March 20, 1933 to July 5, 2017
Psychology lost one of its most astute and influential figures on July 5, 2017 with the passing of Dr. Keith Conners.
Dr. Conners was highly recognized in the field of psychology as a clinician, researcher, lecturer and author. He was best known for his research and dedication in the area ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). In the early stages of his career, he became interested in studying children who were exhibiting a similar pattern of behavior involving excessive activity and inattentiveness, this eventually resulted in the development of a clinical assessment tool known as the Conners Ratings Scales. The first published version of the rating scales was among the most cited in literature on the subject. As his rating scales gained popularity, it became the most widely used ADHD diagnostic assessment tool by medical professionals across the globe.
Dr. Conners, was born in Bingham, Utah. His parents were intelligent honest hardworking people, and although they had minimal formal education themselves, they put great value on the education of their children. Keith was born during the Great Depression and out of necessity, while his parents struggled to find work, the family moved from Bingham to Pocatello, Idaho, then to Ophir, Utah, before finally settling in Salt Lake City.
Keith was a toddler when his family moved to the little mountain village town of Ophir. It was there that Keith attended his first year of school in a one-room schoolhouse. His fondest memories of childhood were in this tiny rural mining town. He described the beautiful countryside as his playground. As a child, Keith was very close to his twin sister, Carol (Carol Wagner of Sandy, UT). He recalls the two of them playing near old open mine shafts and open wells as they conferred on whether could see all the way to China as they peeked inside the wells. His sister recently wrote and warmly recalled her childhood days alongside “her dear sweet brother” and thanked him for being her best friend, for pulling her in their wagon, and holding onto her so she didn’t fall into the dreaded well.
When Keith was nearly 6, the family moved to Salt Lake City to obtain specialized medical care after he had become severely ill following a ruptured appendix. At age 9, he contracted rheumatic fever, and since antibiotics were not yet available, the only known treatment was total bed rest, eleven months to be exact, which was a feat of endurance for a rambunctious young boy. Later, he recalled this period of his life as pivotal and formative. Of course there was no television, but there was radio and plenty of books. He enjoyed some of the popular radio shows such as “the Lone Ranger” and listened to current events, including updates on WWII. At one point, he decided to learn to play chess, and became a prodigy. He taught himself by reading books and practiced strategy by playing chess solo.
When he returned to school in the fourth grade, he was glad to discover he would not be held back. In fact, by middle school, so prepared was he, that his sister, who commonly referred to her brother as “a boy genius”, remembers teachers allowing him to occasionally teach the class. Upon entering high school, his freshman English teacher, Ms. Henderson (a person who Keith endearingly remembered throughout his life), became aware of his academic prowess. She encouraged him to take the University of Chicago early entry exams and after doing so, he received a Ford Foundation scholarship. Now, at the age of 15, Keith was off to college. In a surprising twist, by skipping the remainder of high school, he never received a high school diploma.
In addition to his college studies, he joined the intramural basketball team and also continued to play chess. He reveled in beating the upper classmen, who were frequently surprised by losing to a “small town kid.” Upon graduating from the University of Chicago, he became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Queens College, earning First Class Honors in Philosophy, Psychology, and Physiology. He emerged from Oxford as a thoughtful scholar and remained steadfast friends with many of his Rhodes classmates and basketball teammates. He subsequently earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Harvard.
In the early 1960’s, Keith accepted a position at Johns Hopkins Hospital working alongside Dr. Leon Eisenberg, Chief of Psychiatry, when what we now call ADHD began to take shape. Keith was immediately captivated by the research being conducted. Such began his lifelong pursuit to attain a better understanding of ADHD. By the end of the 1960s, he developed the first version of the Conners’ Rating Scales. Then, despite the absence of computer technology, he utilizing submarine radars, which led to the development of the Conners CPT (Continuous Performance Test).
In 1989, he founded the ADHD Program at Duke University Medical Center and continued to be active in research. He championed the landmark Multimodal Treatment Study of Children with ADHD (MTA Study), wontedly described as the utmost comprehensive study conducted in child psychiatry to date. Most recently, he founded the Journal of Attention Disorders, thereby creating a distinct scholarly research forum.
Over the years Keith’s interest in ADHD lead to varied research and projects, from consulting during the planning stages of a new educational television show that became “Sesame Street”, to studying the brainwaves of monks during meditation in Nepal. Although a master of psychological theory, he remained active as a clinician and cherished his time treating countless patients and their families.
In his final years Keith had concerns about how the ADHD diagnosis in children and adults, so useful when correctly applied to the few, had become misapplied to so many. Keith discussed his concern in articles and at professional conferences. As his health declined, he allowed Alan Schwarz, a New York Times reporter, to tell his story in a book called “ADHD Nation.”
In his free time, Keith continued to play the game of chess, the game he grew to love so many years before. He was a voracious reader of everything from Plato, to modern novels, to poetry. No matter how many times he listened to his favorite symphonies or operas he always found new nuances making this experience feel like he was hearing it for the first time. Incredibly, this was a man who not only read Steinbeck, but also actually drank with him into the night during a chance encounter in Spain. He appreciated art and spent many hours painting in oil and watercolor. Keith lived and died with perhaps the only department at Duke more important than his own, that is, the athletics department, the home of his beloved Blue Devils basketball team. So important was his team that even after being hit by a car, he refused to go to the ER until the basketball game was over.
Keith worked into his late 60’s and when he retired, he began this new chapter of life with the same robust energy he had while working as a professor. Keith and his wife, Dr. Carolyn Conners (Cofrancesco), were constant learners and enjoyed discovering new hobbies. They started a vegetable garden that led them to learn cooking and canning skills. They both spent as much time possible outside; golfing, biking, spending time at their lake home with their friends, hiking with their dogs, working on their English flower garden, and just sitting on their back porch. With his wife, Keith learned that travel did not always mean attending a work conference. Together, they traveled stateside and internationally exploring and learning about new lands, foods, music, and making new friends. Besides, their date nights attending Duke Basketball games Keith and Carolyn were faithful Tampa Bay Rays fans, which led them to spending time each year at Tropicana Field or following the Rays on away games.
Often referred to as “the father of ADHD”, Keith dedicated over 50 years of his life to advancing treatments in ADHD which helped pave the way for helping countless individuals struggling with this disorder. As stated by Dr. Allen Frances and Dr. Bernard J. Carroll, “Keith’s heart, so devoted to children’s mental health throughout his remarkable life, finally gave out soon after his 84th birthday. We worked with him at Duke and both loved him. We miss him terribly, as will medicine itself.”
Keith is survived by his wife, children, his twin sister, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and nieces and nephews. The family would like to thank the following people: Duke Hospital President Kevin Sowers, Dr. Tom Owens, Dr. Dennis M. Abraham, Dr. Michael A. Blazing, Dr. Patricia Gammon, Mr. Alan Schwarz, Dr. Allen Frances, Dr. Bernard J. Carroll, Dr. Magus Ohman, Dr. Julie Marshall, Dr. Ronald Halbrooks, Mrs. Carol L. Najera, Mr. Wayne McNeil, the doctors/nurses/CNAs on floors 7100 & 7300 at Duke University Hospital, the doctors/nurses/CNAs/social workers/volunteers/housekeeping/families & patients at the Hock Family Pavilion, and Orange County Schools/EC Department.
A warm thanks to Dr. Allen Frances, Dr. Bernard J. Carroll, Mr. Alan Schwarz, Dr. Patricia Gammon, Mrs. Carol L. Najera, Dr. Gill Sitarenios, Dr. W. Brown Patterson, Dr. Steven Stein and Mrs. Carol Wagner whose kind words, and fond memories enriched this tribute.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations are made to the Duke Heart Center in Keith’s name. You may mail a check made out to Duke University (Duke Heart Center, Attn: Ms. Blue Dean, 710 W. Main Street, Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701), by phone 919-385-3144, or online at Duke https://www.gifts.duke.edu/ . If making a gift online, please select Duke Heart Center and note your gift is in memory of Keith.