Lyman Wynne, pioneering family therapist, dies

January 18, 2007

Lyman C. Wynne, M.D., Ph.D., a founder of family therapy and an influential researcher who helped transform the treatment of schizophrenia, died Jan. 17 of cancer in Bethesda, Md. He was 83.

Dr. Wynne chaired the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry from 1971 to 1977, and then served as professor of psychiatry until his retirement to emeritus status in 1998. During the 1950s and 1960s, as a researcher and an official at the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Wynne pioneered new approaches to mental illness, especially schizophrenia.

“His rigorous communications research was essential to debunking the blaming notion that a child’s early family environment, particularly the mother, caused schizophrenia,” said Eric Caine, M.D., current chair of the Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry. “It had a tangible positive impact on how families regarded their affected children or siblings. This work served to liberate families and to directly foster the emergence of the family-oriented community support and advocacy groups that we value so highly. Put simply, Lyman was central to bringing the family burdens associated with schizophrenia ‘out of the closest’ and promoting a guilt-free discussion about how best to deal with the complex challenges that confront everyone involved.”

For 30 years, Dr Wynne conducted a longitudinal study in Finland, studying the interaction of genes and environment in the development of schizophrenia. His landmark work with his collaborators, Pekka Tienari and Karl-Erik Wahlberg, shows that family environment can influence a genetic susceptibility to the schizophrenia.

Dr. Wynne, who lived in Pittsford until moving to Bethesda last year, also was an active family psychiatrist, frequently seeing challenging cases with his favorite co-therapist, his wife, Adele Wynne, who died in 2003. In 1997, the couple gave an endowment to the University of Rochester to start the Wynne Center for Family Research. Since its founding, the Wynne Center has conducted important studies on foster parenting, partner violence, women with pain, and depression.

“Lyman and Adele had the extraordinary vision to endow a Family Research Center to move the field along and to make sure that research would continue into the future to better understand how to strengthen and support families in their struggles with medical and mental illness, as well as other life challenges,” said Susan H. McDaniel, Ph.D., the center’s first director. 

Dr. Wynne was well-known as a generous mentor.

“Despite his international prominence as a researcher and scholar, Dr. Wynne was always humble, patient and kind,” said J. Steven Lamberti, M.D., associate chair of psychiatry who studied under Dr. Wynne. “A gifted writer, he encouraged generations of students to find new and better ways to assist patients and their families.  Despite an often hectic schedule, Dr. Wynne’s door was always open to families, faculty members and students alike. He embodied the very best that the university has to offer.”

Dr. Wynne was born in Lake Benton, Minn., where his father, a farmer and businessman, supported the family on $350 per year and crops, though he discussed Spinoza and Kant with his children. At age 11, with his mother dying of cancer, he decided to become a medical researcher. He attended Harvard College on a full scholarship. During World War II, he was assigned by the U.S. Army to attend Harvard Medical School. He received his medical degree in 1947.

At Harvard Medical School, Dr. Wynne became a protégé of Erich Lindemann, M.D., a significant figure in social psychology and community health. His work with Lindemann changed his decision on a career from cancer researcher to psychiatrist.

“At a time when families of patients with schizophrenia were neglected by medical professionals, Dr. Wynne devoted his career to understanding them. He knew first hand about the devastating impact of mental illness upon families, losing a beloved sister to suicide early in his career,” Lamberti said. “The experiences of his family fueled his determination to improve our treatment of schizophrenia, and gave him a deep empathy for those who are suffering.”

During the 1952 call-up of doctors for the Korean War, Dr. Wynne was sent by the Public Health Service to take part in beginning a new research program at National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda. Among other positions, he was chief of the adult psychiatry branch of NIMH from 1961 to 1971. From 1965 to 1969, he also served as a special consultant to the Director General of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

Dr, Wynne has published numerous articles. His studies of communication deviance in the families of schizophrenia were first published in a series of articles with his colleague, Margaret T. Singer, in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 1963 to 1965. He co-edited The Nature of Schizophrenia.

Dr. Wynne received many awards, including the Frieda Fromm-Reichmann Award for Schizophrenia Research from the American Academy of Psychoanalysis in 1965 and the Meritorious Service Medal from the U.S. Public Health Service in 1966. The American Family Therapy Academy gave him its Award for Distinguished Achievement in Family Therapy Research in 1981 and for Distinguished Contribution to Family Therapy Theory and Practice in 1989. He served as president of the academy in 1986 - 1987.

Dr. Wynne is survived by five children, Christine Wynne of Oswego Lake, Ore., Randall Wynne of Tampa, Fla., Sara Wynne of Oakland, Calif., Barry Wind of Bethesda, and Jonathan Wynne of Brooklyn, N.Y., and five grandchildren.

A viewing will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday Jan. 19 at Pumphrey Funeral Home in Bethesda. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday Jan. 20 at Springhouse Assisted Living in Bethesda. Contributions can be made to the Wynne Center for Family Research at the University of Rochester Medical Center, 300 East River Road, P.O. Box 278996, Rochester, N.Y. 14627.

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