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Alum Profile: Dr. Jonathan Pincus ’52

Dr. Jonathan Pincus ’52 is Chief of Neurology at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Washington, D.C., and a professor of neurology at Georgetown University. He has also written two books, Base Instincts—What Makes Killers Kill, and the textbook Behavioral Neurology.

“Brooklyn Friends provided an advanced curriculum and presented it with love,” says Dr. Pincus. “The message was ‘do your best,’ not ‘do better than the next guy.’” He also recalls fondly that the culture at BFS was conducive to “allowing great latitude at a time when that was not always popular and took some courage—the era of Joseph McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.”

He explains, “The leadership of the school allowed us to dabble with socialist-communist ideas in the indulgent, amused manner of a benevolent parent. Hysterical anticommunism was not part of their bag of tricks, though the era certainly would have supported them in such attitudes. They were real educators, the last of a kind of old-fashioned educator who cared about classics and were inspired by a broad humanitarianism within the humanities and sciences.”

He remembers the “bushy eyebrows” of teachers Mr. Burdsall and Mr Cochran. “Proper schoolmasters, they were mature men whose lives had been dedicated to education. They wore three piece suits with vests. Mr. Burdsall had a gold chain and watch that he consulted frequently. At morning assemblies, for example, he recited a psalm, often ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the Fullness thereof.’ It is the psalm recited at Synagogue on Sunday mornings at the end of services. When I attend Sunday services at shul I never fail to think of Mr Burdsall. It is a precious and happy memory, not part of the bank of many observant Jews, but part of mine.”

Pincus’s favorite teacher, though, was Mr. Vaughn. “He was, or pretended to be, a staunch Republican who addressed a sea of unthinking Democrats. He engaged us in political debates and insisted that we match our opinions with facts. He had a profound effect on my way of thinking and he strongly influenced my manner of teaching. I will be eternally grateful to him.”

Pincus went on to Amherst College, the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, a medical internship at Kings County Hospital, and a residency in neurology at Yale. “In 1964, I joined the Yale faculty and ‘worked my way up.’ I was appointed a full professor in 1974 and remained at Yale, deeply involved in teaching and research and patient care.”

During this time he wrote his textbook, Behavioral Neurology. “When I was at Yale I became very much interested in the neurologic basis of the mind.” The textbook “dealt with the borderline between neurology and psychiatry. The basic thesis was that any disorder of the brain would have behavioral and cognitive symptoms, and that every mental illness derived from a disordered brain. After the first edition was published (Oxford University Press, 1974; the 4th edition was released in 2002), I was approached by Dr. Dorothy Lewis, a child psychiatrist, to participate in a study of juvenile delinquents to see what made some delinquents violent while some were not violent. With some reluctance I agreed to join her study and found that neurologic disorders of the brain, mental illness, and the experience of abuse were constant features of the violent delinquents. We repeated the study in a number of settings—criminal and non-criminal—with the same conclusions. We hypothesize that violence is the vector of the interaction of these three factors.”

In 1986 he accepted the chair in Neurology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “I remained as chair until 1995 when a festering administrative battle between the dean and myself led to an open breech. I resigned as chair but stayed on as a full, tenured professor.” Unfortunately, he says a fiscal crisis at the university forced it to sell its hospital and dismiss its tenured faculty. “At 65, I had to decide what to do with the rest of my life.” He soon accepted a job as chief of neurology at the Washington Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “I am very happy, doing research, seeing patients, and teaching.”

Meanwhile, he wrote his second book, Base Instincts—What Makes Killers Kill (Norton, 2001) for the general public. “I have examined about 150 murderers in custody by now and feel that my experience has generally supported my theory” (that disorders of the brain are one of the key factors in causing violent behavior). However, Dr. Pincus points out that “this ‘dark side’ of my professional interests may have obscured some others. I sub-specialize in movement disorders, especially Parkinson’s disease, and have written a good many papers about that illness, especially the role of low protein in the diet in controlling the effectiveness of dopamine replacement therapy at the end stages of the illness. At one time I was deeply involved in child neurology and I have been Board certified in that as well as adult neurology and have been an examiner for the Board for candidates seeking certification.”

Dr. Pincus has three sons and “almost 10 grandchildren,” the latest due in December. He is thrilled to live in D.C., and proud of his home on a half acre of land next to Rock Creek Park. “Deer and foxes roam through my yard, 10 minutes’ drive from work and the White House and the Kennedy Center. I would welcome any old friends from Brooklyn Friends to stop by for a visit and a meal.”