Wayne S. Fenton, a National Institute of Mental Health administrator who as an expert on schizophrenia devoted himself to making life better for those with severe mental illnesses, was found dead Sunday in his office in Bethesda, Md. Police in Montgomery County, Md., have charged a 19-year-old patient he had seen that day.
Fenton, 53, built a reputation as an accomplished clinician, researcher, administrator and practitioner who often tackled the most difficult cases. A fiercely committed and patient professional, he combined his skills to benefit a segment of the mental-health population that he felt did not always get the necessary care.
His goal was singular and unselfish, his colleagues said: He wanted to help people with schizophrenia become functioning members of society.
In a 2002 article in the Washington Post, Fenton lamented the lack of appropriate care for those with schizophrenia. "All one has to do is walk through a downtown area to appreciate that the availability of adequate treatment for patients with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses is a serious problem in this country.
"We wouldn't let our 80-year-old mother with Alzheimer's live on a grate," he said. "Why is it all right for a 30-year-old daughter with schizophrenia?"
Fenton, a research psychiatrist, had a private practice in Bethesda, where he saw patients in the evenings and on the weekends. He had been at NIMH, a part of the National Institutes of Health, since 1999, where he supervised the development of diagnostic instruments and interventions for mental illnesses with an emphasis on such severe disorders as schizophrenia. The disease affects about 2.5 million Americans.
Daniel Weinberger, who had known Fenton for 15 years and served with him on the Schizophrenia Bulletin, a professional journal, said Fenton was tireless in trying to understand how research could help people with severe mental illnesses and was working to bring the latest research to those who could make a difference.
"Wayne was a rare character," said Weinberger, who works in NIMH's clinical brain disorder branch. He had a great ability to translate between the research community and those who were delivering services or funds on behalf of the severely mentally ill -- two distinct groups, he said.
A native of Albany, N.Y., Fenton received a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology from Bard College in New York and graduated from George Washington University School of Medicine in 1979.
Survivors include his wife, Nancy; four children; his parents; a brother; and a sister.
Thomas McGlashan, a professor of psychiatry at Yale, worked with Fenton in the 1980s at Chestnut Lodge Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital in Rockville, Md., and published several articles with him. He said Fenton realized the risk inherent in working with potentially violent patients. He always knew it could be dangerous.
"The worst outcome of all of this is that patients like this would have a harder time getting the help they needed," McGlashan said. "He would hate that, if that's the outcome."