Knight Aldrich, MD, first chair of psychiatry at UChicago, 1914-2017

A pioneer in integrating psychiatry into general medical practice, Knight Aldrich, MD, the first chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, died November 3 after a long and active retirement. He was 103.

 Aldrich served as the department chair at the University of Chicago from 1955 to 1964. Prior to his recruitment, psychiatry provided consultative psychiatry and psychotherapy as part of the Department of Medicine. Aldrich believed general physicians should be skilled in psychiatric diagnosis, an approach that was fundamental to his work building the new department.

His enthusiasm for providing psychiatric training to medical students led to elective courses in each of the four years of medical school. In the first year, students observed infant and mother interactions. In subsequent years, students were taught the value of psychodynamics, learning theory, social science and psychophysiology.

In the senior year, all medical students were assigned to meet with patients for a period of sixteen weeks. This carefully monitored educational program resulted in a book co-authored by Aldrich, The Student Physician as Psychotherapist. It showed that medical students could help patients clarify their feelings, ventilate their psychological preoccupations and provide support – skills they could carry into their medical practice.

A review in the Archives of General Psychiatry described this “rather small volume” as a “lucid presentation of the impact of psychotherapy upon 249 patients and 200 fourth-year medical students of the University of Chicago." The review added that the book should be considered “a must for persons engaged in training medical students in psychiatry.”

Aldrich also helped build the university’s groundbreaking sleep research program led by Nathaniel Kleitman, PhD, and Eugene Aserinsky, PhD. The pair were first to document the connections between rapid eye movement (REM) and dreaming states in a series of studies that helped established sleep as an important field of research and led to the first dedicated sleep research laboratory.

In 1964, after nine years as department chairman, Aldrich’s commitment to community psychiatry led him to leave academia for a few years to focus on efforts to improve the care of psychiatric patients living in Newark, NJ, and Charlottesville, VA. He later joined the faculty at the University of Virginia as a professor of psychiatry and family medicine in the School of Medicine, where he taught for many years. He remained active, as well as provocative, despite retirement.

In 2003, at the age of 89, he published an article in the Virginia Quarterly Review describing the public care of the chronically mentally ill in the United States as a “national disgrace,” adding that “it has been for most of the last two centuries.”

C. Knight Aldrich was born April 12, 1914, in Chicago. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, in 1935, and from Northwestern University’s School of Medicine in Chicago in 1940. After interning at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, he was a resident in psychiatry at the Public Health Service at the Marine Hospital on Ellis Island – where he met his wife – and later a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service. After World War II, he was a faculty member of the medical schools at the universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota before coming to the University of Chicago.

Aldrich’s wife, Julie Honore Aldrich, died in 2013, also at the age of 103, after 71 years of marriage. He is survived by his daughter, Carol Barkin, and her husband, Coleman, of Hastings-on-Hudson, NY; his son Robert Aldrich and his wife, Amy, of Washington, DC; his daughter-in-law, Leslie Aldrich (the widow of his son Michael, a respected sleep researcher) of Ann Arbor, MI; and his daughter-in-law Susan Aldrich (the widow of his son Thomas) of Pelham, NY, plus eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service was held on November 11 at Westminster Canterbury of the Blue Ridge, an assisted living facility where he lived in Charlottesville, VA.