Remembering Jan Fawcett, MD, 1934-2022

Psychiatry chair for 30 years was national leader in depression treatment and research
Jan Fawcett, MD, 1934-2022

Jan Fawcett, MD, who was the Stanley Harris, Sr. Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Rush Medical College for 30 years, passed away peacefully on May 9 at age 88. Fawcett was internationally recognized as a leader in the treatment and study of depression and other severe mood disorders and for his work in suicide prevention, and he trained and mentored many of today’s leaders in psychiatry.

“Anyone who has passed or is passing through the department owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Fawcett. The greatness we have today, our position as a leader in clinical care, research and education, we owe to him,” says Robert Shulman, MD, acting chairperson of what is now the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “Dr. Fawcett put Rush on the map in psychiatry at a national and international level. Who we are today is a product of Dr. Fawcett's vision and work ethic.”

“Jan was one of the early chairs of Rush Medical College and set the model for the clinician, researcher and educator as a triple threat. Rush was so fortunate to have had him as a leader,” says Larry Goodman, MD, the former CEO of Rush University Medical Center and Rush University System for Health and president of Rush University.

A passion for healing

Assuming the leadership of the department in 1973, Fawcett built a robust research program focusing on improving lives. In training the department’s residents, he applied what he called the “Fawcett So What? Test” — whether the research being discussed actually helped patients.

He also inspired residents with his passion for healing. “Those of us who trained under him can certainly regale people with stories of Dr. Fawcett returning from out of town and making hospital rounds at 10 p.m. before going home. He was so tremendously dedicated to his patients,” Shulman says.

“You will see those traits in those of us who learned from Dr.  Fawcett. It is my great hope that residents and young faculty recognize this trait and adopt it for themselves.” 

“He would tell patients ‘if you don’t give up on me, I will never give up on you.’ Patients told me that this saved their lives, gave them hope,” recalls Katie Busch, MD, Fawcett’s wife of more than 30 years and a former forensic psychiatrist at Rush Medical College.

Lenore Opasinski, administrative coordinator in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, worked with Fawcett for 20 years. “He would try whatever he could do to help them patients better,” she says. “Because of him, we were known as the place to go when everything else failed.”

“He also was just the kindest, most gentle person, always had a smile on his face. He always saw the positive side to everything,” Opasinski adds.

“He was never judgmental. He was always looking for reasons why someone behaved poorly,” Busch observes.

An impact on countless people

“Depression is a medical illness. It ranks second only to severe symptomatic heart disease, when considering time lost from work and business,” Fawcett said in a 1992 interview on the occasion of the opening of the Rush Institute for Mental Well-Being, where he was the first director. “The other important point to remember is that depression is a very treatable illness. But only a third of all those with severe depression will get treatment.”

His determination to ease patients’ suffering led Fawcett to help found the Manic-Depressive Association, the forerunner to the national Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). Fawcett first developed the idea for the association “sitting around a dining room table with a few of his patients,” according to John Zajecka, MD, director of the Woman's Board Depression Treatment Research Center, who trained under him.

Fawcett later would be instrumental in getting DBSA’s co-founders to start what became the organization’s first DBSA support group, and he was the alliance’s first medical adviser and the founding chair of its Scientific Advisory Board. 

“He was also instrumental in the start of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention,” Shulman says. “Both organizations have helped untold numbers of individuals and families at times of distress.“

When he received the DBSA’s Legacy of Hope Award in 2016, Fawcett said supporting the organization was the most important thing he had done professionally, “because of the number of people you reach. That translates to a decrease in pain (that is) unprecedented.” 

An expert witness and Oprah adviser

As a researcher, Fawcett focused on finding more effective medications for severe depression and on suicide prevention. He conducted a National Institutes of Mental Health-funded study of depression for two decades and published more than 160 journal articles and 40 book chapters.

He was a co-author of the American Psychiatric Association Practice Guidelines on the assessment and management of suicidal patients. From 2007 to 2012, Fawcett was the chairperson of the Mood Disorders Task Force for DSM-5, the standard diagnostic guide in psychiatry. He also was co-editor of the journal Psychiatric Annals for 25 years.

His expertise made Fawcett frequently in demand as an expert witness in lawsuits related to people who committed suicide. He also provided the prosecution with a psychological profile of the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy after interviewing him in jail, and Fawcett testified for the prosecution in a case against physician-assisted suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian, MD. In addition, Fawcett was a mental health consultant for “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

The DBSA named the Jan Fawcett Humanitarian Award after him and chose him to be its first recipient in 1989. Fawcett also received the Anna Monika Prize, an international award for research in neurobiology and treatment of depressive disorders; the Falcone Prize for affective disorders research from the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Depression; the William C. Menninger Memorial Award for contributions to the study of mental health from the American College of Physicians; and lifetime research awards from the American Association of Suicidology and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Living forever

His life took a major turn after Fawcett was diagnosed with malignant melanoma 30 years into his career. "I was evaluated for metastases. When they found I was free of metastases, I had an epiphany," he said. He retired from Rush, moved to Santa Fe “to watch sunsets” and became a professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

While continuing to teach, conduct research and provide patient care, Fawcett also wrote Living Forever, a science fiction novel based on his own illness and life change. “You read in between the lines (for) his message regarding passion, perseverance, thinking of others, with a hope to have that live forever,” Zajecka says.

Fawcett grew up in Hamburg, New York, and attended the U.S. Naval Academy for two years before completing his bachelor’s degree in science at the University of Rochester. He earned his medical degree from the Yale School of Medicine and completed a psychiatric residency at the University of California’s Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute followed by two additional years of residency at the University of Rochester Strong Memorial Hospital and a two-year research fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health. 

In addition to Busch, Fawcett is survived by his children Robin Fawcett, Holly Fawcett and her husband Bill Taylor, Marc Fawcett and Andrea Fawcett; grandchildren Jessica Fawcett Patel, Brittany Fawcett, Jameson and Marshall Ghalioungui; his sister- and brother-in-law Gretchen and Terrence McCulle; and numerous in-laws, nieces and nephews. Another son, Craig, died in 2007.

Says Zajecka, who worked with Fawcett from his residency through collaborating with him last year on a research paper that’s pending submission, “it is sometimes beyond comprehension how he succeeded in accomplishing so much, whether the direct and indirect success in treating some of the most refractory patients, and the impact on families; developing international advocacy and scientific groups; the multitude of groundbreaking research which changed the face of psychiatry as we know it today; his gift at teaching students and colleagues; or his ability to bring cohesion in professional venues where egos would otherwise be an obstacle toward a goal, and ability to make everyone feel equal.”

An enduring legacy

The legacy of Jan Fawcett, MD, continues in Rush University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, which includes the following department members who trained under Fawcett: