albert stunkard

Albert J. “Mickey” Stunkard, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, died July 12 at age 92.

Dr. Stunkard was world-renowned for his research on obesity and eating disorders, which he began in 1955 with the publication of the first description of the night-eating syndrome, a topic to which he returned to at the end of his career.

In 1958, he published a now-classic paper on the failures of dieting, which revealed that only 12% of obese patients treated in a hospital nutrition clinic were able to lose 20 lbs., and only half of these maintained the weight loss one year later. These results improved substantially in the 1970s with the introduction by Dr. Stunkard and colleagues of behavior modification, which provided patients a set of principles and techniques for changing their eating and activity behaviors.

Dr. Stunkard was committed to testing the effectiveness of different weight loss methods through the use of randomized controlled trials. Using this approach, he introduced a novel explanation for the effectiveness of weight loss medications and proposed in 1982 that medications be used indefinitely to treat obesity in the same manner that medications are used long-term to control other chronic conditions. (In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration adopted the long-term prescription of weight loss medications.)
Dr. Stunkard also was an early advocate for the use of weight loss (bariatric) surgery, having found in 1976 that obese individuals reported more favorable food choices and appetite control following surgery. He also published the first modern account of binge eating in obese individuals and contributed to the development of treatments for this disorder and the night-eating syndrome.

Dr. Stunkard’s achievements were recognized in multiple ways, including his continuous receipt of funding from the National Institutes of Health for nearly 50 years. He was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and served as president of the American Psychosomatic Society, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research and the American Association of Chairmen of Departments of Psychiatry.

He received numerous awards, including the 1994 Distinguished Service Award from the American Psychiatric Association, the 2004 Sarnat International Prize from the Institute of Medicine and the 2005 Gold Medal for Distinguished Academic Accomplishments from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He also was the recipient of honorary degrees from Louisiana State University and the University of Edinburgh (Scotland).

Dr. Stunkard received his BS from Yale University in 1943 and MD in 1945 from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

He interned in medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital and then served two years as a physician in the United States Army. After returning to the US, from 1948-1952, he completed a residency and fellowship training in psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

He worked for four years at Cornell Medical College in New York, before joining the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1957. He was appointed chairman in 1962 and in the ensuing decade established what was widely viewed as the nation’s premier department of psychiatry. He was recruited to Stanford University in 1973 to chair the department of psychiatry but returned to the Penn in 1977, where he resumed his renowned program of research and served as interim-chairman in 1996-1997.

Dr. Stunkard is survived by his wife, Margaret Maurin; stepdaughter, Elana Maurin; and two stepgrandchildren.

A memorial service will be held in the fall on campus. Details will be published in Almanac.

Memorial donations may be made to Doctors Without Borders or the Council for a Livable World.