Heinz Lehmann: A Pioneer of Modern Psychiatry


July 17, 1911–April 7, 1999

Heinz Lehmann was born in Berlin on July 17, 1911, and died in Montreal on April 7, 1999, at the age of 87 years. In the course of a long and productive life, he became one of the most famous and influential psychiatrists in Canada.

Lehmann came from a line of physicians. He developed an interest in psychiatry after having read the works of Freud at age 13. After doing undergraduate work in Freiburg, Marburg, and Vienna, he trained in medicine, receiving his MD from the University of Berlin in 1935, after which he completed a general internship.

His father was a German Jew married to a Protestant. If Lehmann and his father had not emigrated, they would most certainly have been exterminated, along with 6 million others. The elder Lehmann, a chest physician, later moved to the United States, where he practised for many years. Lehmann’s mother remained in Germany, dying there just before the end of the war.

Lehmann arrived in Canada in 1937. To obtain permission from the Gestapo to make the trip, a family friend wrote a letter from Val-David, Quebec, inviting him for a skiing vacation. He left Germany with only skis and enough luggage to last for 2 weeks.

After being granted refugee status, Lehmann obtained a temporary medical license. He chose to practice at Verdun Protestant Hospital (now the Douglas). This turn of fate may have eventually led to his becoming a world expert on schizophrenia. Refugee doctors had to deal with many obstacles, and Lehmann even had to report regularly to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He did not receive a permanent license from Quebec until 1963 and was finally certified by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in 1971, at 60 years of age.

Heinz Lehmann integrated himself into Canadian life. He married a French-Canadian, Annette Joyal, and became fluently trilingual. Annette raised their son Fran├žois in the Roman Catholic faith. Fran├žois would later continue the family tradition of medical idealism, working with disadvantaged and refugee populations.

The family lived for many years in a house on the hospital grounds. Lehmann was famous for his lack of interest in material possessions. Despite living some distance from downtown Montreal, he never owned a car but rather bicycled everywhere.

With hundreds of patients to care for, Heinz Lehmann developed a reputation as an unusually dedicated clinician. He initiated a custom that continued to the end of his life: on Christmas Day, he and his son would tour the hospital to extend holiday greetings to every patient.

Lehmann rose through the hospital ranks, becoming Clinical Director in 1947. In those years, the hospital was separate, both academically and physically, from the main campus of the McGill Department of Psychiatry, which was centred at the Allan Memorial Institute. Lehmann probably found that isolation only made him more original.

Heinz Lehmann became world-famous in the 1950s through his pioneering work on the use of chlorpromazine for schizophrenia. He never claimed this contribution as his own. With his knowledge of languages, Lehmann regularly read European journals, which is how he became aware of the work of Delay and Deniker in France. Lehmann conducted clinical trials using the new drug in Montreal, with startlingly good results. A few years later, after reading a report in a Swiss journal, he also became one of the first psychiatrists in North America to introduce imipramine for the treatment of depression.

Over subsequent years, Heinz Lehmann’s international stature in psychiatry grew. He published over 300 scientific papers, most of which concerned psychopharmacology. He won many prizes, ranging from the Albert Lasker Award in 1957 to his induction to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1998. He was also an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Lehmann became Research Director of the Douglas Hospital in 1962 and Director of Medical Education in 1967. In 1971, following Robert Cleghorn’s retirement, he agreed to serve as Chair of the McGill Department of Psychiatry, a post he held until 1975. In 1976 he founded a psychopharmacology division. From 1981 onward, he served as Deputy Commissioner in the Research Division of the New York State Office of Mental Health. The position required regular commuting to Albany. Typically, he performed this important job without salary.

In his later years, Lehmann slowed down a bit but never stopped. He continued working until the end of his life, seeing patients and teaching until a few months before his death. He made several trips back to Berlin. The fall of the Wall afforded him the opportunity finally to revisit the Mitte district where he grew up.

Heinz Lehmann was a great idealist. As a clinician, he lived a life of service to those who were sick and marginal. Lehmann was also an inspiring teacher. Generations of medical students vividly remember his films demonstrating psychopathology. Much of this material became the basis of chapters (unfortunately not reprinted in recent editions) in Kaplan’s textbook on the clinical features of schizophrenia and mood disorders.

I knew Heinz Lehmann as a medical student, as a resident, and then as a faculty member in the McGill Department of Psychiatry. He was a man with strong opinions: one always knew exactly where he stood. In several ways, I felt him to be a role model. He effectively combined research with clinical care and teaching. His mind was innovative, always open to new ideas and often questioning traditional wisdom. In his RO Jones Founding President Memorial Lecture of 1985, later published in this Journal (1), he offered a clear and original vision of the future of psychiatry.

Lehmann came to prominence in psychiatry only in middle age. Then, over the last few decades of his life, while aging with grace, he continued to inspire psychiatrists around the world.


1. Lehmann HE. The future of psychiatry: progress — mutation — or self destruct? Can J Psychiatry 1986;31:362–7.

Joel Paris, MD
Montreal, Quebec