The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

David Hamburg, honored for efforts to end global violence, dies at 93

David Hamburg at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar amendment to the Soviet Threat Reduction Act of 1991.
David Hamburg at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar amendment to the Soviet Threat Reduction Act of 1991. (Carnegie Corporation of New York)

On May 20, 1975, David A. Hamburg, a psychiatrist at Stanford University and an expert in the study of stress, arrived at his office to find a stressful situation of his own: His door was papered over with urgent messages from Stanford officials, the State Department, newspapers and terrified families.

Three Stanford students and a Dutch colleague, all working at a university-backed research station in Tanzania, had been kidnapped by armed militants from the neighboring country then known as Zaire. The captors ferried the terrified students to a compound on the other side of Lake Tanganyika, asking for half a million dollars and a shipment of arms in exchange for their release.

Dr. Hamburg left immediately for Africa but found information and help scarce. Only after 10 weeks of delicate negotiations did the rebels free all the students. (The participants agreed not to reveal the terms of the deal, but news accounts reported that Stanford, the families and other parties paid the rebels a total of $40,000.)

Dr. Hamburg later told an oral historian that his experience was transformational, exposing him to “the worst problems of the world — hatred and violence and severe poverty and disease.” The ordeal inspired a radical career pivot: from psychiatry and academic medicine to philanthropy and public service.

Dr. Hamburg, whose service as head of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and other prestigious organizations was honored by the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, died April 21 at a hospital in Washington at 93. The cause was ischemic colitis, obstructed blood flow to the large intestine, said his daughter, Margaret A. Hamburg.

By the mid-1970s, Dr. Hamburg left Stanford and headed the Institute of Medicine — as the health policy arm of the National Academy of Sciences was then known — where he launched initiatives on health and behavior and the prevention of disease in developing and underserved communities.

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From 1982 to 1997, he led the Carnegie Corp., a multibillion-dollar charitable foundation. There, he promoted peer counseling and after-school programs in U.S. middle schools and backed projects to improve K-12 education. He also marshaled foundation resources for efforts to prevent war and genocide through academic study and support of intellectuals, diplomats and officials working behind the scenes to end conflicts.

Dr. Hamburg viewed his policy work as a direct, if unexpected, outgrowth of his experience as a physician. In 2009, he told an audience at a Carnegie event that he sought to apply principles of public health to foundation efforts to promote peace.

“Ounce of prevention, ton of cure,” he said.

As early as 1985, Dr. Hamburg urged academics to devote greater study to the underlying causes of terrorism and violence, writing in a Carnegie Corp. annual report that scholars treated it as “almost a nonsubject.”

“The subject of violence is old wine,” Dr. Hamburg told the New York Times when the report came out. “The new bottle is the technology enabling the contagion to spread.”

In 1994, Dr. Hamburg helped establish the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. The commission, which he co-chaired with former secretary of state Cyrus R. Vance, focused in particular on conflicts in Africa and the unfolding ethnic violence in the Balkans.

The commission recommended seeking out early warning signs of violence and promoting economic justice, human rights and cooperation among inter­national, national and local institutions to stabilize hot spots.

Then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said that the commission’s 1997 report served as “one of our major reference points” for U.N. peace efforts.

“David was a psychiatrist who rose beyond that field to bring concepts of patient care and patient dignity to the general community,” said Herbert Pardes, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia and Cornell medical schools and former president of the New York-Presbyterian hospital system. “This was prophylaxis for peace.”

Dr. Hamburg held appointments at the National Institute of Mental Health, Harvard University and the Weill Cornell Medical College as well as at Stanford. He often collaborated with his wife, Beatrix Hamburg, a psychiatrist and researcher who specialized in child and adolescent development.

“He was very much a large-scale thinker,” said former congressman Rush D. Holt Jr. (D-N.J.), a physicist and chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where Dr. Hamburg served as president in 1984. “Everybody knew David Hamburg, and he knew everybody — and they all wanted his advice.”

Dr. Hamburg once recalled President Bill Clinton’s insistence that “there was no way that he could have known more than a few weeks beforehand” about the imminent threat of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when as many as 1 million people were killed over 100 days.

Dr. Hamburg said he told Clinton that he had witnessed the seeds of such tribal conflict as early as the 1970s, when he had visited Africa for research.

People say “you can never know until the last minute,” Dr. Hamburg remarked to an audience at a 2010 event hosted by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. “Nonsense.”

In 1996, Clinton awarded Dr. Hamburg the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honoring his work toward “understanding human behavior, preventing violent conflict, and improving the health and well-being of our children.”

Dr. Hamburg’s citation lauded him for “teaching us about the challenges and difficulties of raising children in a rapidly transforming world” and stressing the need for “families, schools, and communities to work together in our children’s interest.”

David Allen Hamburg was born in Evansville, Ind., on Oct. 1, 1925. His grandfather was a pushcart peddler who had fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Latvia in 1900 and settled in the Indiana town. Dr. Hamburg said that his family history inspired his work fighting genocide.

Dr. Hamburg graduated from Indiana University in 1944 and its medical school in 1947. One of his early influences was “Men Under Stress” (1945), a book for a popular audience by Roy R. Grinker and John P. Spiegel, psychiatrists who had served as medical officers during World War II. They recounted their efforts to treat stress associated with servicemen, including combat fatigue.

As a medical trainee working with Grinker at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Dr. Hamburg treated patients with severe burn injuries, polio and leukemia, hoping to understand “how is it that people could maintain a sense of worth as a person, and maintain significant human relationships, and mobilize some hope for the future,” as he told a Carnegie Corp. oral historian in 1998.

He added that at the time he felt doctors had little to offer combat veterans under their care. But Grinker and Spiegel’s book “added a kind of dimension of hope about the therapeutic side of the field,” he said, and he decided to pursue specialty training in psychiatry.

At Yale University, he studied the impact of stress on the brain, working to develop tests to more precisely measure cortisol and other stress hormones, and analyzing the activation of stress responses in people who were depressed.

He also met and began working with his future wife, who was the first openly black woman to graduate from Vassar College and the first black woman to graduate from Yale’s medical school.

In 1961, the Hamburgs moved to Stanford, where Dr. Hamburg became psychiatry department chairman and expanded his studies to the evolution of human violence.

After advances in gene sequencing revealed that humans share roughly 99 percent of their DNA with their closest ape relatives, Dr. Hamburg began studying chimpanzee behavior for insight into the genetically based origins of human aggression.

The work took place at a 27-acre outdoor lab in California and a wilderness station in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, where he collaborated with the zoologist Jane Goodall — and where the students fell into the clutches of the rebel forces.

Dr. Hamburg received the Public Welfare Medal of the National Academy of Sciences and other awards, many with his wife, who died in 2018.

Survivors include two children, Eric Hamburg of Los Angeles, a writer and filmmaker, and Margaret A. Hamburg of Washington, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration during the Obama administration and is the chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and three grandchildren.

In a 2002 interview, talk show host Charlie Rose asked Dr. Hamburg if violence was inevitable in the world. “It’s even worse than that,” he replied. “We are a very contentious species and a very dangerous species, and all the more so now.”

But there had to be a solution, Dr. Hamburg insisted.

“We’ve got to find it,” he said. “We’ve just got to say, war is not like the weather — that comes and goes, and we have to live with it and roll with the punches. We’ve got to mobilize human ingenuity to find ways to prevent it.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that three Stanford University graduate students were kidnapped by armed militants in Africa in 1975. One was a graduate student, and two others were undergraduates. The story has been revised.

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