Our History

Our Growth Mirrors the Revitalization of Pittsburgh

"The unencumbered flow of knowledge, inventions, and gifted individuals across conventional academic and industrial boundaries is essential for success.” 

- Dr. Thomas Detre

When the molten steel that was Pittsburgh’s lifeblood stopped flowing in the early 1980s, no one could have imagined that eventually the city’s education and medical sectors would not only revitalize but also transform the city’s economy. In fact, the unique relationship between the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Psychiatry and UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital contributed to, and now benefits from, the revitalization of Pittsburgh. In the process, the Department became an international leader in shaping the future of behavioral health.

In 1787, a small frontier schoolhouse known as Pittsburgh Academy sat in what is now downtown Pittsburgh. From this seed, the University of Pittsburgh grew and eventually moved to its current Oakland campus. With the 20th century came a universal focus on practical education—such as medicine—and the University purchased the already-established Western Pennsylvania Medical College which became the School of Medicine. To address the challenges associated with mental illness, the state mental institution system laid the cornerstone of Western State Psychiatric Hospital in 1942.

View of Oakland from the Cathedral of Learning circa 1950
View of Oakland from the Cathedral of Learning, published Sept. 10, 1950. Stewart Love of the Pittsburgh Press

Many soldiers returning from World War II suffered from mental health issues, leading to the opening of an outpatient clinic and the renaming of the institution as Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) in 1945. The following year, WPIC instituted its first residency program in psychiatry. To facilitate research and education, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania transferred the management of WPIC to the University of Pittsburgh in 1949 and Henry Brosin, MD, was recruited from the University of Chicago Medical School to lead the Department and WPIC.

Thomas Detre, MD
Thomas Detre, MD

In 1973, the University sought a leader who could embrace the rapid advances occurring in the field of psychiatry and bring WPIC into the national spotlight. The next Department Chair and Director of WPIC, Thomas Detre, MD, undoubtedly filled these shoes. Recruited from the Department of Psychiatry at Yale, few could imagine why he would leave his Ivy-league position to come to Pittsburgh, then known best for smog and steel, nor what he would accomplish during his decade of leading the Department. However, Dr. Detre recognized an opportunity—the chance to begin a new era of training and practice in psychiatry based on rigorous scientific research. From Yale, Dr. Detre brought with him a cohort of colleagues—among them Jeffrey Romoff, now UPMC’s President and Chief Executive Officer, and David Kupfer, MD, who later served as Department Chair and Director of WPIC. He also knew that research funding was key to integrating the hospital and academic missions, and by recruiting young, “hungry” scientists and fostering relationships with other medical departments, he created a cadre of investigators who developed innovative research approaches that made WPIC highly competitive and successful in obtaining grants from the NIH. By 1982 the Department had become one of the nation’s leading recipients of NIH funding for psychiatric research, a position that continues today. The Department flourished under the leadership of Dr. Kupfer who became Chair of the Department in 1983 when Dr. Detre moved to the position of Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences. 

Drs. David Kupfer and Thomas Detre
David J. Kupfer, MD (left) and Thomas Detre, MD (right)

Under Dr. Kupfer’s guidance, the Department continued cutting-edge research that advanced the knowledge base for the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric illnesses. He promoted widespread collaborations between clinical investigators in psychiatry and those in the neuroscience and other basic sciences. Among his many accomplishments, he established a chronobiology lab—one of the first of its kind in the country. He was a leader in evaluating sleep as a biological marker of depression, contributing to the biological revolution in psychiatry. After 26 years of leading the Department to unprecedented excellence, Dr. Kupfer stepped down in 2009, handing over the reins to another innovative leader, David A. Lewis, MD, whom Dr. Kupfer had recruited to the Department faculty and mentored for many years.

David A. Lewis, MD and David J. Kupfer, MD
David A. Lewis, MD and David J. Kupfer, MD

With a keen eye on the future, Dr. Lewis serves as current Chairman of the Department and Medical Director and Director of Research for WPIC, now known as UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. An internationally recognized expert in the neurobiology of schizophrenia, Dr. Lewis holds the ranks of Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and Thomas Detre Professor of Academic Psychiatry. He also serves as Director of the Translational Neuroscience Program.

Under Dr. Lewis’s leadership, the Department’s translational research activities have increased with the recruitment of many bright, young faculty members. The Department’s clinical research programs have also grown, retaining their focus on developing and implementing novel therapeutic strategies, while an increasing number of investigators examine the mechanisms of illnesses and interventions. Fostering the research career development of junior faculty and facilitating their transition to independent investigator status remains a top priority. 

The Department has also placed new emphasis on the role of clinician-educator faculty members. Among many innovative offerings, the Department created the Clinician-Educator Faculty Development Program, a two-year career development initiative tailored specifically to physicians with interests in education and administration, an annual Clinician-Educator Showcase to highlight clinical and educational initiatives, and a mechanism for funding clinical value improvement projects.

Building on a solid foundation of success, Dr. Lewis is leading the Department and UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital to continued excellence in clinical care, research, and education, recognizing as did his predecessors that the substantial current success of the Department cannot be allowed to sow seeds of complacency and that continual innovation is the key to the future successes that our patients and their families need and expect from us.

The psychiatrist of the future must be equally adept at psychiatric differential diagnosis; evidence-based medical, psychotherapeutic and psychosocial treatments; health care team management; and medical economics. We continue to invest in basic, clinical, and translational research that will lead to new  diagnostic and treatment approaches to improve the lives of our patients, and we are committed to providing future clinicians with the skills necessary to successfully implement these approaches."

- Dr. David A. Lewis


Chairs, University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychiatry
1928-1946: Charles H. Henninger, MD
1947-1949: George W. Smeltz, MD
1949-1950: James M. Henninger, MD
1951-1969: Henry W. Brosin, MD
1969-1972: James. M. Henninger, MD (acting chair)
1972-1973: Jack A. Wolford, MD (acting chair)
1973-1982: Thomas Detre, MD
1983-2009: David J. Kupfer, MD
2009-present: David A. Lewis, MD