Geneticist Leon Rosenberg Dies at 89

Written by
Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University, Molecular Biology Staff
Aug. 15, 2022

(Photo: Denise Applewhite)

Dr. Rosenberg graduated summa cum laude from the University of Wisconsin in 1954 and received his medical degree from the university in 1957, completing his internship at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. He worked for six years at the National Cancer Institute, where he began treating children with rare genetic disorders, before joining the Yale faculty in 1965.

By 1972, he had become the founding chairman of the school’s human genetics department. He later served as president of the American Society of Human Genetics and, in 1981, made headlines when he defended abortion rights at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Beginning in 1984, Dr. Rosenberg served as dean of Yale’s medical school, leading an institution of more than 900 full-time faculty members while raising money, recruiting professors and launching a new Office of Minority Affairs, part of his effort to support and bolster the number of non-White students and faculty at the school. He left after seven years to become the chief scientific officer at Bristol-Myers Squibb.

The job offered him a chance to help develop new medical treatments and foster links between academia and the pharmaceutical industry. With a desire to return to academia, he was hired at Princeton as a senior molecular biologist and professor.

As Dr. Rosenberg revealed in the essay and in a self-published memoir, “Genes, Medicine, Moods,” he attempted to treat his chronic depression with Prozac before attempting suicide in 1998, around the time he began teaching at Princeton. Dr. Rosenberg was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and said he came to understand that he was “brainsick” when he tried to kill himself.

At times, he presented his case history to his students in an effort to help open conversations about mental health. “It makes no sense to allow stigma, whose underlying premise is that people with mental illness are weak, to cow affected people into being unwilling to be diagnosed,” he wrote in the essay. “It is time that I and other physicians say so.”

Dr. Rosenberg’s honors included the Kober Medal from the Association of American Physicians.