Louis Jolyon West, MD (1924-1999) | JAMA Psychiatry | JAMA Network
[Skip to Navigation]
Sign In
July 1999

Louis Jolyon West, MD (1924-1999)

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1999;56(7):669-670. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.56.7.669

On January 2, 1999, Louis Jolyon ("Jolly") West, former chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), died of a rapidly advancing malignant tumor.

Louis Jolyon West, MD

Louis Jolyon West, MD

Born in 1924 in Brooklyn, NY, of immigrant Russian-Jewish parents, he grew up in poverty in Madison, Wis. Characteristic of children of recent immigrants, he strove to obtain an education. Entering the University of Wisconsin, Madison, at the age of 17 years, he was determined to fight against fascism in World War II. He enlisted in the US Army and was sent to the University of Iowa, Iowa City, in the Army Specialized Training Program, and then to the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, Minneapolis, from which he graduated in 1948. After a year of internship in internal medicine, he served a 3-year residency in psychiatry at the Payne Whitney Clinic at New York Hospital–Cornell University School of Medicine, New York, NY. In 1948, he had transferred to the US Air Force Medical Corps, and in 1952 he was appointed as chief of the Psychiatry Service at the Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Tex. While holding this position, he was also appointed professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry, Neurology and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine in Oklahoma City—the youngest person ever to have held a chairship in psychiatry in the United States until, or since, that time. In 1969, he moved to UCLA to head its department and direct the Neuropsychiatric Institute.

This is the outline of an American success story—the poor immigrant son who by dint of his intelligence and energy makes the best of freedom and the opportunity offered to him to realize his goals. What is not so usual in this familiar American story is that from an early age and throughout his life, West fought for the equal rights of others so that they might have similar opportunities for self-realization. Always larger than life, he was bold and courageous. He led the way toward the integration of medical fraternities and the civil rights changes in the South. He battled ceaselessly for individual freedom and dignity, opposing prejudice, bias, bigotry, violence, torture, and the subjugation, punishment, and mistreatment of others by governments, the judiciary, the military, kidnappers, cult leaders, and phony prophets. He took the side of the poor, minorities, children, the disenfranchised, the mentally ill, the uneducated, and the weak.

During and after the Korean War, 36 American prisoners of war had been forced to confess to war crimes. West testified at their courtmartial hearings that they were not traitors but that the confessions had been wrung from them by solitary confinement, torture, threats, and sleep deprivation. These procedures induced "debility, dread and dependency" in them. Later, during the height of the apartheid policies, West went to South Africa to testify against the imprisonment and torture of black and white Africans who opposed the repressive government.

It should come as no surprise that his own clinical and research contributions focused on the effects of inhumanity, sleep deprivation, and mind-altering and hallucinogenic drugs. He studied the psychophysiology of hypnosis and suggestibility (including their effects on pain perception), meditation, and the emotions. He published theories of dissociative reactions, hallucinations, and dreams. Throughout his career he concerned himself with alcoholism and its treatment. Later he extensively studied the social phenomena of the 1960s—the civil rights movement, the hippie culture, and the green rebellion—and the pervasive violence in our society.

He put some of his ideas of the origins of violence to the test by studying the Tarahumara Indians in the Mexican Sierra Madre with his collaborators, Professors Alfonso Paredes and Charles Snow. This isolated tribe held nonviolence as its supreme value. Its members never physically punished their children, who grew up never expressing rage, anger, or violence, and violent crimes were virtually unknown in this society. West concluded that violence begets violence.

By his interest in the origins and consequences of social pathology, West extended the scope of psychiatry beyond its usual concerns. Following his retirement as chair, he thought deeply and developed programs in the prevention of mental illness, addiction, and crime.

His interests and his vision led him to create 2 departments of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at a time when the 2 predominant underpinnings of American academic psychiatry were psychoanalytic concepts, or the treatment of the seriously mentally ill by lobotomy, metrazol or insulin injections, and electroconvulsive therapy.

He defined the biobehavioral sciences in a multidisciplinary and multifunctional manner as the basic sciences of psychiatry. This definition spanned the spectrum from epidemiology to cultural anthropology, the study of primate behavior, pharmacology, neurochemistry, neuropsychology, psychophysiology, psychoendocrinology, psychoneuroimmunology, cognitive neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, and computer modeling of psychotherapy and human and brain development. While building an all-embracing department, he was also one of the first chairs in the 1950s to introduce behavioral science content into the undergraduate medical curriculum in order to expand the students' horizons about the roles of socioecological, political, and psychosocial factors in health, disease, and patient care, against the firm opposition of many of the most influential medical educators in the United States.

Jolly West served his country and his profession well. He was a consultant for the US Air Force, the Veterans Administration, the US Information Agency, US National Academy of Sciences, the Peace Corps, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the Americanspecialty boards, and private foundations. He served on the editorial boards of 12 publications and on many medical school committees. He also received many honors and awards, including an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, Calif. During his career he gave numerous prestigious endowed lectures, both in the United States and abroad.

The egalitarian principles that guided Jolly West's life were exercised in the way he ran his department. He had a fierce loyalty to the department and its members and to UCLA. He ran the department with a light hand, encouraging and supporting his young colleagues, attracting many senior, distinguished colleagues, and allowing members the optimal degree of freedom to pursue their interests.

He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Kathryn, a distinguished clinical psychologist, by 2 daughters, Anne and Mary, and by a son, John.