Leiderman led groundbreaking research into infant and child development that helped change the way the world viewed newborns.
June 15, 2021 - By Tracie White
P. Herbert Leiderman, MD, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, who was well known for his early research on mother-infant bonding, died April 1. He was 97.
A clinical psychiatrist and researcher, Leiderman devoted his career to studying infant and child development. His discoveries paved the way for hospitals across the country to allow parents to visit their premature and other fragile newborns in neonatology intensive care units, a practice that continues today.
“Herbert Leiderman was a pioneering leader in child development,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “His openness to challenging current practices led to a much deeper understanding of the social and psychological dynamics between family members. He was a brilliant and passionate physician-scientist who contributed to decades of research at Stanford. He will be missed.”
During the 1970s, Leiderman was part of a movement led by a group of Stanford pediatricians and psychiatrists who believed that newborn infants had more abilities than previously thought, said Thomas Anders, MD, adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who worked with Leiderman on the Stanford faculty.
Advocate for newborns' abilities
“Before that, the understanding was that there wasn’t much that newborns could do, see, hear or react to,” Anders said. “Their research showed that they could see quite well within 9 inches. They could also smell.” Leiderman and his colleagues learned that newborns would turn their heads toward pads soaked with their mother’s breast milk and away from pads soaked with another woman’s milk, Anders said. Leiderman’s research has had a major influence on newborn medicine, said Philip Sunshine, MD, emeritus professor of pediatrics at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, who is known as one of the founding fathers of neonatology.
“We had one baby whose father was a radiology resident,” said Sunshine, who was a pediatrician on the unit. “His wife would sit at the window and look at her baby. The nurses felt very uncomfortable. The head of the nursery said we really ought to let her come in. I said, ‘What a good idea, we really ought to let parents in,’” he said.
“We were talking in a lounge, and Herb was there. He said, ‘You’ve got to study this.’” That was the beginning of a four-year study that found that allowing parents into the nursery improved bonding between mothers and their babies, and didn’t increase the risk of infection.
“That evolved into a game changer as far as neonatal nurseries were concerned,” he said. “We were about the first nursery to allow families to come in.”
Leiderman was born Jan. 30, 1924, in Chicago. He attended the University of Michigan, then joined the U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Program and was sent to the California Institute of Technology and the University of New Mexico for training in meteorology. He earned a master’s in science from Cal Tech and became a weather forecaster, guiding pilots safely across the Atlantic during World War II. After the war, he earned a master’s in psychology from the University of Chicago.
He received a medical degree from Harvard in 1953 and was a faculty member there until moving to Stanford in 1963 as an associate professor of psychiatry. He worked at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System for 20 years and retired from his position as professor at Stanford in the 1990s. He lived in his home on the Stanford campus for 58 years until his death.
Leiderman published more than 100 peer-reviewed journal papers and served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Psychiatry Research in 1964 and the Monographs of Society for Research in Child Development in 1971. He conducted child development research during a yearlong stay in Kenya and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.
'A sense of humor that never stopped'
“He was very warm and had a sense of humor that never stopped,” said Jerome Yesavage, MD, who lived near Leiderman on the Stanford campus. Yesavage, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, remembered Leiderman’s pride in his work with children in Africa and with incarcerated juveniles in the U.S., but mostly he remembered him as a personal friend.
“He was always making a joke,” said Yesavage, the Jared and Mae Tinklenberg Professor. “He was the type of person you wanted to have around you when times were tough because he would cheer you up.”
Deborah Leiderman, MD, said that her father’s interests were wide ranging and that he loved the outdoors, backpacking and hiking until his late 70s. He was an active traveler, heading to such far-flung places as Iran and China. In his later years, he continued to participate in religious and political study groups. He loved the opera and San Francisco museums and started a New York Review of Books discussion group for other emeritus faculty and retired friends.
Leiderman was preceded in death by his wife of 67 years, Gloria Leiderman, who earned a PhD in child development and devoted her career to advocacy for children with mental health needs. Besides Deborah Leiderman, he is survived by daughter Erica L. Rex and a son, Joshua Leiderman, MD. He is also survived by his sister, Lois Leiderman Davitz; son-in-law, Virgil A. Frizzell; and granddaughters Sarah Bilodeau and Abigail Frizzell. His daughter Andrea Leiderman died in 2005.
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