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Alexander H. Leighton (1908-2007) was a sociologist and psychologist. He was born on July 17, 1908 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Leighton received a B.A. degree from Princeton University in 1932, an M.S. from Cambridge University in England in 1934, and an M.D. from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1936. He served as professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and of Community Health and Epidemiology, Dalhousie University and was a Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. Leighton also taught at Cornell University, where he served as Professor of Sociology and Anthropology.
In 1948, Leighton initiated the first of the post-war studies of the distribution and amount of mental illness in a general population. Named the "Stirling County Study", the research program investigated social factors related to psychiatric health. Leighton's initial investigation concerned an area in Digby, Nova Scotia.
In 1975, Leighton received a National Health Scientist Award from Health and Welfare Canada. He served on various advisory committees for the governments of Canada and the United States and for the World Health Organization. He is an Honorary Fellow in the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the United Kingdom, a member of the Society of Scholars of Johns Hopkins University, and holds honorary doctorates from Acadia University and Université Laval. Leighton is a recipient of a Rema Lapouse Award from the American Public Health Association, a McAlpin Award from the U.S. National Association for Mental Health, and a Joseph Zubin Award from the American Psychopathological Association. The Canadian Psychiatric Association instituted a lecture series bearing his name and also grants an annual collaborative award called the Alex Leighton Joint CPA-CAPE Award in Psychiatric Epidemiology.
In 1975, Dr. Leighton became a resident of Canada. He died in 2007.
The Sterling County Study is still active and is now directed by Leighton's wife, Dr. Jane Murphy Leighton. One of the first findings was that approximately 1 in 5 adults suffer from some sort of mental illness at any one point in time, with the most common being those illnesses that involve depression, anxiety, and/or alcohol abuse. Concerned to see if other areas would show similar findings, Drs. Leighton and Murphy carried out a number of similar studies in other settings such as New York City, Alaska, Nigeria, and Vietnam. Other investigations of this type now number in the hundreds and have been conducted on all continents of the world. All of such studies in North America give results with the same message: mental illnesses are more common than previously expected.