William Ellerbe Pelham Jr., founding director of Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families, broke ground in the field of child and adolescent psychology for nearly five decades.
But before he “transformed the lives of countless children, adolescents and their families all across the world including thousands in South Florida” — according to an email FIU Provost and Executive Vice President and COO Elizabeth Bèjar sent to the university’s community after Pelham’s death in Miami at 75 on Oct. 21 — Pelham was like many 21-year-olds in 1969 America.
Born in Atlanta on Jan. 22, 1948, as the eldest of four boys, Pelham was a pre-med student at Dartmouth when he became a “hippie,” his family said in their obituary.
Pelham “nearly attended Woodstock before turning around due to traffic, and left college for a semester to protest the war in Vietnam.”
Perhaps missing Joplin, Jimi and Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock on those muddy New York fields in August 1969, yet still joining the youth movement of the era, inspired Pelham’s clinical psychologist career choice and sent it aloft.
Authority on ADHD
A renowned authority on ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder], Pelham spent the rest of his 75 years surrounded by youngsters and educating students and fellow behavioral experts, scientists and clinicians on campuses across the country.
At Dartmouth in 1970, Pelham took a graduate class with a mentor who cemented his interest and career in clinical psychology. In 1976, Pelham earned his doctorate in psychology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and served as a SUNY distinguished professor and director of the Center for Children and Families at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Before joining FIU to establish the FIU Center for Children and Families in 2010, Pelham taught at Washington State University, Florida State University and the University of Pittsburgh. Pelham was a licensed psychologist in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.
“He guided the careers of graduate students, interns and postdoctoral fellows. He supported early career psychologists and built the Center for Children and Families to a team of nearly 500 researchers, clinical psychologists, staff members and students working to advance the understanding and improve treatments of child and adolescent mental health,” Bèjar said in her email.
“Widely renowned as the foremost authority on the behavioral treatment ADHD, Bill is credited with decelerating the role of medication-first treatment regimens in favor of more evidence-based treatment programs,” Bèjar wrote.
“I helped recruit Bill Pelham to FIU a decade or so ago. It was a privilege to help him connect to so many people and programs that would be vital to his nationally known work. It didn’t take long for him to become a great gift to the children and families of Greater Miami,” said David Lawrence Jr., retired publisher of the Miami Herald and chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida. “For years he also served with expertise and wisdom on the board of The Children’s Trust.”
According to his son, Will Pelham, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and researcher to help children with behavior problems, his father was most famous for developing and popularizing scientific behavioral therapies for ADHD and was an early and persistent advocate for avoiding reliance only on medication.
The senior Pelham had argued that behavior therapy could often reduce the need for medications with side effects and teach skills or develop habits that would last beyond when the medications wore off.
“Today, professional bodies like the American Academy of Pediatricians now recommend his preferred approach of pairing behavioral therapy and medication to best help children with ADHD,” Will Pelham said.
In 2022, Pelham led a team of FIU experts in behavioral research that contradicted a longstanding belief among doctors, teachers, parents and patients that youngsters with ADHD perform better in class while on prescription drugs like Adderall, Ritalin and other amphetamines and stimulants.
“It’s a very surprising finding,” Pelham, the study’s senior author, told the Miami Herald that year from the FIU Center for Children and Families.
“Medication helps a child behave better in school, and doctors and teachers think that is going to result in better achievement so they won’t be falling behind and they won’t fail. What this study shows is the medication has no effect on how much kids learn in the classroom setting,” said Pelham, then 74.
Pelham’s team looked at more than 170 children ages 7 to 12 with ADHD who were participating in the FIU center’s summer treatment program, an eight-week camp for children with ADHD and related behavioral, emotional and learning challenges. They examined children in the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Summer treatment program
Pelham had started the summer treatment program concept in 1980 when he was at FSU, and its methodology spread globally to Harvard University, the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Kansas Medical Center, as well as research centers in Japan, Chicago and Nashville, before coming to FIU in 2010, the Miami Herald reported in 2016.
“We saw that children with ADHD had problems with peer relationships,” Pelham told the Herald at the time. “If you have problems with peer relationships, then you are at risk for a whole lot of other problems when you get older. We did the summer camp to conduct a study on ADHD, and it ended up being a great idea.”
Dedicated family man
According to his family, he met “the love of his life,” his wife, Maureen, when she was working as a speech pathologist in the same hospital that housed Pelham’s ADHD clinic in Pittsburgh, where he was living at the time. Pelham had referred a child for a speech evaluation to Maureen and escorted the patient to her office himself.
“Maureen’s evaluation found little evidence of a speech problem but did result in a first date on Oct. 16, 1987,” his family wrote. They’d marry by 1990.
“My father was my hero. He made difficult things look easy and nothing seemed to shake his optimism for work, life, and family,” Will Pelham told the Herald. “We will miss him terribly.”
Pelham’s survivors include his wife, Maureen, their children, Will and Caroline, and his brothers, Gayle and John.
A celebration of life is planned for early 2024, his son said. FIU’s provost added that FIU will announce an event for the university community to come together to celebrate Pelham’s life and legacy.