NEW YORK — Dr. Lewis L. Judd, who as the country’s top mental health official helped put in place the so-called Decade of the Brain, an ambitious research agenda focused on brain biology as the key to understanding and treating psychiatric problems, died on Dec. 16 in San Diego. He was 88.
His death, at an assisted-living facility, was confirmed by his wife, Patricia Judd, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, of which Lewis Judd was chairman for decades. She said the cause was cardiac arrest.
Dr. Judd was one of a generation of prominent psychiatrists who came to believe that the work of Freud and Jung, on which they had trained, was more art than science. Biology and genetics were the way forward, they argued, and Dr. Judd was in the right place at the right time to help make that happen.
In 1987, after helping build the UC San Diego psychiatry department into a leader in research, he was chosen to take over the National Institute of Mental Health, the world’s largest source of funding for brain and behavior research.
“At the request of Congress,” Dr. Judd said in an interview after starting the new job, “we have prepared the Decade of the Brain, a research plan designed to bring a precise and detailed understanding of all the elements of brain function within our own lifetime.”
It hasn’t happened. Despite billions of dollars in federal funding and advances in tools — brain imaging, genetics, animal models — the field has yet to deliver much of practical value to psychiatrists or their patients.
“The problems of understanding the underlying biology turned out to be far deeper than any of us knew when we began,” Richard Nakamura, a former official at the mental health institute who worked with Judd, said in a phone interview. But, he added, “I think Lew would take credit, justifiably, for laying the groundwork for the advances that have been made, and for the work that is still to be accomplished.”
Dr. Steven E. Hyman, a later director of the institute, said in an e-mail that “the Decade had real value for morale and public communication.” It also coincided with the publication of the first Global Burden of Disease report, Hyman added, and together the two initiatives “helped make a critical contribution in educating policymakers and the public about the public health burden of mental illness.”
Other successors at the institute, including Dr. Thomas R. Insel and the current leader, Dr. Joshua A. Gordon, doubled down on Dr. Judd’s vision, steering the bulk of the funding to brain biology at the expense of behavioral approaches to mental health problems like talk and family-based therapies.
Lewis Lund Judd was born in Los Angeles on Feb. 10, 1930, the first of two sons of Dr. George Ezra Judd, an obstetrician-gynecologist, and Emmeline (Lund) Judd, a homemaker. His younger brother, Howard, also a doctor, died in 2007. Besides his wife, he is survived by three daughters — Stephanie Judd, a psychologist; Catherine Judd, a professor of English literature at the University of Miami; and Allison Fee, an occupational therapist — and five grandchildren.
After graduating from Harvard School, a Los Angeles boys’ prep school (now part of the coeducational Harvard-Westlake School), he entered the University of Utah, where he completed a degree in psychology in 1954. He studied medicine at George Washington University and at the University of California, Los Angeles, finishing his medical degree in 1958. He completed his internship and a residency in psychiatry at UCLA. After a stint in the Air Force as base psychiatrist at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y., he joined the UCLA psychiatry faculty.
In 1970, Dr. Arnold J. Mandell, the founding chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of California, San Diego, recruited Dr. Judd. The two built the department from the ground up, making it one of the leaders in federal research funding. It was while consulting on an outside program to help adolescents with drug problems that Dr. Judd met a social worker, Patricia Hoffman, whom he married.
Dr. Judd became department chairman in 1977 and, after three years as head of the NIMH, returned. He remained there for 36 years and became a recognizable public face in brain science. He also maintained a small clinical practice, specializing in treating severe depression.
When he retired as chairman in 2013, Dr. Judd was asked by a university press officer about his legacy.
“The thing I’m most proud of is how psychiatry is becoming increasingly recognized as a real biomedical science,” he replied. “It used to be disdained. A broken mind wasn’t as real as a broken bone. We lionized physical medicine, but dismissed brain biology, which has an enormous affect upon not just our behavior, but our bodies as well.”