September 16, 2003

In Memoriam: J. CHRISTIAN GILLIN

J. Christian Gillin, M.D.

J. Christian Gillin, M.D., a renowned sleep specialist and professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, died of esophageal cancer on Saturday, September 13, 2003. He was 65. A La Jolla resident for over 20 years, he was in a San Diego Hospice facility at the time of his death.

Dr. Gillin was internationally known and widely honored for his seminal research on sleep and mood disorders. In 2001 he was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in recognition of his contributions to the advancement of sleep medicine. He was also given the Distinguished Scientist Award of the Sleep Research Society.

In presenting the award in 2001, the Society noted that “in addition to the immense scientific contributions Dr. Gillin has made to the field of sleep and sleep disorders, one of his greatest accomplishments is in the number of students he has trained. Many investigators in this next generation of sleep researchers can trace their scientific roots back to Dr. Gillin.”

"Chris Gillin was a fine, unique, gifted man who will be mourned and missed by his family, many friends through out the world, by his department at UCSD and the scientific community," said Lewis Judd, M.D., Chair of the UCSD Department of Psychiatry. "Personally I will miss Chris greatly as a long time friend and superb colleague. He was one of a kind." 

Colleagues recall Dr. Gillin’s fundamental dignity, humanity, and positive approach to life coupled with an unquenchable scientific curiosity. He was an admired role model and inspired deep affection among those who knew him and worked with him.

“In psychiatry, sleep and chronobiology circles throughout the world he enjoyed respect and admiration, as he personified the very best in human nature in addition to being one of the most influential leaders in psychiatry and sleep,” said Sonia Ancoli-Israel, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at UCSD and director of the VASDHS Sleep Disorders Clinic. “He taught many and enriched everyone who crossed his path. He was a man of courage, dignity and grace, and he will be sorely missed by his friends and colleagues around the world.”

His love of family, friends and the outdoors seemed to intensify after he was diagnosed with advanced cancer three years ago. An avid runner, he had completed the Bay to Breakers Race in San Francisco just a few weeks before his diagnosis. A week after he learned he had cancer, he went paragliding for the first time. He remained active during his battle with the disease, and shortly before his death he went flying with a young friend. He even lectured to medical students on the subject of death and dying, to share his personal experiences and insights.

“While the world appreciates Chris Gillin as a remarkable and creative scholar, the greatest loss to us all is his extraordinary humanity,” said Saul Levine, M.D., UCSD professor of psychiatry and chair of psychiatry at Children’s Hospital and Health Center. “He was my best friend, and what we loved about him was that he was the epitome of grace. He lived with great zeal, and he loved people. In Yiddish we would say he was a real ‘mensch,’ a person of intrinsic worth by virtue of his being.”

Born in Columbus, Ohio, he credited his anthropologist father for sparking his interest in mental illness at an early age. He once described an encounter with a catatonic patient during a visit to a mental hospital with his father when he was 18, commenting that the patient made a lasting impression on him. After an undergraduate career at Harvard University where he graduated magna cum laude, he earned his M.D. at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and completed his psychiatric training at Stanford University Medical Center.

He became interested in two hypotheses of psychosis and hallucinations of schizophrenia. These two interests drove much of his research program during his first years of research at the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where he was assigned to the sleep laboratory and began his sleep research, the area of study that would become his legacy. He worked at the National Institute of Mental Health from 1971 until 1982, when he joined the UCSD faculty.

Dr. Gillin’s scientific contributions to psychiatric-related research are included in over 500 scientific publications and one book. He viewed psychological disorders through “neurobiological windows” and used neuropharmacology, sleep, and chronobiology to approach the treatment of mood disorders.

The antidepressant effects of sleep deprivation in depressed patients always struck him as a neglected area in research biological psychiatry. It was the only method known in which depression could be reversed within hours. He believed that sleep deprivation was an excellent experimental model for the study of antidepressant treatments and could lead to new, rapidly acting treatments based upon new models of brain function. His laboratory at UCSD was dedicated to these theories. In addition, in collaboration with many others, Dr. Gillin studied chronobiology and bright light treatment for depression, immunological relationships to sleep, depression and alcoholism, and sleep abnormalities associated with depression, recovery, and abstinence in patients with alcoholism.

Dr. Gillin was past-president of the Sleep Research Society, the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms and the West Coast College of Biological Psychiatry and was on the board of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. He was a fellow of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and of the American Psychiatric Association. At the time of his death, he was also the Co-Director of the Laboratory of Sleep and Chronobiology, which he helped establish as part of the UCSD General Clinical Research Center.

In addition, Dr. Gillin was Director of the UCSD Mental Health Clinical Research Center, and Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychology, San Diego State University. He was also the former Director of the Fellowship Program in Psychobiology and Psychopharmacology of the UCSD Department of Psychiatry.

He was on the editorial board of nine journals and for seven years was Editor-in-Chief of Neuropsychopharmacology, the official publica­tion of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. He served his country as U.S. Naval Reserve Captain.

Shortly after his diagnosis of esophageal cancer, the UCSD Department of Psychiatry, under the leadership of Dr. Lewis Judd, Chair of the Department, and Dr. Ancoli-Israel organized a Festschrift to recognize the enormous impact that Dr. Gillin had on the fields of sleep, mood disorders and circadian rhythms. He was honored with a scientific symposium attended by almost 200 scientists. The event highlighted friendships, scholarship, and leadership which had bonded Dr. Gillin to colleagues around the nation and the world. The papers presented at the Festschrift were also edited and organized in a scientific monograph published in a special issue of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology. 

During his illness, Dr. Gillin and his family continued to travel, explore, and spend quality time together. He lived his three years with cancer in an admirable way and truly made each day count fully while continuing his scientific endeavors, mentoring and publishing. Dr. Gillin is survived by his wife, Frances Davis Gillin, Ph.D., professor of pathology at UCSD, and their two sons, John Lorin Gillin and his wife Crystal Zhang Gillin of the Bay Area, and Peter Daniel Gillin of Costa Mesa. The family has held private funeral services. A memorial service is being arranged.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the "SRS Gillin Jr. Faculty Award" which can be sent to: Judy Milton, Sleep Research Society, One Westbrook Corporate Center, Westchester, IL 60154 with a note stating the purpose of the donation.

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News media contact:
Leslie Franz
619-543-6163

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