Melvin Sabshin, 85, an influential medical director of the American Psychiatric Association for more than 20 years, during a time when the field was undergoing considerable change, died June 4 in London. His family did not disclose the cause of death.
Dr. Sabshin had worked primarily in academia before moving to Washington in 1974 as the APA’s medical director. Months earlier, after vociferous protests at APA meetings, the board of the psychiatric association had voted to delete homosexuality from its directory of mental afflictions, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Dr. Sabshin was part of the APA team that revised the psychiatric manual in 1974, marking an important step in the public and medical acceptance of homosexuality in society.
During the next 23 years at the APA, the primary professional association for U.S. psychiatrists, Dr. Sabshin advocated for increased federal spending on mental health, waged professional battles between psychiatrists and psychologists, helped develop guidelines for the practice of psychiatry, and expanded the association’s presence in research and international circles.
“Dr. Sabshin understood that psychiatry, as a profession, needed a new direction,” current APA President John W. Oldham said in a statement, adding that Dr. Sabshin was “central to the evolution of modern American psychiatry.”
Melvin Sabshin was born Oct. 28, 1925, in New York City and was the son of a doctor. He completed high school at 14 and graduated from the University of Florida in 1944. After receiving his medical degree from Tulane University in 1948, he stayed in New Orleans for an internship.
Dr. Sabshin had reportedly dabbled with Marxism in his youth and, while in New Orleans, led protests to desegregate the city’s Charity Hospital. According to a Psychiatric News article, Dr. Sabshin’s activism led to “inquisitive visits from FBI agents and members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.”
He later denounced communism and, during a visit to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, criticized the treatment of psychiatrists by the communist authorities who sought to stifle internal dissent. Reforms in Soviet psychiatric practices were later put in place.
“The abuse of psychiatry by the Communist regime,” he said in a 2010 interview with Psychiatric News, “left it open to ideological manipulation and a theory of diagnosis that was ideological rather than empirical. The end of this forceful ideological abuse of psychiatry by the state was an enormous victory for the field.”
Dr. Sabshin practiced at a Chicago hospital before becoming a psychiatry professor at the University of Illinois in 1961.
After retiring from the APA in 1997, he became a clinical professor at the University of Maryland’s medical school. He was the co-author of seven books and more than 100 research papers.
In recent years, Dr. Sabshin had divided his time between Washington and London.
His first wife, Dr. Edith Goldfarb Sabshin, who had a psychiatric practice in Washington, died in 1992 after 37 years of marriage.
Survivors include his second wife, Marion Bennathan of Washington and London; a son from his first marriage, Dr. James Sabshin of Woodbridge, Conn.; and four granddaughters.