Leighton's Legacy


In attempting to define some aspects of "Leighton's legacy" I feel that I have to refer to his training, to the width and breath of his professional experiences and to his personality. I am fully aware that it will be impossible to cover in an adequate manner each of these three universes within the space allowed. But I prefer to draw an incomplete profile rather than shy away from the immense debt of gratitude I owe to a mentor that has so significantly contributed to my professional career. He is an internationally renown scientist whom has made his mark by the richness of his interdisciplinary training and through the innovative character of his scientific endeavours in a career that spans almost over seventy years. He had the vision, the stamina and the type of charismatic personality to attract close collaborators to make its professional activities last over such a long period of time.

Alexander H. Leighton was born in Philadelphia. He was fortunate and talented enough to be trained at some of the most prestigious universities in the United States. At Princeton, he received an A.B. in 1932. He earned an M.A. degree from Cambridge in 1936. Shortly thereafter, he undertook his internship and later on his residence in psychiatry at John Hopkins. It was during his psychiatric training at the latter university that he was granted a Social Science Research Fellowship allowing him to carry field work among the Navahos and the Inuit under the sponsorship of Columbia University. In 1941, he joined the U.S. Navy Medical Corps with the rank of Commander. While in the Navy, he was invested with many functions of high responsibility. He was appointed leader of a research team that carried out unique experimental observations among the Japanese American evacuees of the Relocation Center, at Poston Arizona, that allowed him to write The Governing of Men. He also became a member of the Office of War Information and Head of the Morale Analysis Division. He served as leader of the Post-War survey in Japan examining the impact of the Atom bomb on Japanese civilians. After such another exceptional field experience, he wrote Human Relations in a Changing World. In1946, he was awarded one of the prestigious Guggenheim fellowships.

It was in 1946 that he was appointed full professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Cornell University. While at Cornell, he taught also at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations and at the Cornell Medical School in New York. He remained in Ithaca until 1966. (I had the good fortune of becoming a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Cornell in the fall of 1950 and of having Alec as Head of my Doctoral Committee and Thesis Director. I had joined the Cornell Stirling County Research Project in Psychiatric Epidemiology in June of that year.) During these two decades, Alec Leighton was highly active in interdisciplinary research and led three highly significant research projects that became training laboratories to a large number of graduate students and young colleagues from various medical and human sciences. He headed the well-known Cornell Southwest Applied Project among the Navahos from 1948 to 1953; he also started in 1948 the Stirling County studies in which fifty years later he is still an active participant with his wife Dr. Jane Murphy. In 1956 until 1966, he became director of The Cornell Program in Social Psychiatry, a program grouping the previously separate Mid-Town and Stirling County Projects in psychiatric epidemiology. The success of that venture led to his appointment as Professor of Social Psychiatry and Head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health until 1975. Then, for a period of ten years, he was awarded a Canadian National Health Scientist in the Department of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University. I am omitting to list the numerous professional organizations to which he belonged. I shall not mention either the numerous awards and honorific distinctions received, nor will I refer to the numberless functions he performed as senior advisor to Foundations, Government Departments, International organizations, including the WHO, and national institutions. The listing of these would be just too long.

The most striking contribution of Dr. Leighton's career has been the training of many young scientists and his lifelong involvment in interdisciplinary work. His training in biology, physiology, the natural sciences, psychology, psychiatry and the social sciences opened up new scientific vistas and covered a wide spectrum of research endeavours ranging from the vulture's eyes, work relationships among beavers, porpoise life habits to Navaho religion, community management, ethnomedical practices among the Navahos and the Inuit of St. Lawrence Island and most of all his epidemiological studies and reports on mental illness in Stirling County, New York, Western region, Nigeria, Sweden and in some other cross-cultural settings. These studies were carried out with a theoretical framework which integrated into a whole somatic, psychological and cultural components. My Name is Legion is but one example of the cluster of variables that served as a theoretical foundation for the Stirling studies. His pioneering work on such a vast scale in psychiatric epidemiology and cross-cultural psychiatry has yet to be fully assessed. We know, however, that many scientists working in psychiatric research have been strongly influenced in their research design, methodological procedures as well as in their measuring instruments by the Leightonian perspective. This is a legacy that is likely to still become more important because of its rootedness in scores of institutional settings.

