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In Memoriam: David A. Hamburg, Doctor, Educator and Humanitarian

David Hamburg standing at a podium
Hamburg and his wife, Beatrix, were jointly awarded the 2015 Pardes Humanitarian Prize in Mental Health for extraordinary contributions in advancing understanding of mental health. | Brain & Behavior Research Foundation/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

David A. Hamburg, a renowned psychiatrist-physician, educator, leader and humanitarian who advanced the understanding of stress on the brain and dedicated his work to eliminating human suffering, died on April 21. He was 93.

In an autobiography “A Model of Prevention: Life Lessons,” Hamburg identified “prevention of human suffering” as a guiding post for his interdisciplinary and acclaimed career as it advanced from hospitals and university positions, to research laboratories and scientific organizations, and on to international public policy arenas.

“Modern humanity is a single, interdependent, crowded, worldwide, weaponized species, vulnerable to pervasive stress from severe poverty, from harsh disparities, drastic climate events, destructive ideologies, and much more,” wrote Hamburg. “So, we must cooperate in our own self-interest. This should be crucial in modern education, research and public policy.”

Throughout Hamburg’s advance through college and medical school at Indiana University, academic positions at the National Institute of Mental Health, Harvard University, Weill Cornell Medical College and Stanford, and prestigious leadership roles at scientific organizations and institutions, he sought ways to seek cooperation and find avenues for parties to seize opportunities “that bring us together in our common humanity.”

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Hamburg served as chair of council affairs 1983-84 and went on to become AAAS president in 1985. “During my time on the AAAS board and particularly as president, I was more and more impressed by the potential of the AAAS to ‘mobilize’ the scientific community to strengthen science education over the full range of the sciences,” wrote Hamburg.

David Hamburg
David Hamburg served AAAS in several roles during the 1980s. | Carnegie Corporation

Later, Hamburg returned to AAAS as a visiting scholar in the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. “I brought him to AAAS from Cornell because I recognized that even though he had retired he had not used up all his contributions and therefore I wanted to provide an opportunity and place where he could continue his mission for world peace,” said Alan Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer emeritus. “Some of his works provide a prescription for reducing global violence and global conflict, and those would be a great blueprint if only people would follow them.”

During his tenure, Hamburg established coordinated science education programs that he placed under the leadership of Shirley Malcom, now AAAS senior adviser. “AAAS responded with enthusiasm and made use of the entire scientific community… AAAS became a bulwark of American education,” Hamburg wrote.

“David’s impact on AAAS and many other pillars of the scientific enterprise is expansive and lasting, from his advances in science education to furthering the application of scientific research to the challenge of curbing global violence,” said Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer. “He could unite people, listen well and move things forward.”

In addition, Hamburg served as president of the Institute of Medicine, and president of the National Academy of Sciences. He also was president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York from 1982 to 1997 and then became president emeritus.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by former President Bill Clinton in 1996 and was a recipient of the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal in 2018.

“Physician, scientist and educator, David Hamburg has devoted his life to understanding human behavior, preventing violent conflict and improving the health and well-being of our children,” said Clinton at the White House award ceremony. “At Stanford he did pioneering work in the biology of mental illness and went to Tanzania to rescue four biology students who had been kidnapped there. He has worked to avoid all kinds of violent conflict from nuclear war.”

David Allen Hamburg was born on Oct. 1, 1925 in Evansville, Ind., a child from “a classic immigrant story,” he told an oral historian for Carnegie Corp. His grandfather, a pushcart peddler, had fled Latvia for New York City, which, flush with peddlers, led him to Cincinnati and then Evansville, where family legend says he finally became the only pushcart peddler in town and soon earned enough to bring Hamburg’s father and grandmother to the United States.

He met his wife Beatrix Hamburg during research work on the impact of stress on the brain at Yale University, where she became the first female African American to graduate from its medical school.

Hamburg is survived by a son, Eric Hamburg, a Los Angeles filmmaker and writer, and a daughter, Margaret Hamburg, who is chair of the AAAS board of directors and former AAAS president. She also served as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 2009-2015.


[Associated image: Brain & Behavior Research Foundation/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]