1932 - 2021
We have lost an extraordinary person, who lived an extraordinary life.
On February 16, 2021, Dr. L. (Niki) Erlenmeyer-Kimling -- a trailblazing research scientist and geneticist -- passed away peacefully at home, rejoining her beloved husband, Carl. She is survived by her cousin, William Seddon, nee Dirst, as well as a host of family, friends and colleagues.
A woman of brilliance and compassion, Dr. Erlenmeyer-Kimling was one of that rare group of people who made a significant difference in the world around her. Born to Floyd Erlenmeyer and Dorothy Dirst in 1932, she was raised in the New York Metropolitan area. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, she graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University in 1957. With the support of her husband Carl, who, throughout their years together, was her "knight in shining armor", supporting, protecting and urging her onward, she took her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia in 1961.
She joined the Department of Medical Genetics of the New York State Psychiatric Institute and, in 1977, began the New York High-Risk Project (NYHRP), a landmark longitudinal study of schizophrenia, which she continued to lead for over 40 years. The data and insights from the NYHRP continue to guide ongoing efforts to uncover the etiology and precursors of severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and related disorders.
In 1991, she became the first female Chief of the Department of Medical Genetics at the Institute and, at virtually the same time, a full Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, where she taught for many decades. In both roles, she served as a mentor, advisor, and thesis reviewer to students at all levels, building the next generation of psychologists, psychiatrists, and researchers.
Simply put, Niki used the study of genetics to improve the lives of others. In addition to being a highly productive scientist (with over 200 publications) and a generative mentor, she was the recipient of the highest career awards from many prestigious professional associations and organizations: the Theodosius Dobzhansky Award from Behavior Genetics Association (1985); National Institute of Mental Health MERIT Award (l989-1996); and the William K. Warren Schizophrenia Research Award from the International Congress on Schizophrenia Research (now Schizophrenia International Research Society, 1995.
In her private life, she focused upon family, friends and causes dear to her. She endeavored tirelessly to save animals at risk. Her contributions and leadership in such organizations as the Humane Society, the ASPCA and others is a testament to that commitment. She was, too, an advocate for the advancement of women, supporting NOW, Planned Parenthood, the AAUW and the ACLU, among others.
And always, she was there – willing to listen, help, and care – in support of her legion of friends, family and professional colleagues.
A memorial in Dr. Erlenmeyer-Kimling's honor will be held at a later time, when it is safer to hold public gatherings. Contributions "in lieu of" may be made to the Carl F.E. Kimling Memorial Scholarship Fund: Columbia University, P.O. Box 1523, New York, New York. 10008
Published in New York Times from Feb. 19 to Feb. 20, 2021.