times (@IBTimes) December 27, 2015
In the 1960s, diagnoses varied widely from doctor to doctor. The only diagnostic manual at the time was a pamphlet rooted in Sigmund Freud’s ideas. Dr. Spitzer wanted to find a more reliable way of measuring symptoms and behavior. He played a major role in working to establish standards that could be agreed upon by professionals in describing mental disorders.
He approached establishing standards with empirical study as opposed to traditional theory, such as that of Freud. Dr. Spitzer was said to be frustrated by Freudian ideas.
The LA Times reported Spitzer and his wife worked together on the DSM-III, which was published in 1980 and became a bestseller. Spitzer’s wife said the work on defining all of the major disorders was “so all in the profession could agree on what they were seeing. That was a major breakthrough in the profession.”
— IBTimes UK (@IBTimesUK) December 27, 2015
Dr. Robert Spitzer was perhaps best known for the role he played in removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the DSM, in 1973. After meeting with gay activists, Dr. Spitzer felt homosexuality should not be listed as a mental disorder because gay people were comfortable with their sexuality.
The removal of homosexuality from the DSM ended up causing a major debate in the psychiatric profession; however, Dr. Spitzer was adamant in his belief that gay people were not suffering from a disorder.
“A medical disorder either had to be associated with subjective distress — pain — or general impairment in social function.”
Before Spitzer worked to remove homosexuality as an illness, it was classified in the DSM as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”
Dr. Jack Drescher, a gay psychoanalyst in New York, described Dr. Spitzer’s work as a major advance for gay rights to the New York Times.
“The fact that gay marriage is allowed today is in part owed to Bob Spitzer.”
In 2012, however, Spitzer ended up apologizing for publishing a study in 2001 which seemed to support the idea that reparative therapy could “cure” gay people by turning them straight. The subjects of the study were in therapy to try becoming heterosexual through counseling, and Spitzer asked them a set of questions and analyzed their feelings afterward. He
“I believe I owe the gay community an apology. I also apologise to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works.”
Dr. Spitzer told the New York Times in May 2012 that the study was flawed and the only thing Spitzer regretted in his career.
“You know, it’s the only regret I have; the only professional one. And I think, in the history of psychiatry, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a scientist write a letter saying that the data were all there but were totally misinterpreted. Who admitted that and who apologized to his readers. That’s something, don’t you think?”
Without question, Dr. Robert Spitzer strongly influenced the field of psychiatry as it is known today.
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