Beatrix “Betty” Hamburg, a medical educator and researcher who was the first openly black student admitted to Vassar College, the first black woman to graduate with a medical degree from the Yale School of Medicine and who helped advance the concept of peer counseling during a career focused on child and adolescent psychiatry, died April 15 at her daughter’s home in Washington. She was 94.
The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, said her daughter, Margaret “Peggy” Hamburg, who served as New York City’s health commissioner and later led the Food and Drug Administration under President Barack Obama.
In a career spanning six decades, Betty Hamburg was president in the 1990s of the William T. Grant Foundation, a private foundation in New York that finances social science research, served on the President’s Commission on Mental Health during the Carter administration and directed the child psychiatry divisions at Stanford University medical school and Mount Sinai medical school in New York.
Dr. Hamburg was matriarch of a prominent family in science and government. Her husband, psychiatrist David A. Hamburg, was a past president of the Carnegie Corp. of New York, the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Dr. Hamburg gravitated to the sciences as a young woman and, in 1940, was recruited to attend Vassar College — the last of the elite “Seven Sisters” colleges to knowingly integrate, a spokeswoman said.
“Some students have told me that they really believed there was no such thing as an intelligent Negro,” she told Vassar Quarterly in 1946, two years after receiving a bachelor’s degree in zoology. “They had never known one.” Another black student had graduated in the 1890s but “passed” as white at the time.
By that time, she was at Yale, where, she later recounted in a university video, the primary hurdle was her gender, not her race.
“It wasn’t a very big deal to be an African American at Yale, but it was much more of a challenge to be a woman,” she said. In medical school classrooms, women would answer a question only to be ignored “as if talking into the wind.” She went on what she called a “crusade to help women to just hold their own, just to be an equal in the classroom.”
At first, Dr. Hamburg planned on studying pediatrics but found herself drawn to behavioral studies and psychiatry. After completing medical school in 1948, she worked in the psychiatry departments in the medical colleges of Stanford and Harvard universities, in addition to what is now Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Weill Cornell Medical College, both in New York City, where she retired about a decade ago.
“She became one of the nation’s leading experts on the problems of adolescence and different stages of adolescence . . . during an era in which most people simply didn’t really think about them in any particular way or fashion,” Jack D. Barchas, chairman of Weill Cornell Medical College’s psychiatry department, said in a 2015 video announcing Dr. Hamburg and her husband had been awarded a humanitarian prize.
In the 1960s and 1970s, she worked to advance the concept of peer counseling for teenagers — the idea that support groups led by peers rather than authority figures would be most effective for young people in need of guidance. This was an era, she said, when Harvard clinical psychologist Timothy Leary was urging students to “turn on, tune in, drop out” by using hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD.
“I realized that it was not going to be particularly welcomed by the students to say to them ‘You know, the things you’re doing are crazy and you’re getting to be basket cases,’ ” she explained in a video her son posted on Vimeo.com. “I felt that that was not a fruitful approach.”
After suggesting the students work in peer groups, she recalled others remarking, “This is the craziest idea ever suggested. Who thinks that adolescents are going to be able, are equipped, to help other adolescents?”
As she organized and executed the peer counseling programs, Dr. Hamburg said she saw how the students were learning to work together and to better understand themselves and others.
“She taught high school kids to essentially say to their friends, ‘I’m worried about you . . . I’m concerned. I miss the old you,’ and so she implemented that at Stanford, and then it took hold in California and moved across the country and over to Europe,” said Virginia Anthony, the former executive director of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “It was a very significant preventative concept.”
Dr. Hamburg described early adolescence as “the phase during which young people are just beginning to engage in very risky behaviors, but before damaging patterns have become firmly established.” She identified this time as an opportunity to intervene to ensure young people go on to successful adult lives.
“She was truly a pioneer in understanding the importance of stress in the lives of children very early on before we appreciated how long-lasting the effects of trauma are in early life and adolescence,” said Huda Akil, a co-director and senior research professor at the Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience Institute at the University of Michigan. “People used to think kids were pretty resilient . . . they could take things and bounce back. In time, we have learned how formative those years are in long-term emotional health, how they set the course for somebody’s life forever.”
Dr. Hamburg and her husband studied the biology of stress — physical, mental and situational — on how people cope. They co-wrote in 2004 a book, “Learning to Live Together: Preventing Hatred and Violence in Child and Adolescent Development.”
Akil explained how, when looking at the needs of young refugees, Dr. Hamburg’s work has shown the importance of assessing their mental health, in addition to physical and medical issues.
“She always spoke about the importance of child development,” Akil said. “She understood in a truly insightful way that adolescents might learn a lot more from each other than authority figures. ”
Beatrix Ann McCleary was born in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 19, 1923. She was a toddler when her father, a surgeon, died. She was raised by her widowed mother, who became a social worker and teacher, and her grandparents, a Methodist minister and a homemaker who lived on Long Island.
Besides her husband of 66 years and her daughter, both of Washington, survivors include a son, Eric Hamburg, a writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles; and three grandchildren.
Dr. Hamburg was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society of Medicine and a member of the National Academy of Medicine.
She said a pivotal moment in her life came in college, when she met first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband was a longtime Vassar trustee. Dr. Hamburg described being touched most by Roosevelt’s views on social justice and her ability to reach out to the “kind of people who can be alienated.”
It left an “indelible imprint,” Dr. Hamburg said in the family’s video. “I didn’t think about her every day . . . but I’m sure there was a kind of rudder that you’d have on a boat that guides you in a certain way.”