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July 7, 2011

Obituary: Irene Jakab

JakabObitPsychiatry professor emerita Irene Jakab of Brookline, Mass., died June 18, 2011. She was 91.

Jakab designed and directed the John Merck program for mentally retarded emotionally disturbed children at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC), 1974-82. The Merck clinic since has expanded from a 10-bed inpatient program for children to a 33-bed program for patients who have neurodevelopmental disabilities and co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses, across the lifespan, said John McGonigle, a consultant to the program who initially joined Jakab’s staff of “Merckies” as inpatient coordinator shortly after she came to Pittsburgh in 1974.

Serena Merck, the widow of Merck Pharmaceuticals CEO George W. Merck, granted pilot money for the program. Their son, for whom the program is named, had cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities and depression, McGonigle said.

A connection between Jakab and then-WPIC director and psychiatry department chair Thomas Detre  — based in their shared homeland of Hungary — brought the program to Pittsburgh.

Jakab received her medical degree in 1944 at University Ferencz Jozsef in Hungary and graduated cum laude in psychology, education and philosophy in 1947 from Hungarian University in Cluj, Romania.  She earned her PhD in psychology, education and general literature summa cum laude in 1948 at Pazmany Peter University in Budapest.

Following academic appointments in Hungary and Switzerland, Jakab joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School in 1966. She retained an academic position at Harvard throughout her career and was a lecturer on psychiatry at the medical school there at the time of her death.

Jakab also was a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., where an annual award was established in her name. After 40 years on the hospital staff, she received the title of honorary staff psychiatrist in 2006.

Jakab was director of Pitt’s medical student education in child psychiatry, 1982-89. In 1989, Jakab was named professor emerita and left Pittsburgh to return to her home in Massachusetts.

At Pitt, she served on many WPIC and medical school committees. She chaired the WPIC educational resources committee, 1981-83, and the medical school’s coordination of children’s services subgroup in the programs for children with developmental disorders committee.

She served on University Senate organization and procedures committee, 1977-81, as well as on the expressive therapies planning group in the School of Health Related Professions, 1977-81.

Among many professional awards and honors, Jakab was named one of five “Real Pittsburghers” in 1989 by Pittsburgh Magazine for her outstanding personal contributions to the people of the city. She also received a Veterans Administration physicians recognition award in 1990 for contributions to the clinical care of veterans.

McGonigle remembered Jakab as a very caring physican who was closely involved in the lives of those around her. She hand-picked her staff, McGonigle said, adding that she inquired about their families, their plans and their interests.

Priscilla Sloss, who worked with Jakab as a secretary in the Merck program from its inception until Jakab retired from the University, said the staff Jakab chose worked well together and were motivated to please her. “She was a great boss.”

Jakab required the program’s direct-care staff —many of whom started with bachelor’s degrees — to continue their education, McGonigle said, noting that many went on to earn master’s and PhD degrees.

Dorothy Linn, who worked with Jakab as a physical therapist in the program, said Jakab counted her mentorship of the staff as her greatest achievement. “She took pride in their personal and professional accomplishments,” Linn said, noting that the unique program’s continuing service remains a tribute to Jakab’s life’s work.

Jakab was open to indulging staffers’ areas of professional interest, showing flexibility herself in embracing a shift in the ’70s and ’80s from the psychoanalytic therapy approach in which she was trained, to a new applied behaviorial approach. “She was very open to other treatments,” McGonigle said.

She also took an interest in her staffers’ children, offering them career and educational advice as well, and including them all in holiday parties at her home. She maintained the connections she developed, keeping in touch over the years through annual Christmas cards that outlined her year’s highlights in travels, publications, teaching and other professional work.

McGonigle said Jakab also was involved with patients and their families. “They loved her as well,” he said, noting that she not only was a knowledgeable doctor, but a caring person who took time with her patients. She was constantly on the go, yet remained available for people anytime, he said. “Everyone she met, she touched in a very personal way.”

Jakab had interests in psychiatry in art, art therapy and the psychopathology of expression, and published 14 books and numerous papers on a broad range of topics in the fields of psychiatry, child psychiatry, neurology and neuropsychology.

“You walked away impressed” with her many talents that included research, publishing, medicine and neurology, McGonigle said.

She also spoke several languages and had artistic talent of her own, McGonigle said, adding that her home was decorated with a mixture of her own drawings and paintings as well as works created by patients.

Jakab was colorful both in her personality and her impeccable attire, which reflected her artistic flair, he recalled. Although she lived just a few blocks from campus, she cruised to work in a powerful muscle car — a yellow 1968 GTO that  was greatly envied by the staff, McGonigle said.

Jakab was known as well for her sense of humor and wry wit. When putting on makeup, Jakab would quip that she was putting on her “malter-ego,” playing on the Hungarian word for mortar, Sloss recalled with a laugh.

Jakab had no immediate family, but left behind many good friends who functioned as family, Sloss said.

McGonigle said Jakab’s Merckies are planning to gather in her memory, but details remain incomplete.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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