Dr. Leon Rosenberg Returns to PDS to Share Personal Memoir

Leon E. Rosenberg is a renowned physician, geneticist, educator and institutional leader as well as the former Chair of Princeton Day School’s Science Department and founding father of the School’s signature STEAM program. He has served in key leadership positions in his field, including Dean of Yale University School of Medicine, Chief Scientific Officer at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, as well as President of the Association of American Physicians, the American Society for Human Genetics, and the Funding First Initiative of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. He has taught at both Yale University and Princeton University. 

The author of two books and nearly 300 scientific articles and reviews, Dr. Rosenberg came back to PDS recently to share about his most recent book, a memoir of his life and work. The Zoom session with PDS alumni and faculty delved into his deeply personal Genes, Medicine, Moods: A Memoir of Success and Struggle, which details his lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder and his ongoing efforts to overcome it to live a fruitful, productive life. Rosenberg’s story illustrates that no one is immune from the reach of such diseases, and that personal, academic and career success is possible for individuals struggling with mental health.

As the book’s preface statement explains: “One can have a successful professional career, and a meaningful personal life while struggling all the while with a common mental illness: bipolar disorder. This memoir describes the author’s widely recognized research in the field of inherited metabolic disorders in children, his pivotal role as Dean of the Yale University School of Medicine and as Chief Scientific Officer of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, his contributions to public affairs, and his efforts as a teacher of medical, graduate, undergraduate and high school students. These stories are interwoven with that of his personal encounter with bipolar disorder—one that has gone on for 60 years and that nearly ended his life... This is a narrative of hope and resilience, not one of desolation and despair.”

Genes, Medicine, Moods: A Memoir of Success and Struggle by Dr. Leon Rosenberg (cover art)

Cover art: Bronze statue of Janus; Mark M. Mellon | Mellon Fine Art Studio

At PDS, a Mission to Enhance Science Curriculum, Mentor and Develop STEAM 

During his presentation, Rosenberg shared that when he was initially approached about joining PDS he was reluctant. “I hadn't been in a high school classroom except as a visitor since I graduated from high school many decades ago, and I had no idea what it would be like to be teaching juniors and seniors about the world of human genetics.”

However, when he talked to Jason Robinson, then head of the Upper School, Jason reinforced the idea that it would be a great way for him to put a coda on his active teaching career and also mentor young people. Dr. Rosenberg initially came to the School as the first scientist in residence, was named Science Department Chair and then Chair of the STEAM Implementation Committee. As Committee Chair, he led the team of PDS faculty and staff that designed the Wellemeyer STEAM Center and developed the curriculum approach to utilize it, including the signature independent study REx Program

In the fall of 2014, Rosenberg began teaching Genes, Health and Society in the PDS Upper School, a course that he had taught at Princeton. “I had a lot of learning to do about the difference between teaching college students and teaching high school students. It took me a while to get the hang of it but I did and things went well,” he explained.

“The following year I served as Interim Chair of Science and got to know an outstanding faculty in the Science Department. And I was able to do some leadership things that I had learned to do in my prior life,” he continued.

At the end of his second year, Head of School Paul Stellato asked Rosenberg to chair the STEAM Implementation Committee to help design the new space and program. “I finished up at PDS enjoying walking past the new STEAM Center and realizing that I helped make a difference one more time in my active career. At the end of that year, I retired from PDS and have spent the last two and a half years finishing the memoir and spending more time with my wife and my family,” he noted.

20-year Journey to Help Reduce Stigma of Living with Mental Health Challenges

Throughout the talk, Rosenberg spoke candidly about his career, his life and the influence that bipolar disorder had on both. After a particularly serious depressive episode, Rosenberg came to realize that he must share his story with the world.

In 2002, Rosenberg published his paper Brainsick: A Physician’s Journey to the Brink, which detailed his depression and mental illness. “My wife Diane and others said I had a message to deliver to people and that I should write it down. Although my paper was not published in a widely read journal, I received hundreds of emails and letters telling me that it was important that people in the world of science acknowledge that we too can have these conditions and need to be up front about it in order to reduce the stigma that is associated with bipolar disorder and many other mental illnesses. It was arguably one of the most important contributions that I've made in writing among the 300 or so papers that I've published,” Dr. Rosenberg shared.

With his latest memoir, Rosenberg’s goal is to continue this work of sharing about living with mental illness. “I’ve been working on this memoir on and off ever since that paper,” he explained.

During the Zoom session, Head of School Paul Stellato recalled: “Before your retirement from our School, when you told our Upper Schoolers much of what you have told us tonight, the standing ovation lasted for some time. That response was emblematic of several things. One is the deep affection and respect that you generated at Princeton Day School, and the other is the way in which you spoke to a group of students who needed to hear that story and for whom the challenges that you talked about tonight are alive in their lives and in their families. It was among the most powerful moments that I've experienced at Princeton Day School.”

Dr. Rosenberg ended the evening with thoughts on genetic predispositions and the state of brain research, expressing enthusiasm for those who might be interested in careers in these areas. “We have a whole lot to learn about the genes that predispose individuals to this disorder, and it always makes me smile when my colleagues in the field of neuroscience tell me that we’re just on the verge of understanding how the brain works. I think we won't know how the brain works until my great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren are adults. The brain is so complicated, and that's why it's such an exciting career, such a daunting task, and so thrilling to try to ferret out its secrets.”

Mental health and wellness has been in the spotlight given the global scale of the many social, health and economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The PDS Student Services Team recently shared these resources to help support mental health and wellness among students and families.

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