Centennial Spotlight: James Blumenthal, Leader in Behavioral Science Research, Retires after 45 Years

By Susan Gallagher

After 45 years of service to the Duke University School of Medicine, James A. Blumenthal, PhD, ABPP, J. P. Gibbons Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, retired in February 2024.

Blumenthal was widely recognized as the leading behavioral science researcher in the field of cardiac rehabilitation and behavioral approaches to the clinical management of cardiovascular disorders. His work developing and implementing biobehavioral interventions for coronary artery disease, hypertension, and depression serves as a model for interdisciplinary research integrating science and clinical practice.

He received his PhD from the University of Washington, where was trained by Robert Kohlenberg, PhD, Joseph Becker, PhD, and Hans Doerr, PhD—mentors who provided a scientist-practitioner model that inspired his career as a clinician and researcher. As a PhD student, he completed his pre-doctoral clinical psychology internship at Duke in 1972-73.

After graduating, Blumenthal returned to Durham for a post-doctoral fellowship in Duke’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development under the mentorship of Redford Williams, MD, at the time a new faculty member and now a professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. 

He credits Williams with introducing him to the concept of the Type A behavior pattern, sparking his interest in psychosocial factors and coronary heart disease.

When Blumenthal joined the Duke Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences faculty in 1979, Williams connected him with Andrew Wallace, MD, then-chief of the Department of Medicine's Division of Cardiology and now an emeritus professor of medicine. Wallace was developing the Duke University Preventive Approach to Cardiology (DUPAC), a novel approach to preventing and treating cardiovascular disease through exercise and other lifestyle behaviors.

Wallace recruited Blumenthal as the psychologist for the DUPAC program, with the mission to provide first-rate clinical services and develop a research program focused on disease prevention and treatment through lifestyle change. Blumenthal established the Clinical Behavioral Medicine Program at DUPAC and helped develop certification guidelines for cardiac rehabilitation programs in North Carolina and throughout the country.  

“Dr. Wallace was a true visionary and recognized the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration,” Blumenthal said. “I was at the right place at the right time, and—as they say—the rest is history.”

As a result of his work in cardiac rehabilitation, Blumenthal was awarded status as a founding fellow of the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation. He subsequently developed Duke’s Transplant Psychology Program and led the program—which now includes five full-time clinical psychologists—for nearly 40 years.

Blumenthal says he was fortunate to arrive at Duke in the “heyday of consult-liaison psychiatry,” when the department’s large Division of Medical Psychology “was emerging as a major force in the delivery of clinical services to psychiatric patients and to patients with a variety of medical conditions ranging from chronic pain to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and various pulmonary disorders.” He was among a group of psychologists who became leaders in the field that eventually became known as behavioral medicine.

“The collaborations and friendships that were formed during those early years literally lasted a lifetime. Our core group was unusual in that we remained together for our entire academic careers.”
James A. Blumenthal, PhD, ABPP

Blumenthal was continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health for 44 years, receiving more than $50 million to support his research activities. He conducted research on lifestyle factors in health and disease, with a focus on cardiovascular disease and psychiatric illness. He led many clinical trials examining the impact of lifestyle factors such as exercise, diet, and stress on patient reported outcomes, disease biomarkers, and clinical events. 

He co-authored more than 475 peer-reviewed publications, with many in high-profile journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), The Lancet, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, and Circulation. He also wrote 65 book chapters and edited three books.

Blumenthal participated in numerous NIH scientific review panels, as well as serving as a reviewer for a number of scientific journals and consulting editor of several journals.

He has mentored many Duke undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, and postdoctoral fellows and served as a clinical supervisor for psychology interns and postdoctoral fellows. In addition to teaching the first-year psychiatry course, he held a half-time faculty appointment for 19 years in the Department of Psychology & Neurosciences, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses.

Among Blumenthal’s numerous awards and honors was being named the J. P. Gibbons Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry in 2014. His seminal work in cardiac rehabilitation was recognized by the Michael Pollock Established Investigator Award from the American Association of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and by the Bakken Pioneer Award from the Cleveland Clinic Heart-Brain Institute. 

He also received the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society of Behavioral Medicine and the Excellence in Health Psychology Research award from the Society of Health Psychology. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate in medicine from Uppsala University in Sweden.  

“What made Duke special was the exceptional resources readily available, including state of the art technology, expertise in many areas of medicine, and talented faculty who were eager to collaborate. I was able to develop important collaborations in medicine, anesthesiology, neurology, and surgery, which have been maintained for more than 50 years.”
James A. Blumenthal, PhD, ABPP