In Memoriam

Gerald N. Grob (1931-2015)

George Athan Billias, October 2016

Historian of Mental Health Care Policy, of Disease in America, of Labor History

Gerald N. GrobIt is with great sorrow that I report the passing of my best friend and former colleague, Gerald N. Grob, noted historian of American mental health care policy and medicine, who died of liver failure in Evergreen, Colorado, on December 16, 2015, at age 84. Gerry was born in 1931 in New York City in the midst of the Great Depression, the son of Jewish immigrants, Sidney and Sylvia Grob, who fled from Poland to escape its virulent anti-Semitism. All members of the Grob family clan remaining in Europe save one were murdered by the Nazis, and the grim memory of the Holocaust left Gerry with an abiding sense of tragedy. The Great Depression made his economically struggling parents staunch supporters of FDR’s New Deal, and Gerry grew up sharing the social democratic ethos that dominated much of the discipline of history at the time. Although they lacked formal education, his parents instilled in him faith in its power.

Gerry received his undergraduate degree at the City College of New York in 1951, an AM at Columbia University in 1952, and after a tour in the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1955–57, he completed his PhD at Northwestern University in 1958. When he came to Clark University for his first college teaching position in 1957, we became close colleagues. In 1969, he moved to Rutgers University, where he was chair of the history department for three separate terms before his retirement in 2000 as Henry E. Sigerist Professor of the History of Medicine (Emeritus). He was also a founding member of the prestigious Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research.

Gerry was the preeminent authority on the treatment of the mentally ill in America, a field he pioneered in The State and the Mentally Ill: A History of Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts, 1830–1920 (1966). The book won the annual prize awarded by the American Association of State and Local History. A three-­volume study followed: Mental Institutions in America: Social Policy to 1873 (1973), Mental Illness and American Society (1983), and From Asylum to Community: Mental Health Policy in Modern America (1991). A summary of the three, The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill, appeared in 1994. Subsequently, Gerry collaborated with Howard H. Goldman in publishing The Dilemma of Federal Mental Health Policy: Radical Reform or Incremental Change? (2006), a study that brought much of the history of the subject up to the present.

His writing and research gained Gerry a local, national, and international reputation. Besides his position at Rutgers, he was also a senior research associate in psychiatry at the New York Hospital–Cornell Medical Center. The American Association for the History of Medicine, of which he served as president in 1996–98, honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 after presenting him with the William H. Welch Medal in 1986 and naming him a Fielding Garrison Lecturer that same year. His other awards included numerous competitive research grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

After working on the history of mental illness for nearly four decades, Gerry’s interest shifted to the history of disease patterns in America. His course at Rutgers on the changing epidemiology of disease led to the publication of The Deadly Truth: A History of Disease in America (2002); Diagnosis, Therapy, and Evidence: Conundrums in Modern American Medicine (with Allan V. Horwitz, 2010); and Aging Bones: A Short History of Osteoporosis (2013).

Besides his work in these two fields, Gerry published works in American labor history (including Workers and Utopia, 1969) and, with me, was coeditor and contributor in American historiography (the two-volume Interpretations in American History, six editions, 1967–91). He also edited books on American intellectual history and US foreign policy.

Working with Gerry on Interpretations was a delight. He was honest, generous to a fault, and objective, and I admired his sharp, far-ranging mind and integrity. His skepticism, sense of irony, and dry humor always kept him on an even keel. In the 39 years we worked on Interpretations, we never had harsh words, though there were sometimes serious disagreements over specific issues. He was open to different views, provided the arguments were solid and sound.

Gerry was a brilliant provocateur in the classroom, challenging students to rethink their conventional views on historical issues. A dedicated mentor to graduate students, he provided guidance and encouragement that not only supported them, but also provided a model for their own professional lives. His outstanding presence as a teacher and colleague at Rutgers was recognized when he was honored with the first Gorenstein Memorial Award in 1994 as a professor who combined distinguished scholarship with important service to his colleagues and students. Clark University also awarded him an honorary DLitt in 2002.

In “How I Became a Historian of Psychiatry,” a 2012 post on the blog h-madness, Gerry set forth his philosophy of history, one that I shared and admired:

I have never held to the modern belief that human beings mold and control their world in predetermined and predictable ways. This is not in any way to suggest that we are totally powerless to control our destiny. It is only to insist upon both our fallibility and our inability to predict all of the consequences that follow our actions. Nor do I believe that human behavior can be reduced to a set of deterministic or quasi-deterministic laws or generalizations, or that solutions are readily available for all our problems. Tragedy is a recurring theme in human history and defines the parameters of our existence. I have always tried, therefore, to deal sympathetically with our predecessors who grappled—so often in partial and unsuccessful ways as we still do ourselves—with their own distinct problem.

Gerry leaves behind his wife, Lila (Kronick); a sister, Gloria Oresky; and three sons and their spouses, Bradford (Sharon), Evan (Ellen), and Seth (Stephanie), as well as eight grandchildren. Besides his professional legacy as a scholar, Gerry left a personal legacy, for all his sons and their spouses have been involved deeply in significant volunteer work in charitable organizations.

George Athan Billias
Clark University (Emeritus)


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