Renowned forensic psychiatrist Lawrence Z. Freedman, 1919-2004

October 20, 2004

An internationally recognized authority on the psychiatry of aggression, violence, crime, and terrorism and the interactions between psychiatry and the law, Lawrence Z. Freedman, MD, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, died from a stroke at his home in Chicago on October 6, 2004. He was 85.

Freedman was a pioneer in applying the tools of psychiatry and psychoanalysis to emerging social, legal, political, and behavioral topics, ranging from natural childbirth and the impact of television on children to political assassinations and serial killers.

An authority on the relationship between mental illness and legal responsibility, he helped draft the Model Penal Code, adopted by the American Law Institute in 1962 to help state legislatures update their criminal codes. Later, as his interests turned to the psychiatry of political violence, he served on President Lyndon Johnson's National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. At the request of the Secret Service, he developed a profile of potential presidential assassins.

"Lawrence Freedman was a theoretician with a bio-psycho-social approach who brought a psychoanalytic understanding to political and social issues," recalled Harry Trosman, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. "He was also a friendly and helpful colleague, with a kind of formal warmth. Although he was always very proper, he was a good listener who was interested in your ideas and would help you develop them, help you think about problems in a different way."

William Carroll, PhD, JD, a clinical psychologist and professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, said Freedman was "one of the first people to bring to political discussion the data from the social sciences."

"He was interested in using the insights of psychology and psychiatry to serve the public interest," Carroll said. "He had a very philosophic view of how the professions such as medicine and law ought to serve society as a whole."

Carroll collaborated with Freedman on several cases where questions arose about the mental status of the defendant. They agreed that while a psychiatrist may be able to explain to the jury something about the state of the person’s mind at the time, decisions about blame and criminal responsibility were legal and societal matters. Their work together in the early 1980s helped to change the federal rules of evidence on this issue.

Freedman developed his interest in violence when he served as a medical officer in the Navy during World War II, assigned to care for servicemen imprisoned in American barracks as well as German prisoners of war. "I was struck," he recalled in a 1975 memoir, how various forms of illness had "different rates of incidence and prevalence among men from significantly different backgrounds. Their personalities preceded their illness and explained those differences."

After the war, he joined the medical and legal faculties at Yale, where he "studied the violent offender from both perspectives." He found that violent criminals were "different in origin and personality" from sexual or acquisitive offenders.

He and legal scholar Harold Lasswell, PhD, co-founded the committee on psychiatry and the law at Yale in 1950, which Freedman chaired until 1958. Together, they wrote extensively on law and insanity, the role of the psychiatric expert witness, and co-authored the text "Law, Conformity and Psychiatry."

In 1963, after the murder of President John F. Kennedy, Freedman, then at Chicago, began to study the personality and thought processes of assassins. He found that they were all quite similar in their upbringing, lack of self-esteem, social alienation, search for acceptance, and the desire to overcome personal failure "by ascribing it to the social and political system."

In the mid-1960s, Freedman applied similar techniques to the study of serial killers. He interviewed several such criminals, including John Wayne Gacy--who sent the Freedman family hand-drawn Christmas cards--and testified about their abnormal psychiatric development and delusional thinking at their trials.

In the 1970s, he turned his interest to psychiatric aspects of the emerging threat of terrorism, as seen in the United States in the form of inner city gangs and abroad as militant nationalist movements. Freedman labeled this field of study "polistaraxia"--from polis, the nation state, and taraxia, those who upset it. His goal, he explained, was to understand the conditions "whereby the human animal, whether by distortions within his group or because of conflicts between this group and others, has the propensity to become a killer."

Born Sept. 4, 1919, in Gardner, Mass., the youngest of six brothers, Lawrence Zelic Freedman earned his BS in 1940 and his MD in 1944 from Tufts University. From 1942 to 1946 he served in the United States Navy and the Navy Reserve Medical Corps, rising to the rank of Lieutenant, while beginning his residency training in psychiatry at Yale Medical School and the New Haven Hospital. He joined the faculty at Yale in 1949 as an instructor in psychiatry and mental hygiene and rose to become an assistant professor in 1951 and an associate professor in 1954. In 1955 he completed additional training in psychoanalysis at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.

Freedman spent 1958 as a research associate at Cambridge University, in Cambridge, England, and 1959-60 as a fellow in the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. In 1961, he became the Foundations Fund research professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, where he remained for the rest of his academic career.

At Chicago, Freedman's interests in the connections between personality, society and violence expanded, especially after the assassinations of President Kennedy in 1963 and his brother Robert Kennedy during his presidential campaign in 1968.

In the early 1970s, Freedman and Harold Lasswell, his former colleague on the committee on psychiatry and the law at Yale, formed the Institute of Social and Behavioral Pathology, based at the University. The Institute's purpose was to understand and overcome the difficulties of "adapting the nature of man to the requirements of a successful common life." It served to focus research on the biological, developmental and societal factors that contribute to violent or criminal behavior and the search for strategies to "nullify, reduce and eliminate" such pathology.

The author of more than 100 publications and the author or editor of several books, Freedman served as a consultant to local, national and international organizations concerned with crime, violence and psychiatry, including the Chicago Board of Health, the American Law Institute, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, and the United Nations. Although he retired from the University in 1985, he maintained a private practice in psychoanalysis.

Because of his professional stature, his interest in the intersection of psychopathology, the law and politics, and his natural eloquence, Freedman was a popular teacher and lecturer. He also became a frequent source of expert advice and comment for journalists. An informal survey in December 1975, soon after a failed attack on President Gerald Ford, placed Freedman near the top of the list of prominent "experts" sought for quotes.

"He has this wonderful ability," said his son Thomas Freedman, "to step back and see humanity with all its plusses and minuses."

Nada Stotland, MD, a psychiatrist who worked with Freedman as a medical student, remembered his teaching style as "inspiring, awesome and abstruse." He could be "very deep," in class, she said. "A lot of what he said went right past me. But he also held these evening sessions in his home where we had a dialogue on our own level, and in that setting he was caring and generous as well as lucid and accessible."

"He was a wise man in his own way," William Carroll added, "insightful, with broad interests, very much a humanist. He wrote very well, wanted to major in literature in college and remained something of an artist."

Like many artists, "he was not too practical," Carroll said. "He was a philosopher, a theoretician, not a technician."

Terrorism remained a concern for Freedman, even after retirement. "He was horribly saddened by 9/11," said Tom Freedman. "He had long worried that warfare between nation states was changing and that ethnic and religious groups would turn to terrorism, a fear that has been confirmed."

A resident of the University of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, Freedman is survived by his former wife Dorothy, a writer and former teacher at the University's Laboratory Schools, and their five children: Bart Joseph, a lawyer; Matthew Elias, an artist; Joshua Edward, a psychiatrist; Johanna, a psychologist; and Thomas Learned, a political consultant.

Freedman was buried October 10 in a family plot in Washington, DC. A memorial service is being planned for the winter.

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