In Memoriam: Influential Yale Psychiatrist Stephen Fleck, who Worked to Help Legalize Birth Control in the State

Stephen Fleck, M.D., professor emeritus of psychiatry and in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine, died on December 19 at age 90.

Fleck and his principal co-investigator, Theodore Lidz, worked from the late 1940s on to change the direction of psychiatry from the purely psychoanalytic to a specialty incorporating social-scientific methodology, medical, behavioral, neurological and public-health factors, and especially familial considerations.

Their research team was a pioneering mix for the time, and included non-M.D. therapists, nurses, social workers and others. The team’s papers were collected in a major book, “Schizophrenia and the Family,” published in 1966. Since then, their work has had a great influence on schizophrenia research.

Born September 18, 1912 in Frankfurt, Germany, Fleck was still a medical student in 1933 when one of his professors told him and others that the Nazis had marked them for arrest. He fled to Holland and after two years there, moved to the United States in 1935. He graduated in 1940 from Harvard Medical School, where he served as a research assistant to Dr. John Rock, who was then conducting the basic research that led to the birth-control pill.

From 1942 to 46, he served in the Army Medical Corps stateside and in Europe, occasionally assisting Army intelligence as well. Following the Battle of the Bulge, he was briefly put in charge of 80,000 German POWs, most of them in need of medical attention. In May 1945, he helped evacuate and treat concentration-camp prisoners and interrogate German prisoners; he also searched concentration-camp records for signs of family and friends who had not escaped Nazi arrest.

Following the war, and a residency in psychiatry at the Phipps Clinic, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Fleck served from 1949 until 1953 on the faculty of the newly founded University of Washington Medical School, where he also received psychoanalytic training. In 1953 he joined the Yale Department of Psychiatry, largely to help begin the long-term research project on schizophrenics and their families. At Yale, he served in numerous administrative capacities, including Psychiatrist-in-Chief of both the Yale Psychiatric Institute (1953-83) and the Connecticut Mental Health Center (1969-83); Director of Residency Training; and Deputy Chair (1969-83).

(Despite an extensive research and publishing record, he always maintained that clinical care and teaching should be first priorities of any academic setting. He refused major administrative positions at several junctures, preferring to concentrate on those priorities.

Fleck was instrumental in the career development of many psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who were taught and mentored by him. In retirement, he continued supervisory and professional service until shortly before his death. He and his late wife, Louise H. Fleck, were active community volunteers and were especially engaged in projects to strengthen the public schools as well as to promote reproductive choice. They were both involved in work on activities that ultimately led to the landmark case Griswold v. Connecticut, making the sale of birth control legal in the state.

Fleck is survived by daughters, Anna F.J. Singer of Tuscaloosa, AL and Carra F. Rockwood of Meriden; a son, Stephen H. Fleck of Cypress, CA.; and four grandchildren. He also leaves a brother, Edgar Fleck of San Francisco, CA and dear friend, Dr. Gertrud Hunziker-Fromm of Zurich, Switzerland.

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