David Shakow

David Shakow
David Shakow

In a career that spanned nearly 50 years, David Shakow conducted research that led to a vastly improved understanding of schizophrenia, one of the most complex mental disorders.

Shakow’s research covered all aspects of the disease, but in particular he focused on the mental deterioration that accompanied its progression. He was a strong advocate for patients of schizophrenia, which helped lessen the stigma that so often accompanies them.

Shakow was born on January 2, 1901 in New York City. Growing up in the lower east side of New York, which he later described as a “most auspicious place to have one’s beginnings” because of the strength of the community, was an important influence on him.

Begins clinical work at Worcester

Begins clinical work at Worcester
Begins clinical work at Worcester

David Shakow went on to Harvard, where he received both his bachelors’ and master’s degrees in science. He embarked upon a doctorate in psychology, but his dissertation research progressed more slowly than he had anticipated. David Shakow was married, and he and his wife Sophie had begun their family.

David Shakow decided that to support his family he needed to take a more practical career approach over the short term, and he accepted a position at the nearby Worcester State Hospital in 1932. It was at Worcester that he began his research into schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is not a “split personality” disorder as many people mistakenly believed at that time. Rather, it is a disease in which symptoms can range from mild confusion to violent self-destructive outbursts. Those who sufferer from the disease often show marked deterioration in their ability to function normally, frequently becoming less aware of their condition. (One of the common difficulties associated with schizophrenic patients is their refusal to take medication to control their symptoms.)

marked deterioration
marked deterioration

What Shakow tried to ascertain through his research was how much of the loss of normal function was the result of deterioration (which is reversible) and deficit (which is not). Among his findings, true deterioration in the schizophrenic occurs at a basic, reflexive level, while deficit occurs at the cognitive and perceptual levels.

Shakow entered the world of psychology at a time when the mentally ill were considered dangerous and untreatable. Through his work with patients, David Shakow made clear that, whatever their condition, they were still human beings and needed to be treated compassionately. He put forth the idea that patients should be allowed to serve as “partners” in those studies in which they participated, not merely experimental subjects.

During his years at Worcester, Shakow began one of the nation’s first clinical psychology internship programs. He also continued his work on his doctoral dissertation, the focus of which he had shifted as a result of his research on schizophrenia. In 1946, the completed dissertation, The Nature of Deterioration in Schizophrenia was not only accepted enthusiastically, it was also recognized as a classic study on the psychology of the disease.

Continues research at NIMH
Continues research at NIMH

Shakow also chaired a committee of the American Psychiatric Association charged with defining the standards of education and training of the developing field of clinical psychology. Results of the committee report set the agenda for the famous Boulder Conference of 1949 that defined clinical psychology as a scientist/practitioner model.

Continues research at NIMH

David Shakow left Worcester that same year, heading to the University of Illinois Medical School as a professor in the psychiatry department. David Shakow was named a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago two years later; he held both positions concurrently.

After a few years of teaching, Shakow decided that he wanted to devote more time to research and accepted an appointment to the National Institute of Mental Health in 1954. There, David Shakow served as the first head of the Laboratory of Psychology in NIMH’s Intramural Research Program.

University of Chicago
University of Chicago

Under Shakow’s 12-year tenure, the laboratory developed special sections to study not only schizophrenia, but also perception, aging, childhood development, and personality. The laboratory published more than 500 articles highlighting its research during those years.

Shakow retired from his position in 1966 but stayed on as senior research psychologist. During the 1970s he and his staff continued to do important research on schizophrenia. During these years David Shakow was awarded both the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award and the Distinguished Professional Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association.

Shakow continued his work at NIMH, conducting research, writing articles, and working on his scientific memoirs. In late February 1981, David Shakow suffered a heart attack while at work and died a few days later on February 26.

scientific memoirs
scientific memoirs

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