Jonas Robitscher, 60, a lawyer and forensic psychiatrist who crusaded against what he regarded as abuses and burgeoning power his profession holds in socieity, died at his home here Wednesday of cancer.
A lean, strapping six-footer with a shock of silver hair, Dr. Robitscher earned a reputation as a whistle-blower in some circles of American psychiatry after the publication last year of his book, "The Powers of Psychiatry," a controversial critique of that discipline.
He wrote and lectured that courts relied too often on dubious psychiatric opinions and argued that his colleagues held too much power in defining mental illness and what makes a "normal" person. He often cited Nazi Germany's experimentation with mental patients and Russia's use of psychiatrists to imprison dissidents in hospitals as evidence that 1984 was much closer than just three years away.
In his latest book, he urged that much tighter controls be placed on court-ordered electroshock treatments and castration, sterilization and lobotomies. He said his profession should be policed for abuses.
"Courts and agencies of government increasingly rely on mental health professionals to make decisions that affect the freedoms of millions," he wrote. "But are psychiatrists always qualified to make these decisions about others?"
Dr. Robitscher never doubted, however, that psychiatry has a potential to heal.
For the past decade, Dr. Robitscher taught, lectured, wrote and had his own small practice in Atlanta, where he held the Henry R. Luce chair in law and behavorial sciences at Emory University. As a forensic psychiatrist, he was often consulted by courts around the country on such issues as criminal responsibility, sterilization, abortion and the prolongation of life. He wrote "Pursuit of Agreement: Psychiatry and the Law," and contributed to another book, "Eugenic Sterilization."
A native of New York City, he graduated from Brown University in 1942 and earned his law degree in 1948. After working briefly as an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission, he decided to become a physician and returned to the George Washington University School of Medicine, graduating in 1955.
Dr. Robitscher was the director of the psychiatry program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and lectured in law at Villanova University in Philadelphia. In 1972, he moved to Atlanta to become a professor in both the law and medical schools at Emory.
In 1976 the American Psychiatric Association presented Dr. Robitscher its Isaac Ray award for Outstanding work in legal psychiatry. He received George Washington University's alumni achievement award in 1979. Last year, the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law presented him its Golden Apple award for his work in forensic psychiatry.
He is survived by his wife, Jean, his two daughters, Jan and Christine, and a son, John.