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In Memoriam: Beatrix Hamburg, a Life of Purpose and Achievement

Beatrix Hamburg
Beatrix Hamburg talked about crossing the race and gender line in a video produced in recognition of the Yale School of Medicine’s 200th anniversary. | Yale School of Medicine

Beatrix Ann Hamburg, a renowned psychiatrist and academic researcher whose pioneering work advanced understanding of mental health for children and adolescents and shaped public policies related to improving the health of minorities, died on April 15. She was 94.

Dr. Hamburg’s research on peer counseling, adolescents and children with diabetes drew her particular acclaim during a long and distinguished career. She was the first self-identified African-American to attend Vassar College, where she earned an undergraduate degree in 1944, and, four years later, she became the first female African-American to graduate from Yale School of Medicine.

The attention that came with being the first African-American to attend Vassar and later graduate from Yale School of Medicine was not something that always pleased her, said her daughter Dr. Margaret Hamburg in a 2013 video interview.

While her mother’s trailblazing was inspiring and showed that women can achieve important things regardless of race, gender or other characteristics, Margaret Hamburg said, “She also talked about it being hard. She did not like being labeled. She was just as happy if people did not know that about her, so she could just be a person in her own right.”

Known as Betty, her contributions to public health policy came during her tenure from 1992 to 1998 as president of the William T. Grant Foundation, a social science research nonprofit focused on inequality and improving the lives of young people, and through her earlier work in 1977 as the director of studies of the President’s Commission on Mental Health during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

“Enormously creative and powerfully smart, Betty had a great career in psychiatry and made major advances in adolescent mental health,” said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Holt added that Dr. Hamburg and her husband, Dr. David A. Hamburg, a former AAAS president who survives her, “were strong partners in psychiatry, medicine, mental health, the study of violence, international peace efforts and many other things in a long life together.”

In 1995, Dr. Hamburg was elected a AAAS Fellow in recognition of her leadership and achievements in the medical sciences. She also was a member of the AAAS board of directors from 1987 to 1991, a distinction carried on by Margaret Hamburg, also a physician, who serves as AAAS’ current president.

Throughout her career, Dr. Hamburg participated in multiple activities under the auspices of the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council aimed at improving treatment for children with mental health disorders. At the same time, she conducted research and held professorships at Stanford, Harvard, Mt. Sinai and Weill Cornell Medical College.

“Both my parents, my mother, perhaps in particular, really instilled in me not just a sense of what was possible but also a sense of a purpose, a sense of living a life of service and giving back,” said Margaret Hamburg, in the 2013 interview conducted when she was the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Hamburg was the recipient of many awards. In 2007, she and her husband received the Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Award in Mental Health from the Institute of Medicine for being “passionate advocates for those who bear tremendous burdens.” Five years later, the National Research Center for Women & Families presented her the Foremother Award in recognition of her life’s work.

Perhaps most meaningful was being bestowed the Pardes Humanitarian Prize in Mental Health in 2015, an award she shared with her husband in recognition of their joint contributions to advancing mental health care. The award went to those whose “extraordinary contribution has made a profound and lasting impact in advancing the understanding of mental health and improving the lives of people suffering from mental illness,” stated the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, which presented the award.

At the foundation’s award ceremony, Dr. David Hamburg accepted the honor saying, “It is especially meaningful for Betty and me to share this award for our work together, a lifelong effort to understand how human beings cope during the most difficult circumstances.”

At the time, Dr. Herbert Pardes, president of the foundation and executive vice chair of New York Presbyterian Hospital’s board of trustees, said the two “blended their scientific knowledge, understanding of human behavior and profound compassion into a unique and humanistic vision,” and in so doing “have transformed our view of mental illness and minimized its stigma.”

Dr. Hamburg was born on Oct. 19, 1923 in Jacksonville, Florida, the daughter of Francis Minor, a surgeon. The family moved to Long Island, N.Y., where she was raised.

Including her husband David and daughter Margaret, she is survived by a son, Eric Hamburg, and three grandchildren.