Martin M. Katz might never have begun his groundbreaking scientific career were it not for a quirk in his vision: He was colorblind. As a budding chemist in college, that flaw forced him to reconsider his options. The result, eventually, was a PhD in psychology from the University of Texas in 1955. He went on to become a key figure in neuropsychopharmacology.
Katz, who died Jan. 12 at age 89, spent more than two decades at the National Institute of Mental Health.
Among his accomplishments: In a multi-institutional collaborative project at NIMH, developing a behavioral methodology to study the effects of new antidepressant drugs; designing the Katz Adjustment Scales, which created an easy-to-use checkoff method for laypeople to observe and measure over time the symptoms of mentally ill patients and track their behavioral changes from treatment; and creating the multivantage model of measurement, which insisted on the necessity of assessing patient, family, and professional views of patient symptoms and experience.
The Post spoke with Katz last month.
Q: You’ve said you think a lot of your success was fortuitous. How so?
A: I was looking for a job in California [after graduate school], but I didn’t want to do clinical work. That was my problem. So I went back to Texas to do a postdoc. A woman who was the dean of the school was experimenting with nutrition of underfed Latino kids in Texas schools. She wanted to get a psychometric background on these kids. That was really the beginning of my career.
I subsequently got a job with the VA in Washington, D.C., in psychometrics. As I was getting ready to leave that position, a psychiatrist at [the National Institutes of Health] asked if I would be interested in a job. But I went out to visit the NIH campus, and it was beautiful. They had a committee of scientists overlooking all the scientific work going on in the country.
I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe I was dropped into this setting. They described my job as setting up an advisory committee to oversee psychiatric drug research for the next 20 years. Any opportunity to work with people like this was beyond anything I could have expected.
I was executive secretary for two years, and it identified the fact for me that I really wanted to be a researcher. That’s what I was made to be.
Q: You were part of the first wave of biopsychiatric researchers, involved in research on imipramine [an antidepressant]. What was that like?
A: In psychology, in the field of mental disorders, you have what’s called the biological disorders like schizophrenia. When you move into the other half of mental disorders, you have depression. I was inclined more biologically than most psychologists — not many psychologists have a background in chemistry — so you’d think I would be the first to roll over [and embrace the biological roots of depression], but I didn’t. I thought it was psychological, like everyone else. But then you take someone chemically depressed for three years and in two to three weeks of treatment you see a completely different person walk into the interview room. That was powerful.
Q: What was your role in that early research?
A: This was a grand National Institutes of Health study among six hospitals. It was truly multidisciplinary. We needed a pharmacologist to study the drug, a biochemist to study the chemistry of it and a psychiatrist to diagnose the depression. My role was the behavioral analysis. I developed a battery of tests. What they had been doing up to then was simply labeling depression as severe, not severe, mild. My position was you take all the elements apart. What is the mood profile, motor activity, cognition? So I developed a battery of established psychological tests for every patient for whom we took biological data.
Q: Of what are you most proud?
A: We were responsible for one major finding that’s still not fully accepted. The going line was the chemical effects of antidepressants are immediate but the clinical effects don’t happen until two weeks later. We determined from my multivantage method that the clinical actions of those drugs start in the first few days. . . . Others were measuring severity of the disorder. Real improvement might not happen for weeks, but did the drugs have effects on the elements of behavior? Yes, clearly they do. That’s what we found out.
You have to understand: 50, 60 years ago psychiatry didn’t even know how to evaluate a treatment if it came along.
Q: What advice do you have for someone starting out in neuropsychopharmacology today?
A: I think it’s a great field. There’s a lot to be done. If you’re smart, you pick a target that’s maybe doable. Don’t put yourself up against a brick wall or you’ll spend your life spinning. When I came across depression, suddenly I saw openings. Get yourself a target that’s approachable and go after it.