Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, who died on December 25th at the age of 83, was considered one of the most influential psychiatrists of his generation. He headed the effort to more rigorously categorize mental disorders for the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.), the handbook used by health care professionals. His most lasting legacy may have been his successful effort to stop treating homosexuality as an illness.
When Spitzer worked as a psychiatrist in the 1960s, he harbored doubts about the efficacy of his profession. As he explained in a New Yorker profile, “I was always unsure that I was being helpful.” His work expanding the D.S.M. was aimed in part at creating a common lexicon to characterize mental illnesses, so that diagnoses — and treatment — would be more uniform. Under his leadership, dozens of disorders were added to the D.S.M, including anorexia and PTSD.
In 2012, Dr. Spitzer publicly apologized for a 2001 study he authored claiming that so-called reparative therapy — which is aimed at changing gay people’s sexual orientation — could be successful. In an interview with The New York Times, he described the study as “the only regret I have; the only professional one.”
Spitzer spent most of his career at Columbia University. He died from complications from heart disease; he also suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by his wife, Janet Williams — also a Columbia University Professor Emerita — and five children.