Another feature of Alec's career in which he has been successfully engaged (and this is another facet of his legacy) refers to his ability to strike a right balance between fundamental research and applied programs. His Poston daily field observations and analyses as well as those of his difficult mission in Post-War Japan led him to express new principles in the governance of human societies and to underscore the emergence of new types of human relationships in a world that was changing at a fast pace. All his research work in the mental health field (including cross-culturally) and in social psychiatry (Further Explorations in Social Psychiatry) was as much an effort to reveal the etiological components of psychiatric disorders and to make epidemiological counts of the mentally ill at one period in time as it was to formulate new therapeutic processes and to create an awareness for social prevention, taking into account historical configurations, culture patterns, individuals' life habits, people's health trajectories, and socio-environmental risk factors. Caring for the Mentally Ill People stands as a good example of his views on clinical practice. Leighton's teachings in applied anthropology - to talk about something to which I have been exposed - is undoubtedly the best I have ever seen in my anthropological career. He has been one of the founders of the American Society for Applied anthropology.

A paramount aspect of Leighton's career, which enriched his legacy's formal and structural foundations, has been his concern for the publication of research results as articles in learned journals or as full-fledge accounts in book form. He has published extensively alone and with colleagues. Without hesitation, I can say that his books, without exception, were imaginative in scope, conceptually derived from a frame of reference, rigorous and coherent in the development of their component parts in a clear and beautiful style that is accessible to scientists and informed people alike.

Alec Leighton has been among the first promoters of teamwork research in the social sciences. He has devoted his full life to implementing the idea and to being rather successful over the years with a wide "national" variety of field workers. As research director of those research teams, he has always been a researcher with high ethical guidelines and scientific standards that applied in fieldwork to daily note taking and field reporting, data analysis and the writing up of final reports. At the same time, he was highly sensitive to individual researchers' needs and to the imperatives of harmonious social relationships within the team. He committed himself totally to his research and his research associates. His keen interest in people and his altruistic ideals always kept him close to individuals and communities under observation. I was associated with the Stirling County studies from 1950 to 1958 on a formal basis and until 1964 on an informal association. Upon returning to Laval University in 1956, I used extensively, to the best of my knowledge, Leighton's way of doing research. I carried research in Quebec on different topics but when it came to dealing with health and health-related subjects, I invariably found Leighton's theoretical parameters very useful and stimulating. On a number of occasions, I submitted to him the results of my studies : within a short period of time I received detailed relevant comments that enriched further steps to be undertaken.

Upon ending this brief profile I would like to express to Alec the high admiration and esteem I hold of him as an individual and as a scientist. He has been at the beginning and at the heart of my anthropological career. While being trained at Cornell, I learned from him a work method and a way to carry scientific reporting. He reinforced my thinking about the imperative of making research results useful to the collectivities being studied. He continues to be a model and a source of inspiration in my various undertakings. We have remained in close contact since I first met him in Quebec in the spring of 1950 and I was the one who gained the most from such an inspiring relationship. The type of influence that Alec has had on me can be found, of course with different colors, among many hundred others. As a result, "my name is legion"! The assessment of Alec's prolific career will require the research skills of a whole team of interdisciplinary and interinstitutional researchers. I am aware that Alec is in the process of preparing a sketch of his intellectual evolution. I have the conviction that it will be a magisterial piece of work that will contain many lessons for generations to come.

Marc-Adélard Tremblay
matremgt@globetrotter.net
Sainte-Foy, October 2, 1998

Other texts in English :
Convocation Address
A First Fieldwork in Acadia : How I Became a Cultural Anthropologist without Planning It
Marc-Adélard Tremblay


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