Lindon Eaves
Lindon Eaves

‘We lost a giant in both science and humanities’

Lindon Eaves, a pioneer in behavioral genetics and co-founder of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetic, dies.

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A memorial service this Sunday will honor a giant in the field of behavioral genetics and genetic epidemiology, the Rev. Lindon J. Eaves, Ph.D., professor emeritus and distinguished professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

Eaves died unexpectedly at home Tuesday at age 77, according to his wife, the Rev. Susan Nuthall Eaves. An online memorial service will stream during an in-person service March 13 at 2 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.

His research focused on the structural modeling of the effects of genes and the environment on behavior and its development. Eaves’ contributions include major advances in statistical genetic methods as well as important contributions to child and adult psychiatry. His extensive, influential career spanned the globe and nearly half a century the study of how genes and environment influence human behavior. He published on topics as diverse as heritability of religion, sleep patterns, smoking, the human microbiomealcohol use in Virginia and Australia, and psychopathology.

VCU behavioral geneticist Michael Neale, Ph.D., shared Eaves’ intense interest in bringing statistical methodology to the field of classical twin studies, going beyond twins to study broader familial relationships. “This is where Lindon’s contributions had enormous impact, both developing the methodology and in applying it to major public health problems. His creativity with developing and applying models was a delight to behold.”

Eaves’ “major advances in statistical genetic methods substantially contributed to our understanding of the causes of individual differences,” said VCU Vice President for Research and Innovation P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D. “His work helped to build a strong foundation for VCU’s pre-eminence in behavioral genetics and we are grateful for his mentoring many among the next generation of VCU researchers.”

Eaves received his Ph.D. in 1970, and later a doctor of science degree at the University of Birmingham (England), where he started his academic career. In 1978, he was a visiting professor at the Medical College of Virginia. Upon returning to England, he earned a master’s in psychology from the University of Oxford the following year.

In 1981, he joined the VCU faculty, moving to Virginia so he could pursue his research on twins and genetics. He was a distinguished professor in human genetics and held a joint appointment in the Department of Psychiatry. In 1988, he became a distinguished professor of psychiatry. He was instrumental in the development of the Virginia Twin Registry at VCU, now the Mid-Atlantic Twin Registry, the largest registry of its kind in the nation.

In 1996, Eaves co-founded the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at VCU with colleague Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., distinguished professor of psychiatry and current director of the institute. Eaves served as co-director until his retirement in 2016.

"Lindon was … in many respects the father of our research field,” Neale wrote to colleagues. “His importance to the field in general, and to our institute in particular, cannot be overstated. We lost a giant in both science and humanities today, as well as a wonderful and generous human being."

Eaves published over 500 papers in such prestigious journals as Nature, American Journal of Human Genetics, Archives of General Psychiatry, Journal of the American Medical Association and Behavior Genetics. According to the citation databases from the Web of Science, Eaves’ publications have been cited over 28,000 times. In 1999, he was ranked 15th in the world in citations of high-impact papers in psychiatry.

Eaves was the principal or co-investigator on many projects, including the VCU component of a multisite project of the National Institute on Drug Abuse called the Genes, Environment and Development Initiative. He developed some of the first programs for model-fitting to twin and family data and conducted some of the first computer-aided design explorations of the power and design of behavior-genetic studies.

His research commanded international respect. He was the academic director of the annual International Workshops on Methodology for Genetic Studies of Twins and Families, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and NATO. In 2000, he received a Doctores Honoris Causa from the Free University of Amsterdam. A scholarly fete was held in his honor in Scotland, with papers and presentations by former students and colleagues later published in Behavioral Genetics, including “The Contributions of Lindon Eaves to Psychiatric Genetics,” written by Kendler and Neale.

Eaves served as president of the Behavior Genetics Association and the International Society for Twin Studies. His many professional honors included a lifetime achievement award from the international Behavior Genetics Association. He received multiple honors from VCU: the School of Medicine Outstanding Research Achievement Award, the VCU Distinguished Scholarship Award and the School of Medicine Outstanding Departmental Teacher Award.

Judy Silberg, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics and the VCU genetics institute, said a fortuitous meeting with Eaves while working on her doctorate in clinical psychology at VCU led to her lifelong involvement in the field of behavior genetics, including more than a decade as scientific director of the Mid-Atlantic Twin Registry. “His was an astonishing intellect and he was a brilliant teacher. He was a wonderful friend and colleague.”

Several former students noted that he frequently encouraged them as they struggled with challenges in their own research. Hermine Maes, Ph.D., a behavioral geneticist and associate professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics and the genetics institute, noted that Eaves often ended his slide presentations with the motto, “BE CREATIVE … IMAGINE …”

In addition to his scientific pursuits, Eaves was ordained in 1968 in Birmingham, near his hometown of Walsall. He encouraged dialogue between science and religion. His lengthy service to the church included positions as celebrant, preacher, teacher and providing a pastoral presence in England and several Episcopal parishes in Richmond. He was an invited lecturer at the Harvard Divinity School.

In addition to his wife of almost 54 years, Eaves is survived by their three children, Hugh (Tatiana), Helen and Thomas (Katherine), and four grandchildren.