Avid researcher, talented psychiatrist




4-10-1949 - 1-2-2013

PROFESSOR Isaac Schweitzer, a loved and highly respected psychiatrist, academic, professional colleague and friend to so many over the years, has died at the age of 63 of a brief and unexpected illness.

Unassuming, thoughtful, immensely caring and skilled, he was a unique combination of gravitas and humility.

Professor Schweitzer, affectionately known as Issy, graduated in medicine from the University of Melbourne in 1973, completing his diploma in psychological medicine in 1978. He trained in psychiatry at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Parkville Psychiatric Unit in the program offered by Melbourne University, where Professor Brian Davies, the first Cato professor of psychiatry and head of department, quickly recognised his potential.

His combination of intelligence and empathy - he showed a caring disposition with even the most challenging patients - distinguished him from the outset. As a young registrar, his precocious maturity and distinctive demeanour were slightly incongruous with his boyish good looks, which he never lost. He had a genuine interest in novel ideas, which fuelled his passion for further study and, later on, his career in research.

As a young psychiatrist, he went overseas to continue his training, first to London (St Thomas' Hospital) and then New York, where he was accepted into the Consultation Liaison Psychiatry Fellowship program at Montefiore Medical Centre, Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In 1982, he was awarded the esteemed Milton Rosenbaum prize in psychiatry.

He returned to Australia in the mid-1980s, having gained considerable skills in psychoanalytic psychiatry, which proved a wonderful balance for him in his clinical work, while he pursued biological causes of psychological illness in his research career. In 1988 he completed his doctor of medicine degree in, what at the time was a novel area of research, the body's cortisol and stress response in depression.

His extensive publication record reveals that his research interests, while broad and inclusive, focused mainly on understanding brain changes and pharmacological treatments of mood disorders, especially new treatments.

As a testament to his curious and open mind, in recent years Professor Schweitzer was involved in several randomised clinical trials using nutrition and complementary medicines for the treatment of a range of psychiatric disorders. He was a leader in research on the sophisticated use of electroconvulsive therapy, and was at the forefront of brain-imaging research and the use of an individual's genetic composition to predict the best response to medication. Beyond his primary interest in mood disorders, he contributed to many studies exploring other psychiatric conditions such as dementia, psychosis and anxiety disorders.

He was repeatedly successful in gaining National Health and Medical Research Council grants in the field of depression research, and collaborated with many colleagues from several institutions on a vast number of clinical trials, in a manner that was both informative and respectfully consultative.

An active member of several scientific and medical organisations, he was chairman of the Australasian Society of Biological Psychiatry for 10 years, and held the offices of associate secretary treasurer and vice-president of the World Federation of Societies of Biological Psychiatry. He sat on numerous research, policy and ethics committees, chairing the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists' Board of Research. He was a member of the Psychosurgery Review Board of Victoria, and an editorial board member of the psychotropic section for the therapeutic guidelines.

He was frequently invited to speak in Australia and overseas on the management of mood disorders, making hundreds of presentations in his warm, sonorous voice. A highlight was his delivery of the Beattie Smith Lecture in 2006 - the highest honour that Melbourne psychiatry bestows on its leaders.

In 1995 he established a research unit, which he headed, at The Melbourne Clinic and in 2000 his position there was formalised with his appointment to the Healthscope chair of psychiatry. He also became medical director of the clinic in 2001 and balanced the many aspects of this onerous position, providing sound directorship of the largest private psychiatric hospital in Australia in addition to the care of thousands of patients. Due to his leadership, The Melbourne Clinic and the research unit have evolved into a world-class teaching and research facility, meaning a partnership between Healthscope and Melbourne University that has been intellectually and financially fruitful.

Professor Schweitzer's generosity to colleagues showed in his willingness to give second opinions on challenging clinical problems. For more than two decades he passed on his clinical skills and academic knowledge through his supervision of more than 50 registrars and countless medical students, PhDs and MDs.

He died from a brief and unexpected illness. A devoted family man, he is survived by his wife, Suzanne, sons Oliver and Edward, and his mother, Fredzia.

Related Articles