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NIMH Administrator Wayne S. Fenton, 53

Wayne S. Fenton wanted to help people with schizophrenia become functioning members of society.
Wayne S. Fenton wanted to help people with schizophrenia become functioning members of society. (Family Photo)

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By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Wayne S. Fenton, 53, a National Institute of Mental Health administrator who as an expert on schizophrenia devoted himself to making life better for those with severe mental illnesses, was found dead Sept. 3 in his office in north Bethesda. Montgomery County police have charged a 19-year-old patient he had seen that day.

Dr. Fenton built a reputation as an accomplished clinician, researcher, administrator and practitioner who often tackled the most difficult cases. A fiercely committed and patient professional, he combined his skills to benefit a segment of the mental-health population that he felt did not always get the necessary care.

His goal was singular and unselfish, his colleagues said: He wanted to help people with schizophrenia become functioning members of society.

In a 2002 article in The Washington Post, Dr. Fenton lamented the lack of appropriate care for those with schizophrenia. "All one has to do is walk through a downtown area to appreciate that the availability of adequate treatment for patients with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses is a serious problem in this country.

"We wouldn't let our 80-year-old mother with Alzheimer's live on a grate," he said. "Why is it all right for a 30-year-old daughter with schizophrenia?"

Dr. Fenton, a research psychiatrist, had a private practice on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, where he saw patients in the evenings and on the weekends. He had been at NIMH, a part of the National Institutes of Health, since 1999, where he supervised the development of diagnostic instruments and interventions for mental illnesses with an emphasis on such severe disorders as schizophrenia. The disease affects about 2 1/2 million Americans.

He had a "profound dedication" to people with severe mental illness, said Dr. Steven E. Hyman, provost of Harvard University and professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. "He saw them as the underserved in our society, as very vulnerable," said Hyman, a former director at NIMH who recruited Dr. Fenton there. "In a very determined, smart and effective way, he did everything he could to improve their lives."

In Dr. Fenton, who came from the old Chestnut Lodge Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital in Rockville, Hyman said he found a clinician who would turn research results into meaningful information for patients and families and someone who could guide the agency's clinical trials to a more relevant real-world practice.

At NIMH, where he was director of the division of adult transitional research and associate director of clinical affairs, Dr. Fenton's chief initiative was the establishment of standard outcome measures of cognitive ability for people with schizophrenia. This was part of a NIMH effort to find treatments to improve cognitive impairment for people with this mental illness.

Daniel R. Weinberger, who had known Dr. Fenton for 15 years and served with him on the Schizophrenia Bulletin, a professional journal, said Dr. Fenton was tireless in trying to understand how research could help people with severe mental illnesses and was working to bring the latest research to those who could make a difference.

"Wayne was a rare character," said Weinberger, who works in NIMH's clinical brain disorder branch. He had a great ability to translate between the research community and those who were delivering services or funds on behalf of the severely mentally ill -- two distinct groups, he said.

"He spoke to both those camps, and he spoke to them in a very curious and open way and in trying to move the camps forward."

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