Doctor, activist Lewis Opler, 69


Lewis A. Opler, M.D., Ph.D., of Mount Vernon, passed away April 12, 2018, in New York City.

A loving husband, father and grandfather, as well as a renowned psychiatrist and social justice activist, he was 69.

He was born in Los Angeles to Charlotte and Marvin K. Opler. The family settled for several years in Queens before moving to a suburb of Buffalo.

After high school, he attended and graduated from Harvard before being accepted into the medical program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

While working on his doctorate in pharmacology, he met Annette Arcario in 1973. They were married later that year.

He went on to complete his residency in psychiatry at Einstein before beginning a career in academic medicine. Over the course of his career, he would serve as a member of the faculties of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York University School of Medicine, and Long Island University.

Beginning in 1994, he took a job at the New York State Office of Mental Health where he served in various capacities over the next 20 years, including director of the research division, and chief medical officer.

Among his other accomplishments, he was one of the developers of the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale, a gold-standard instrument used to measure symptoms in patients with schizophrenia. Created in collaboration with Drs. Stanley Kay and Abraham Fiszbein in the Bronx, PANSS was quickly adopted as the gold-standard measure for clinical research, and helped revolutionize the development of new drugs that have helped millions of patients worldwide. 

His scale has been translated into more than 50 languages, used in thousands of research studies, and his work on schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other brain disorders resulted in more than 100 scientific papers, numerous books and chapters, and countless conference presentations and posters.

He himself co-wrote two books. With Harryet Ehrlich, he wrote “Resurrection and Redemption: Overcoming Mental Illness and Regaining Dignity,” and with Carol Bialkowski, he wrote “Prozac and Other Psychiatric Drugs.” He also was the medical editor for the “Complete Pill Guide.”

An activist and amateur musician, as well as a talented physician and scientist, he was involved in the movement against the Vietnam War, beginning with this membership in the student anti-way movement at Harvard. He also was deeply involved in the effort to aid the people of El Salvador in the 1980s and 1990s, and was a strong supporter of labor unions, once leading a walkout for labor rights of hospital residents at Einstein College of Medicine. 

He wrote and performed his own songs, as well as protest songs and folk music in support of these and many other causes. While he was a classically trained violinist, he also played guitar, mandolin, banjo and harmonica.

He is survived by his wife, Annette Arcario Opler; his sister, Ruth Perry; his children, Mark Opler, Daniel Opler, Michelle Grennan and Douglas Opler; their spouses, Stacy Liechti, Yamuna Bhaskaran, Paul Grennan and Angela Ellerman; and his seven grandsons, whom he affectionately referred to as “the Seven Samurai.”

Memorial services were held April 21 at the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, 4450 Fieldston Road.

In lieu of flowers, well-wishers were asked to make a donation to Doctors Without Borders.

Lewis Opler