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Mitchell B. Max, MD, Pain Specialist, Dies at 59

Mitchell B. Max, MD, visiting professor of anesthesiology, medicine, and human genetics and director of the Molecular Epidemiology of Pain Program at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Pain Research, was found dead in his Pittsburgh home on Oct. 22. His death was ruled a suicide. He was 59 years old.

Dr. Max lived in Maryland and regularly commuted to Pittsburgh after he joined the Center for Pain Research in 2007. His worked on large cohort studies of inflammatory and neuropathic pain.

Born in Jersey City, NJ, in 1949, he received his undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1970 and his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1974. He completed a fellowship in neurology and pharmacology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, studying the pharmacokinetics of opioid drugs. In 1983 he was appointed medical director of the Pain Research Clinic in the pain and neurosensory mechanisms branch of the NIH National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). For over two decades, he conducted research on the mechanisms and treatment of analgesics and neuropathic pain and published extensively. From 2005 to 2007 he was chief of the clinical pain research section of NIDCR.

“I have been privileged to be Mitchell's colleague and friend for some 15 years. I have long read and admired his work, which was often groundbreaking,” said Anne Louise Oaklander, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “He established standards for pain clinical trial methodology and conducted some of the pivotal trials establishing efficacy of tricyclics for neuropathic pain. He showed that their anti-neuralgic actions did not merely reflect antidepressant effects, as many people first thought.”

In the late 1990s, Dr. Max “retooled his career during a sabbatical in Israel and began to conduct studies of the genetics of pain by studying patients with persistent radicular low back pain after diskectomy,” Dr. Oaklander said. His intent was to apply whole genome association studies to pain phenotypes and expedite the development of drugs for pain prevention and treatment.

Doris K. Cope, MD, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) vice chair of pain medicine, worked with Dr. Max after he joined UPMC in 2007. She remembered him as passionate about pain research and incredibly “enthusiastic about his work, his family, and life in general.”

Dr. Max was a fellow of the American Neurological Association since 1990, a member of the AAN (1988–1990), and a member of the American Pain Society (APS). At the APS, he served as secretary from 1988–1990, chair of the Quality Improvement Committee (1988–1995), member of the Decade of Pain Research Planning Committee (2002–2008), and chair of the Analgesic Guidelines Committee (1986–2002), which produced the influential monograph Principles of Analgesic Use in the Treatment of Acute Pain and Cancer Pain.


DR. MITCHELL B. MAX (1949–2008)

His multiple honors and awards include the APS Wilbert E. Fordyce Clinical Investigator Award (1996), the US Public Health Service Citation Award (1986), and the NIH Director's Award (1993).

“Mitchell's death was a significant loss for me, both personally and professionally,” said UPMC colleague Debra Weiner, MD, associate professor of medicine, psychiatry, and anesthesiology in the division of geriatrics at UPMC. “Not only was he an incisive and forward-looking thinker, but he was also extremely kind and generous with his time and his many talents. When I had a new idea, I would run it by Mitchell and if he liked it, I felt more reassured that I was on the right track.”

Russell K. Portenoy, MD, chairman of the department of pain medicine and palliative care at Beth Israel Medical Center, lauded Dr. Max's “extraordinary academic career, during which he made major contributions to the understanding and treatment of pain.” He was not only a positive force for change but also a beloved friend and colleague, Dr. Portenoy said.

Dr. Max is survived by his wife, Lisa, and two daughters, Rachel and Laura, of Garrett Park, MD; his mother, Charlotte Max, of Summit, NJ; and his sister, Lily Siegel, of Chester Springs, PA. Memorial contributions may be made to the Laura and Rachel Max College Fund, PO. Box 394, Garrett Park, MD, 20896.