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Donald N. Bersoff, law professor emeritus, and groundbreaking lawyer and psychologist, has died at 85

He taught at Villanova and Drexel law schools, and his innovative joint law and psychology programs were among the first in the country.

Dr. Bersoff taught graduate classes about law and psychology, and one of his former students said: "Your legacy will live on in your colleagues, students and their children, and clients."
Dr. Bersoff taught graduate classes about law and psychology, and one of his former students said: "Your legacy will live on in your colleagues, students and their children, and clients."Read moreCourtesy of the family

Donald N. Bersoff, 85, of Philadelphia, law school professor emeritus at Villanova and Drexel Universities, groundbreaking lawyer and psychologist, author, consultant, mentor, volunteer, and veteran, died Tuesday, March 26, of complications from Parkinson’s disease at his home in Center City.

A renowned expert in criminal and mental health law, professional ethics in psychology, and how they interact, Dr. Bersoff was director of the innovative joint law and psychology program at Villanova and Hahnemann Universities from 1990 to 2001. He taught students, colleagues, and others how to navigate conflicts between law and psychology, and conducted pioneering research in the law’s overall application to all behavioral sciences.

He returned to the program in 2007, after Hahnemann merged with Drexel, as director of the graduate program in law and psychology at what is now Drexel’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law. He became a visiting professor in 2012.

Dr. Bersoff championed legal and mental health services for all, diversity in law and psychology graduate programs, and robust international collaboration among lawyers and psychologists. “He educated us all to the importance of the interaction of the two fields,” a former colleague said in an online tribute. “He contributed greatly to the field and moved it forward.“

A former student who became a colleague said in a tribute: “An entire generation of law-psychology scholars, researchers, and practitioners owes their professional lives to you.” His wife, Deborah Leavy, said: “He was brilliant.”

Earlier, from 1976 to 1986, Dr. Bersoff was coordinator of the joint law and psychology program at the University of Maryland School of Law and Johns Hopkins Department of Psychology. He was inspired to focus his attention on both law and psychology after seeing legal and ethical problems in unfair public school student placement policies while teaching psychology at Ohio State University and the University of Georgia in the 1970s.

So he earned his law degree at Yale University in 1976 and began investigating the intersection of law and psychology. He represented the rights of women, racial minorities, and people with intellectual disabilities as an appellant lawyer and partner at two Washington law firms in the 1980s, and was president, general counsel, and lifetime member of the American Psychological Association.

He also taught at Mansfield State University in north central Pennsylvania and held workshops at many schools across the country. Former students said he was their “shining star” and “father figure.”

He authored the best-selling textbook Ethical Conflicts in Psychology and contributed book chapters and more than 100 articles to scholarly journals. He also wrote or contributed to more than 50 briefs to the Supreme Court and other courts regarding privacy rights, women’s and adolescents’ reproductive rights, and other issues.

He was quoted often in The Inquirer and other publications, and appeared on CBS, CNN, NPR, and other TV outlets. He served on many boards, committees, commissions, and panels, and was active with the National Academy of Sciences, American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups.

He was a consultant, lecturer, and expert witness in court cases, and he won awards from the American Psychological Association, Pennsylvania Psychological Association, and other organizations. He also was a captain and clinical psychologist in the Air Force in Texas and the Philippines from 1965 to 1968. “He remains my role model,” a former student said.

Born March 1, 1939, in New York, Donald Neil Bersoff graduated from the prestigious Stuyvesant High School at 15 and went straight to nearby New York University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English education in 1958, a master’s degree in educational psychology in 1960, and a doctorate in school psychology in 1965.

He married Janice Daniels, and they had son David and daughter Judith. They divorced, and he remarried, and then divorced.

He met Leavy at a party in Washington in 1987, and she thought he was handsome and funny. They married in 1988, and had son Benjamin, and lived in Washington, Haverford, Radnor, and Philadelphia.

Dr. Bersoff played tennis and golf, and enjoyed interesting conversation and watching sports and shows on TV. “He was thoughtful and gentle,” a friend said in an online tribute. Another said that he “was a good and kind person.”

In addition to his wife, children, and former wife, Dr. Bersoff is survived by a granddaughter, a brother, and other relatives.

Services were March 29.

Donations in his name may be made to the Drexel University JD/PhD Program in Law and Clinical Psychology by emailing David DeMatteo at