Brendan Maher, 84, mental health pioneer

Brendan Maher was also a Harvard psychology professor. He twice served as chairman of the psychology department. Brendan Maher was also a Harvard psychology professor. He twice served as chairman of the psychology department. (Kris Snibbe/ Harvard News Office)
By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / May 11, 2009
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Brendan Maher, a Harvard psychology professor, took the study of mental illness out of the doctor's offices of the mid-20th century and into the lab, laying the groundwork for current genetic studies.

"He taught the field to count rather than simply rate or describe," said Mark F. Lenzenweger, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton. "Although straightforward, this was a paradigm shift, a transformational moment for clinical psychology."

Dr. Maher, who lived in Weston for many years and was dean of the faculty at Brandeis University in the 1960s and later dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, died March 17 of prostate cancer at his home in Durham, N.C. He was 84.

"He was a wonderful mentor to students, and he particularly liked to work on studies that had practical application," said Courtenay Harding, a Boston University psychology professor and director of BU's Institute for the Study of Human Resiliency. She is a former student of Dr. Maher.

Born in Lancashire, England, Dr. Maher was a World War II veteran. He joined the Royal Navy in 1942 just before he turned 18.

In his 1996 memoir, "Passage to Sword Beach," he described working as the navigation officer aboard the lead minesweeper forging the Royal Navy's D-day attack on Sword Beach in Normandy. The book grew from Mr. Maher's efforts to transcribe his war diaries for his children.

"He got three pages typed, and I said 'I'll do it,' " said his wife, Barbara (Wood). "The book grew with my questions and his memories."

In June 1945, Dr. Maher was wounded while sweeping mines in Holland and spent a year in the hospital recovering from an explosion that ravaged his face and jaw. Plastic surgery saved his appearance, his wife said.

They met after the war at Ohio State University in Columbus. Dr. Maher had earned his undergraduate degree in 1950 from Manchester University and won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in America.

"They asked him where would you like to study. He said 'Princeton, Yale, or in Colorado,' " said his wife, who earned her doctorate in psychology at Ohio State. "He had to look up where Columbus was."

They were married for 56 years.

"Bren had a great capacity for enjoying life and enjoying what he did," his wife said. "He was always balanced by a wonderful sense of humor. He was very witty. He was very light-hearted but serious at the same time."

As newlyweds, the Mahers lived in England, where Dr. Maher worked in the prison system.

Dr. Maher also did research at Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Copenhagen.

He pioneered studies on schizophrenia, probing the nature of disorganized thinking and how delusions form. His 1966 book, "The Principles of Psychopathology: An Experimental Approach," became a landmark text in the field.

He worked at Harvard as a lecturer beginning in 1960 and later took a post at Brandeis. He enjoyed talking about his days as the Irish dean at a Jewish-founded university, his friends said. It was a good fit, he told them.

In 1972, he returned to Harvard, where he spent the rest of his career in the psychology department. He twice served as chairman of the department and taught undergraduates through stories sometimes laced with Celtic wisdom.

At Harvard, he was known as "a statesman of first rank," Lenzenweger said. "Those faced with the thorny and sometimes fractious complexities of academic life often sought out Brendan for guidance and wisdom."

In addition to his wife, Barbara, Dr. Maher leaves his daughter, Rebecca of Durham; four sons, Thomas of Chapel Hill, N.C., Nicholas of Atlanta, Liam of Amsterdam, and Niall of New York City; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Sept. 25 in The Memorial Church at Harvard.