Jack D. Pressman, Associate Professor in the Department of the History of Health Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, died suddenly on June 23, 1997. With this tragedy, one of the leading young historians of American psychiatry was lost. Pressman's judicious yet incisive and stimulating work represented the best in our field, a field that has been riven by ideology—first in the form of a self-justifying triumphalism, and more recently by a cynical and dismissive belief in psychiatrists as malevolent enforcers of social control. Resisting such ideological torrents, Jack carefully and thoughtfully took up one of the most controversial legacies of American psychiatry, psychosurgery.
Jack D. Pressman, PhD
Despite his youth, Jack Pressman was well suited to the task. Born in New York City, Jack attended Cornell University where he received his BA with Honors in Neurobiology and Behavior. While at Cornell, however, the object of his interest turned from neuroscience to the history of that discipline. At the University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill, Jack received an MA with his thesis, Intellectual Foundations of Neurology and Psychiatry. He pursued his doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of the History and Sociology of Science, Medicine, and Technology, where his dissertation advisor was the distinguished historian Charles E. Rosenberg, PhD. In 1986, Jack received his PhD with a dissertation titled Uncertain Promise: Psychosurgery and the Development of Scientific Psychiatry in America, 1935-1955.
After a year as a National Institute of Mental Health Postdoctoral Fellow at the Rutgers-Princeton Program in Mental Health Research, Jack was appointed to the faculty at University of California, San Francisco. During his years there, Jack became a well-known and nationally admired figure amongst historians of medicine, one whose expert opinions benefitted such groups as the American Association for the History of Medicine, the Institute of Medicine, and the San Francisco AIDS History Project. He was a sought-after lecturer, presenting his wide-ranging reflections on history and psychiatry to audiences at the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale Universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to name a few.
Those legacies are not to be underestimated, but Jack will most be remembered for his wonderfully researched volume Last Resort: Psychosurgery and the Limits of Medicine (in press). Completed days before his death, this reexamination of psychosurgery is astonishing in its originality and judiciously nuanced in its reexamination of a therapy that Jack's contemporaries had simply dismissed as barbaric. The historian Gerald Grob, PhD, of the Rutgers Institute for Health Policy, has called this "an important and enlightening work" that refuses "to portray the history of psychiatry and medicine in stark terms that pit good against evil, enlightenment against ignorance, and science against charlatanism." Good historians make trouble by forcing us to rethink and refine our coarse working assumptions of what was. Jack's work on psychosurgery does just that, offering, in Grob's words, "a sobering lesson to those who herald every new therapy as a fundamental breakthrough" while also rendering absolutist "moral judgements about the history of therapeutics more problematic."
At the time of his death, Jack was also excitedly working on an account of the rise of American psychiatry between 1870 and 1935. The fate of this manuscript, titled "Maladjustment and the American Citizen," remains in question. But in a review essay titled "Psychiatry and its Origins," Jack outlined his contention that psychiatry crystallized around the figure of Adolph Meyer and the notion of maladjustment. Maladjustment to society, for Jack, was the concept that won for psychiatry all of the varied aspects of behavioral and mental illness previously treated by neurologists, asylum superintendents, and family physicians.
The last time I saw Jack, I was struck by the passion with which he talked ideas. Psychiatry and its historians will miss that passion, intellectual rigor, and creativity. But Jack had a greater passion: he spoke with pride and excitement about his family, his wife Wendy, and their children. He loved to tell of his son Abe's precocious mastery of the defining characteristics of different dinosaurs, and his daughter Zoe's blossoming talents. All his intellectual vigor aside, Jack Pressman was a warm, good-humored, and inspiring person. He will be greatly missed.
Makari GJ. Jack D. Pressman, PhD, 1957-1997. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1998;55(4):372. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.55.4.372