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Why do some children genetically at risk for developing mental illness who experience stress and adversity languish in life, while others in the same circumstances flourish? That was the question Norman Garmezy set out to answer through ground-breaking research he conducted at the University of Minnesota.

Garmezy was a clinical psychologist who had already gained an international reputation for his early work in schizophrenia in adults when he teamed with colleagues and graduate students to launch what has been called resilience theory, which instead of focusing on pathology looked at aspects such as cognitive skills, motivation and other protective factors that might hold clues to preventing mental illness. For his work he was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1986.

"He was a pioneer in that field," said Keith Nuechterlein, one of Garmezy's former students and currently director of the Center for Neurocognition and Emotion in Schizophrenia at UCLA. "He had the unique combination of being a visionary and a really rigorous scientist."

Garmezy died of Alzheimer's disease Saturday in Nashville. He was 91.

Called the "grandfather of resilience theory" by the New York Times magazine, Garmezy's seminal work had led to studies around the world that have looked at promoting healthy development in children affected by war, famine, poverty and other disasters, said Ann Masten, professor at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development.

Garmezy was highly respected for his intellectual integrity, professional ethics and mentoring of other colleagues and students who have carried on his work at institutions across the United States, those who knew him said.

"He was a tremendous force in his research and teaching, but he also was a terrific senior colleague, " said Steve Hollon, psychology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "He was always available for consultation and tireless in his efforts to help junior faculty like myself and students in the program deal with problems as they arose."

During his career, Garmezy served on former President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on Research on Mental Health, was president of the Division of Clinical Psychology for the American Psychological Association and was chairman of the Board of Trustees for the American Association for the Advancement of Psychology. He received the Gold Medal Award from the American Psychological Association in 1989 and the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award from the Society for Research in Child Development in 1995.

Garmezy often invited students to his home and always found time to see a movie a week, and "a double feature when he could," Nuechterlein said.

Born in New York City, Garmezy graduated from City College and earned a master's degree from Teachers College at Columbia University. He served in the Army during World War II, then earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa. He taught at Duke University in North Carolina before he joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota in 1961 and retired in 1989.

He is survived by a daughter, Kathy Garmezy of Los Angeles; two sons, Andy of Nashville and Larry of Houston, and five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years, Edith, who died in February.

A date for a local memorial service has not been set.