David Pearl, NIMH scientist

Thursday, March 10, 2011; 10:41 PM

David Pearl, a scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health who in 1982 issued a government report about the links between violence on television and aggressive behavior in children, died Feb. 23 at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson after a heart attack. He was 90 and had been a resident of Columbia.

As chief of NIMH's behavioral sciences research branch, Dr. Pearl led a two-year effort to compile and analyze the conclusions of more than 2,500 studies on the effects of televised violence.

His report served as an update for a 1972 preliminary report by the Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee, which had first suggested a direct link between on-screen images of violence and acts of aggression by children and teenagers.

Dr. Pearl's report said that earlier claim was "significantly strengthened" by more recent scientific research.

Onscreen violence, he said, begets more onscreen violence as viewers become inured to what they are watching.

By age 16, for example, the average person has seen 18,000 murders on television. "On the basis of the amount of exposure," Dr. Pearl told the New York Times in 1985, "certain things that initially would have been beyond the pale become more readily accepted."

The NIMH conclusions made national headlines and drew rebuttals from television network executives, who pointed to another study, financed by NBC, that found no evidence that onscreen violence caused aggressive behavior patterns in viewers.

Dr. Pearl said he realized that government regulation was not the right route to cleaner TV. "Viewers will be interested in watching programs with less violence," he told Time magazine in 1982. "The television industry should not be as definite in thinking this [violence] is what the public wants."

David Pearl was born in Slupia, a shtetl in Poland. He moved to the United States as a boy and grew up in Chicago. He graduated from the old Central YMCA College in Chicago and then joined the Army and served in Europe during World War II.

After the war, he received a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Chicago.

He worked from 1951 to 1962 at a Veterans Administration hospital in Michigan, where he researched schizophrenia and served as a therapist for veterans. Dr. Pearl retired in 1984 after working for NIMH for more than 20 years.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Gertrude Schwarz "Trudie" Pearl of Columbia; two daughters, Susan Stollman of Columbia and Ruth Pearl of La Grange, Ill.; a brother; and three grandchildren.

- Emma Brown

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