Lee Nelken Robins

Leader in the development of diagnostic criteria for psychiatric diagnoses

Lee Nelken Robins with Washington University shield logo

Lee Nelken Robins was born August 29, 1922, in New Orleans, Louisiana. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Radcliffe College and her doctorate from Harvard University in 1951.

Robins led national studies on psychiatric epidemiology and was a leader in the development of diagnostic criteria for psychiatric diagnoses. Robins’ studies followed child patients and randomly selected schoolchildren into adulthood. She also led large epidemiological studies. Together, these resulted in the publication of more than 250 papers on suicide, substance abuse among adolescents and Vietnam War veterans, alcoholism, and antisocial disorders and behavior in children. Many are considered classics in the field.

She began her career at Washington University in 1954 as a research assistant. In 1959, she was promoted to assistant professor, in 1962, associate professor and in 1966, full professor of sociology in psychiatry. In 1991, she became University Professor of Social Science and she taught in Arts & Sciences, Social Work and Psychiatry. In 2001, she became professor emerita. Robins died in 2009.

Robins was a calm, thoughtful voice in many debates.

Robins served on the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse and on various task panels of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. She was a member of the World Health Organization’s expert advisory panel on mental health.

Robins was the recipient of the Second Century Award from Washington University School of Medicine. She was a member of the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists.

A sought-after mentor

Lee Nelken Robins’ academic training in psychiatry, social work and epidemiology allowed her to forge a unique perspective on psychiatric disorders and become an international leader in this field. Robins was the author of Deviant Children Grown Up (1966) and editor of 11 books.

Robins credited the heads of the Department of Psychiatry, beginning with Edward Gildea, MD, and continuing through Charles Zorumski, MD, with providing an extraordinarily supportive environment in which she could pursue her research goals without being overly burdened with administrative or teaching responsibilities.

She was a sought-after mentor and trained many of the current leaders in the field of psychiatric epidemiology. Colleagues state that Robins was a calm, thoughtful voice in many rancorous debates regarding policy issues dealing with substance abuse and the origins of criminality. Robins believed this may have been in part attributable to her Southern heritage. She felt that Southern women learn to express their opinions without being abrasive. This skill served her well in her many multi-site collaborative research projects and throughout her highly productive career.