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 Irving Gottesman, a pioneer in the field of behavioral genetics whose work on the role of heredity in schizophrenia helped transform the way people thought about the origins of serious mental illness, died on June 29 at his home in Edina, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. He was 85.

His wife, Carol, said he died while taking an afternoon nap. Although Dr. Gottesman had some health problems, she said, his death was unexpected, and several of his colleagues said they received emails from him earlier that day.

Dr. Gottesman was perhaps best known for a study of schizophrenia in British twins he conducted with another researcher, James Shields, at the Maudsley Hospital in London in the 1960s.

The study, which found that identical twins were more likely than fraternal twins to share a diagnosis of schizophrenia, provided strong evidence for a genetic component to the illness and challenged the notion that it was caused by bad mothering, the prevailing view at the time.

But the findings also underscored the contribution of a patient’s environment: If genes alone were responsible for schizophrenia, the disorder should afflict both members of every identical pair; instead, it appeared in both twins in only about half of the identical pairs in the study.

This interaction between nature and nurture, Dr. Gottesman believed, was critical to understanding human behavior, and he warned against tilting too far in one direction or the other in explaining mental illness or in accounting for differences in personality or I.Q.

“He came to terms with the fact that this was just all so complex,” William Thompson, a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a former student of Dr. Gottesman’s, said in an interview. “It’s a challenge, and you can’t simplify any of it. You can’t say it’s 80 percent genetic or 80 percent environmental.”

And when other scientists chose to ignore that complexity for their own ends, Dr. Gottesman did not hesitate to point it out.

In testimony before Senator Walter F. Mondale’s Select Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity in 1972, Dr. Gottesman refuted assertions being made at the time that racial differences in I.Q. scores were entirely genetically determined, rather than influenced by inequalities in income, nutrition or other environmental factors.

“Closed minds, of whatever persuasion, are unwarranted on the nature-nurture aspects of human behavior and serve mainly to aid and abet those who must rationalize their prejudices,” he told the committee.

Irving Isadore Gottesman was born in Cleveland on Dec. 29, 1930, a son of immigrants from Hungary. His father, Bernard Gottesman, was a life insurance agent; his mother, the former Virginia Weitzner, was a homemaker.

The oldest of three children, he attended Shaker Heights High School, where he developed dual passions for science and pole-vaulting, and served in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. He served as a communications officer for three years during the Korean War, an experience colleagues said he spoke of proudly.

He graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1953 with a major in psychology.

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At the University of Minnesota, where he was a graduate student, Dr. Gottesman became curious about the role that genetics might play in forming personality traits or making people susceptible to mental illness. He began studying twins — at the time a novel approach to sorting nurture from nature.

Freudian theory still held sway in psychiatry and psychology departments across the country, and Dr. Gottesman’s 1966 study of schizophrenia in twins immediately caused a stir.

“Everybody today understands that genetics are important, but he was saying it when it was heresy,” said Thomas J. Bouchard Jr., a colleague at the University of Minnesota who has conducted landmark studies of twins reared apart.

Dr. Gottesman started the country’s first training program for behavioral genetics at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1960s, when the field was still controversial. Yet he also foresaw that no single gene would be found to control whether someone was predisposed to develop schizophrenia or other major mental illnesses.

“What we now find out is that the genes are all tiny and there are hundreds and hundreds of them, which is exactly what Irv was saying,” Dr. Kenneth S. Kendler, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an interview.

Dr. Gottesman wrote 17 books and more than 300 papers, and held faculty positions at Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Virginia and elsewhere. An internationally known authority on schizophrenia, he also studied many other aspects of human behavior, from autism and alcoholism to violence and post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam veterans. He is credited with importing the term “endophenotype,” originally used by biologists, into psychiatry, where it refers to the biological processes underlying psychiatric disorders.

In 1970 he married Carol Applen. She survives him, as do two sons, Adam and David; a sister, Judy Kossoff; and three grandchildren. A previous marriage, to Jeanette Olson, ended in divorce.

Dr. Gottesman was known for taking young scholars under his wing and advising them, but he could also be tough on critics of genetic research who did not understand the science.

“He didn’t suffer fools gladly,” Dr. Kendler said.

After retiring from the University of Virginia in 2001, Dr. Gottesman returned to the University of Minnesota. In 2012 he retired again, but he never stopped working, continuing to publish papers and emailing colleagues around the world to draw their attention to new studies.

“No matter what people tell you, he was a Minnesota psychologist,” said Matt McGue, a professor of psychology at the university. “I think his intellectual home was always here.”

Source: nytimes

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