Dr. Joel Elkes, scientist who advanced research in brain chemistry, dies

Dr. Joel Elkes, a scientist who advanced research in brain chemistry and early psychiatric drugs and served as the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's psychiatrist in chief, died of a heart attack and kidney failure Oct. 30 at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Fla. The former Tuscany-Canterbury resident was 101.

"He had a complicated, multi-faced background. He was a true intellectual, a cosmopolitan man who was one of the great pioneers of psychopharmacology," said Dr. Solomon Snyder, Hopkins emeritus director of the department of neuroscience.


Dr. Elkes was "warm and generous and supportive of young people's careers. He made it possible for me to be on the faculty even though I was just a medical resident," Dr. Snyder said.

Born on Nov. 12, 1913, in the East Prussian city of Konigsburg, he was the son of Elkhanna Elkes, a physician, and Miriam Malbin, his wife. His father died at the Dachau concentration camp.


"Practically all my husband's friends and family died at the hands of the Nazis in World War II," said Dr. Elkes' wife, Sally Lucke-Elkes, an art therapist and Holocaust educator.

Dr. Elkes grew up in Lithuania, then moved to England and became a physician. He studied at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London and trained in pharmacology of the brain.

He became chair of the department of experimental medicine at the University of Birmingham, England, and investigated the effects of LSD.

While working with his then-wife, Charmian Bourne Elkes, a psychiatrist, he reported success in testing the drug chlorpromazine, also known as Thorazine.

"They were the first to scientifically study the effects of chlorpromazine in schizophrenia," said a Hopkins colleague, Dr. James Harris of Baltimore.

Dr. Elkes came to the U.S. in 1957 and became chief of the neuropharmacology research center at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, located on the grounds of St. Elizabeth's Hospital. He lived among the patients and interacted with them.

Dr. Thomas Turner recruited him to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1963. A Baltimore Sun article noted at the time: "He is well known for his research in the relationship of drugs to human behavior."

In 1970, he addressed Hopkins undergraduate students about recreational drug use.


"Using drugs," he said in a Sun article, "is playing Russian roulette."

Friends recalled him as a charming person who encouraged an understanding of patients. He also established a residency program in his department that advocated the scientific understanding of psychiatric illnesses.

"He made a psychiatric residency available to those who could continue their training as they became clinically competent psychiatrists as well as scientists," said Dr. Paul McHugh, the psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital from 1975 to 2001.

In a statement, Dr. J. Raymond DePaulo, director of that department, said, "Joel believed that modern psychiatry was a natural bridge between the behavioral sciences and medicine as a whole, including preventative medicine."

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"He was a wonderful man and always greeted me and others with a genuine and hearty, 'Hello, how are you!' He then asked about you and your children," said Dr. Harris, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "As he grew older, he became more interested in the humanistic side of medical care."

After leaving Johns Hopkins, Dr. Elkes served at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and at the University of Louisville. He was a senior fellow at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Mich.


Dr. Elkes became an accomplished watercolor painter. He donated numerous works that are exhibited at the Meyer Building at Hopkins Hospital.

"He loved light and nature. He would study the way light came through the leaves on trees and he would then paint it," said his wife. "Shortly before he died, he did a painting of the souls rising from the trenches of the Holocaust. It was his spiritual victory."

Services were private.

In addition to wife of nearly 16 years, survivors include his daughter, Anna Parris of Chevy Chase; and a granddaughter, Laura Parris, also of the Washington area. His wife said Larry Peek became a member of their family. Dr. Elkes' marriage to Charmian Bourne ended in divorce. Another wife, Josephine Rhodes, died many years ago.