Campus & Community

Alexander H. Leighton of School of Public Health dies at 99

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Professor Alexander H. Leighton, first chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences (now part of the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health) at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), passed away on Aug. 11 at his home in Nova Scotia, Canada. He was 99.

Leighton was the husband of Jane Murphy, a professor in HSPH’s Department of Epidemiology. In an e-mail to the HSPH community, Dean for Academic Affairs James Ware described Leighton as an important contributor to the School’s psychiatric epidemiology program.

Born in Philadelphia, Leighton graduated from Princeton University in 1932 before earning a master’s degree in physiology from Cambridge University in 1934. Two years later, he earned an M.D. from Johns Hopkins University. In 1966, Harvard University awarded him an honorary degree.

Leighton served during World War II and then embarked on a nearly 20-year career at Cornell University. There, he became a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Cornell Medical College and in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. While at Cornell in 1948, Leighton launched the landmark Stirling County Study in a Canadian study population. This undertaking was a longitudinal study of the epidemiology of psychiatric disorders, and comparative studies were conducted in New York City, Alaska, Nigeria, and Vietnam.

Leighton joined the HSPH faculty in 1966 as a professor of social psychiatry. While chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences, he gathered specialists in medicine, sociology, anthropology, and psychology to study the mental health of populations, identify social and cultural factors that influence mental illness, and explore rehabilitative and preventive measures on a population basis.

In 1975, Leighton retired from the School, at which time his wife, Jane, assumed responsibility for the Stirling County Study. Leighton received a National Health Scientist Award from the Government of Canada and was appointed professor of psychiatry and professor of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Leighton is survived by his wife, Jane; a daughter, Doreen Leighton Walker of California; a son, Ted Leighton of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and five grandchildren. A memorial service was held in Nova Scotia. A service in Boston will be held at a later date. More information about this service will be announced when it becomes available.