Irving I. Gottesman standing outside his office in the Department of Psychology, Elliott Hall, at the University of Minnesota, October, 2009. Note the prestigious Dobzhansky Award certificate on his door, given to him in June 1990.
Photo credit: Nancy L. Segal

In Memory Of…Irving I. Gottesman

Honoring scientists who have made important and lasting contributions to the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior

29 December 1930 – 29 June 2016

Professor Irving I. Gottesman—fondly known to friends and colleagues as Irv—enjoyed an extraordinary career that coupled careful empirical analysis with novel and incisive conceptual thinking.  Looking to the data and not bound by extant views of behavior, his work upended the view that prevailed at the beginning of his career, which held that variation in behavior exclusively reflected the effects of the environment.  Indeed, Gottesman profoundly changed thinking about psychopathology and about the sources of variation in behavior more broadly.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio to Hungarian-Romanian Jewish immigrants, and a science enthusiast from an early age, Irv began studying physics while serving as an officer in the United States Navy.  He later switched to psychology, completing his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, where he used twin data to study genetic contributions to personality.  Gottesman initially had trouble publishing those findings, which ran counter to the widely held dogma of the time—the late 1950s in the United States—that variation in behavior entirely reflected the effects of nurture.  However, beginning to define what would become his pivotal role in the nature-nurture debate, Gottesman persevered and eventually succeeded in publishing his findings.

After earning his doctoral degree the long arc of Irv’s career passed through London, where he trained at the Maudsley Hospital; back to the University of Minnesota, where he served as Director of the Behavioral Genetics Center; to the Washington University School of Medicine; and to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  In 2011, Irv returned to Minneapolis and, as a Senior Fellow in the Department of Psychology, continued to write and collaborate until his death.  Along the way, his groundbreaking work altered the trajectory of behavioral and brain science.

In the 1960s, Irv’s pioneering twin studies conducted with his colleague James Shields helped reveal a genetic link to schizophrenia, a finding that toppled the widely accepted, but deeply flawed view of the disorder as a consequence of bad parenting.  Not only did their work demonstrate the importance of genetics, but he and Shields boldly proposed a multifactorial polygenic threshold model, describing a plausible mode of inheritance for schizophrenia and addressing a puzzle arising from patterns of familial aggregation of common diseases that had long stymied researchers.  This model of schizophrenia gained ascendancy, even though a pivotal piece of evidence emerged only in 2014 with the publication of a genome-wide study of tens of thousands of subjects showing that more than 100 genes are involved.

Another important driver of thinking across the decades, the concept of endophenotypes was first introduced to psychiatry and popularized in the early 1970s by Gottesman and Shields.  The idea that endophenotypes—measurable components along the pathway between disease and distal genotype—may serve as useful metrics has been evident in work on complex neuropsychiatric diseases for nearly five decades.  Refined by Irv and others over the years, the endophenotype approach is now ubiquitous, having improved classification beyond observable symptoms, enhanced precision for genetic studies, facilitated the development of more valid animal models, and laid the foundation for contemporary approaches that focus on continuously varying, underlying dimensions rather than diagnostic categories.

Over the course of his eminent career, Gottesman published over 250 scientific papers, nearly 100 book chapters and 19 books and monographs.  He authored 25 comprehensive book reviews and 12 briefer reviews, and received over 50 prestigious medals and honors.  Professor Gottesman was also a licensed clinical psychologist and a Diplomate in both clinical psychology and assessment psychology.  Finally and perhaps less widely known, Irv embraced the role of citizen-scientist, writing on issues such as the abuse of genetic research in Nazi Germany.

In addition to his extensive body of empirical and conceptual work, Irv is well-remembered for the collegiality he showed researchers all over the world, in particular his former students.  He directed the doctoral dissertations of 36 advanced graduate students, supervised the research projects of seven post-doctoral fellows, and shared his wisdom with countless other students in the classroom.  His dedicated mentorship amplified the contributions of his work, resulting in a broad and enduring influence on efforts to understand sources of variation in behavior.  Thanks in large part to Professor Gottesman, in the 21st century the question is no longer nature or nurture?  Rather, the question is how?  That is, how do the various genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors work together over the course of a lifetime to affect behavior?

Individuals Honoring Irving Gottesman:

Sheri Berenbaum
Aksel Bertelsen
Thomas Bouchard, University of Minnesota
James Butcher, University of Minnesota
Gregory Carey, University of Colorado
Danielle Dick, Virginia Commonwealth University
Lisabeth DiLalla, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine
*Frances H. Gabbay, Uniformed Services University of the Health Services
Hill Goldsmith, University of Wisconsin-Madison
*Leaetta Hough
John Loehlin, University of Texas
Peter McGuffin, King’s College London
Robert Muschewske
J. Bruce Overmier, University of Minnesota
Roy and Dace Pickens, Virginia Commonwealth University
Richard Rose
*Nancy Segal, California State University, Fullerton
Auke Tellegen
Susan Trumbetta, Vassar College
Leslie Yonce
* FABBS would like to thank Dr. Segal, Dr. Gabbay, and Dr. Hough for nominating Dr. Gottesman for this honor and for leading the effort.

It’s not too late to have your name added to the list of donors! You can make your donation to Dr. Gottesman’ In Honor Of… campaign at anytime.