University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Psychological Science

George Albee, Leader in Primary Prevention, Dies at 84

Burlington Free Press
Release Date: July 11, 2006
Author: By Candace Page

George W. Albee, a retired University of Vermont psychology professor and a nationally known advocate for changes in the American approach to mental illness, has died at his home at Longboat Key, Fla., after a brief illness. He was 84.

Albee was a former president of the American Psychological Association, a member of President Carter's Commission on Mental Health and the author of more than 200 articles and book chapters on the merits of mental illness prevention.

He was best known in his profession as an early and outspoken advocate of the belief that most mental illness is the result of social and environmental wrongs -- poverty, racism, sexism -- and not of biochemical defects in the brain. Thus the right approach to mental illness required social change, early intervention and prevention, not simply one-on-one medical treatment of the afflicted, he argued. "Throughout his career, he would say, 'No mass disorder afflicting humankind has ever been brought under control by attempts at treating the individual,'" said Melissa Perry, a public health professor at Harvard and a Highgate native who studied with Albee at UVM.

Albee was a gifted teacher, peerless raconteur and a mentor who inspired devotion in many of his students, friends recalled Monday. He was also something of a character. Once, annoyed by constant requests for entries in biographical dictionaries, he successfully submitted the resume of his dog Otis, describing "Otis P. Albee" as a "a retired hunter, explorer and sportsman." On another occasion, Albee, a critic of the large faculty employed at the UVM College of Medicine, wrote an editorial commentary for The Burlington Free Press that called for the college to be closed. Much of the Given Medical Building "could be used to store hay and silage for the UVM farm," he wrote. "He had such a fantastic ability to tell very humorous stories -- everyone thoroughly enjoyed him. He was approachable, down-to-earth," Perry said.

Albee came to UVM in 1971 after 16 years at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He taught at UVM until his retirement in 1992. In 1975, he established the Vermont Conference on Primary Prevention of Psychopathology, which he led for 17 years as it drew attendees from around the world. The conference explored ways to answer the question, "How do we structure our world to prevent the development of vulnerable people," said Lynne Bond, a UVM professor of psychology. "He really highlighted the marginalization and oppression of people that contributes to their economic, social and psychological difficulties," Bond said. "He believed that unless we look at social change and social justice we are just spinning our wheels."

Albee's views were rooted in part in work he did in the 1950s for a commission appointed by President Eisenhower to study mental-health issues. Albee's task force on manpower in the mental-health professions concluded that society would never have enough money or professionals to treat all mental-health patients. Instead, he said the profession should focus on underlying causes and prevention. This led him to become an early advocate of closing state mental hospitals, which he described as "warehouses for the insane poor," and replacing them with community-based treatment.

Albee's belief that social inequities contributed to mental illness made him a blunt critic of those inequities. "The heart of our social malaise is the primacy of corporate profits over long-range planning for the public good," he told a conference in 1972. "For decades, he was the conscience of the American Psychological Association, pushing us to serve the underserved, to do true community-based, family-oriented psychology," said Pat DeLeon, a past president of the organization. Albee served as president of the APA in 1969-70. In his later years, he was heaped with honors, including the organization's gold medal for public service and a lifetime achievement award in applied preventive psychology. "He clearly was decades ahead of everybody in health promotion and disease prevention. He was a great role model," DeLeon said.

Albee leaves his wife, Margaret Tong, and four children from his first marriage. His son, Luke, said a memorial service will be held Aug. 20 in Memorial Lounge in the Waterman Building at UVM.

Last modified July 26 2010 10:13 AM