Dr. Lissy Jarvik, a UCLA geriatric psychiatrist who escaped the Nazis as a child and who became one of the earliest researchers in the new field of neuropsychogeriatrics and a leading Alzheimer’s researcher, died in her sleep on Oct. 1 in her home in Santa Monica, California. She was 97.

Jarvik, professor emerita of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and distinguished physician emeritus with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs of the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, was one of the first physicians to demonstrate that mental decline was not a part of the normal aging process. This landmark research began while she was a graduate student at Columbia University, where she spent 20 years following 134 pairs of identical and fraternal twins with the aim to “disentangle the whole question of genetics and the environment in aging.”

This study, still the only one of its kind, would evolve into her life’s work, which focused on the mental changes that occur in both healthy and physically impaired people as they age, eventually helping guide the field of Alzheimer research.  

“What Lissy Jarvik accomplished in her lifetime is truly remarkable,” said Dr. Alex Young, interim chair of the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and interim director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior at the medical school. “Her seminal contributions to the field of psychogeriatrics and Alzheimer’s research forged new territory in what we know about aging.”

Born in the Netherlands in 1924, Jarvik attended Hunter College in New York City, graduating cum laude in 1946. She earned both her master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology at Columbia University in 1947 and 1950.

Ironically, Jarvik was initially unsuccessful when she applied to medical school. She attributed this to being a woman and a Jewish refugee. Eventually she enrolled at Western Reserve University School of Medicine (now Case Western) in Cleveland, Ohio. She graduated from medical school in 1954 and then returned to New York to continue her research at Columbia’s psychiatry department and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

In the early 1970s, Jarvik and her family headed west, where Jarvik became professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. Here, she established the first inpatient psychogeriatric unit and the first course in behavioral sciences for first-year medical students. She recruited a diverse faculty from many departments throughout UCLA to participate in this introductory course. She was also instrumental in the invention of the nicotine patch, one of the most notable accomplishments of her husband Murray Jarvik.

From 1987 to 1993 Jarvik was the first woman psychiatrist, and the second woman ever appointed as a “distinguished physician” in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She traveled throughout the United States to meet and interact with physicians in various specialties to heighten their awareness of the needs of older veterans, mostly from World War II. Through face-to-face meetings, rounds, lectures, seminars and workshops, she was able to facilitate the start of new training, treatment and research programs throughout the VA system.

In 1988 Jarvik co-authored “Parentcare: A Commonsense Guide for Adult Children,” with friend and UCLA colleague Dr. Gary Small, which was written for the “sandwich generation” — adults caring for both their children and their parents at the same time — the book was one of the first guides of its kind.

Jarvik was at the forefront in the use of investigational drugs for treating geriatric patients with both Alzheimer’s disease and major depressive disorders. She was also among the first to emphasize the role of microtubules — the proteins within cells that help maintain cells’ shape and motility — in the development of Alzheimer’s disease and to use psychotherapeutic approaches to the treatment of geriatric patients.

For her “distinguished contributions in the general field of psychiatry and mental health,” Jarvik was the first recipient of the American College of Physicians William C. Menninger Memorial Award in 1993.

Jarvik summed up her life in academic medicine, “My career in aging spanned the field from mental changes, to psychiatric aspects, to genetic changes, chromosomal changes, also drug treatment and psychological treatments.”

Jarvik is survived by her sons, Laurence (Larry) and Jeffrey (Jerry) Jarvik, and their spouses, Nancy Strickland and Gail Pairitz Jarvik, as well as by her three grandchildren, Ella, Leah and Ethan Jarvik.