Hans Steiner, child and adolescent psychiatrist, dies at 76

The Stanford Medicine psychiatrist was an expert in the development of psychopathologies and a beloved mentor to many.

- By Nina Bai

Hans Steiner said that a childhood spent in post-World War II Austria led him to focus on helping young people with few resources.
Remy Steiner

Hans Steiner, MD, emeritus professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, died Oct. 17 in Palo Alto at the age of 76. He is remembered for his wide-ranging research on child and adolescent psychiatry, love of writing, and generosity in mentoring younger psychiatrists.

Over his four-decade career at Stanford Medicine, Steiner made contributions to numerous fields, including eating disorders, juvenile delinquency, trauma, sports psychology and forensic psychiatry. He was interested in many aspects of personality development, such as defense styles — the unconscious mechanisms we use to reduce the impact of unwelcome realities. He developed a 71-item questionnaire, known as the response evaluation measure, or REM-71, to assess such styles. 

“Hans Steiner made a profound and lasting impact on the field of child and adolescent psychiatry,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “His extensive studies on aggression, antisocial behavior and the psychopathologies associated with trauma have helped countless patients. And his warmth, humor and optimism touched everyone around him.”

In his clinical practice, Steiner believed that psychiatric treatment should be tailored to the developmental needs of each patient, taking into account social context and the patient’s age, psychology and biology.

“His patients loved him,” said Richard Shaw, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “He had some patients who started in adolescence that he saw to adulthood. He took patients from the depth of despair and pathology to realizing their ambitions as people.”

Steiner always had other people in mind and took many young psychiatrists under his wing, guiding them in their research and their careers, his colleagues said.

“As a mentor, he was really able to help people see the qualities and potential that they had before they were even aware of them,” Shaw said. “His confidence and belief in his mentees helped the people around him accomplish things that may not have been possible without his influence.”

“Steiner was an exemplary mentor, always identifying opportunities for trainees to grow within and understand the field of child and adolescent psychiatry,” said Victor Carrion, MD, the John A. Turner, MD, Endowed Professor for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and vice-chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “He mentored a number of our faculty and helped build the Division of Child Psychiatry and Development into what it is today.”

Steiner also nurtured a lifelong passion for writing, which he did in German and English. He wrote poetry, short stories and novels, in addition to non-academic books on psychiatry. In 2008, he co-founded the Pegasus Physician Writers group at Stanford Medicine to encourage physicians and medical students to develop their creative writing skills, which he believed would make them better doctors.

Hans Steiner

“I find that my writing and my psychiatric practice mesh beautifully,” Steiner wrote on his website. “As I help patients develop and reshape the narrative of their lives, I employ similar skills when I write about fictional and non-fictional characters. My practice and my creative writing stand in a constant, refreshing dialectic which invigorates both.”

From Vienna to Palo Alto

Steiner was born on June 27, 1946, in Vienna, Austria, a year after the end of World War II. He grew up in a working-class family that struggled to make ends meet as Austria rebuilt itself after the war. In 1965, he became the first in his family to attend university, graduating from the University of Vienna with a doctor of medicine degree in 1972.

In his first year at the university, he met his wife, Judith, an American traveling in Europe, on a blind date. They were married in 1967.

He completed residencies at SUNY Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1978, Steiner was hired as the assistant director of psychosomatic inpatient service at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, which fulfilled his wife’s wish to return to the San Francisco Bay Area. He joined the Stanford School of Medicine faculty in 1981 as clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

During his career, Steiner authored and edited more than 500 articles, abstracts, reviews and books. He received the Outstanding Mentor Award from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry nine times and was a Lifetime Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

He became an emeritus professor in 2009, but remained active in research, patient care and his numerous writing projects. In 2011, he was named the director of Stanford Medicine’s Program in Psychiatry and the Law, which provides forensic evaluations for legal purposes, such as competency to stand trial and mental states.

In 2017, he published Your Secret Mind, with co-author Rebecca Hall, a medical writer and former research assistant in his lab. The book helped readers understand and gain access to their unconscious mind, especially through creativity. It stemmed from a popular class he taught for many years to undergraduates and adults.  

Steiner’s seemingly indefatigable energy for his many endeavors was made possible by his disciplined time management, his wife said. His strategy was to dedicate one day a week to each project — one day for consultations, one day helping people with their papers and so on.

Steiner’s father had been a swimming coach, and Steiner was always athletic. He enjoyed skiing, biking and playing tennis. His interest in sports also extended to studying the mental health of athletes.

In his last years, Steiner was working on a novel, his second. (His first was written in German when he was a medical student and typed by his wife on a Smith Corona portable typewriter.) His unfinished second novel was based on the experiences of his family in post-war Vienna, the city that would always represent home to him.

In his own words, Steiner described how his youth influenced his life’s work. “From these brief sketches of my early life, one easily can understand how I became interested in helping youth, athletes, people in all kinds of trouble, with few resources, and how I to this day relish teaching as a tool to bring forward in time the wisdom and knowledge of past generations,” he wrote.

In addition to his wife, Steiner is survived by his sister, Britta Schmid; his three children: Remy, Hans-Christoph and Joshua; and four grandsons.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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