When Dr. Pollack died at age 85 of complications of the blood disease myelodysplastic syndrome on Sunday, Jan. 6, at a Tucson, Ariz., retirement community, his was not a household name. But traumatic brain injury as a public health problem is front and center in the national discourse, impelled by the casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan, concussions on athletic fields, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' struggles as a gunshot victim, and most recently, Hillary Rodham Clinton's close call after a fall.
Dr. Pollack also was in the vanguard of the community mental health care movement. As a wave of psychopharmaceuticals in the 1960s sped the emptying-out of mental hospitals, he started a program at Rutgers Medical School to help the displaced gain their footing in the world.
Since 1971, his project, now University Behavioral HealthCare in Piscataway, has burgeoned into the largest community mental health provider in the state and one of the largest in the country.
"He was a visionary, in ways that few [in the profession] are these days," said Paul Lehrer, professor of psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson. When hardly anyone was even trying, "he found ways to reach out to the community so people would accept mental-health services. . . . He made it happen in New Jersey."
Though he lived in Princeton in the decade leading to his retirement, Dr. Pollack was Philadelphia through and through. Born in the city and schooled at Central High, he joined the Navy right after graduation and was stationed in Norfolk, Va. No sooner did his ship weigh anchor for Europe than Germany surrendered, consigning him to port for the rest of his tour of duty.
On the G.I. Bill, he earned a bachelor of science from Temple University in 1950. He got a master's in experimental psychology from Columbia University; a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania; and a medical degree from the University of Vermont Medical School in 1956.
After taking residency training at Johns Hopkins University, he became founding chairman of the department of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. He stayed only briefly before joining the faculty of Rutgers Medical School in 1968. Within four years he was chairman of the psychiatry department, and held the post until 1986, the year the school was renamed for Robert Wood Johnson.
Dr. Pollack was generally credited with shaping the nascent department. "He was an outstanding chairman," said Dr. Marshall Schwartzberg, a retired associate professor of psychiatry. "And the students loved him."
Indeed, every morning, Dr. Pollack made a spectacle of himself by practicing the Chinese martial art tai chi in the medical school atrium - a routine that proved contagious among students and staff.
In the 1980s, his interest in traumatic brain injury morphed into a mission.
His wife of 25 years, Barbara, recalled an incident that drove home the vagaries of TBI. A young man came into his office with a gun, threatening to use it before Dr. Pollack prevailed on him to put it down. The man, it turned out, had been in a car accident. Ever since, he "hadn't been thinking right," she said.
Case after case, she said, had one refrain: "Joe isn't the Joe we knew."
Dr. Pollack focused in particular on so-called closed head injuries, in which diffuse damage occurs as the brain is bounced.
At his Center for Cognitive Rehabilitation, which he opened at Robert Wood Johnson in 1986, he used a range of experts - speech therapists and social workers, clinical psychologists and neurologists - to treat the multiple disabilities that often followed car and motorcycle accidents. But he also recruited actresses and dancers to work with patients, and led field trips to parks and zoos.
Dr. Pollack could not restore what was gone. But he believed the brain could bypass the damage, making it possible for people to lead productive lives.
"They would say things like, 'I used to run a financial institution, and now I'm a clerk,'" his wife said. "Irv would make them understand they were still making a contribution, just a different one."
Dr. Pollack helped found the National Head Injury Association, now the Brain Injury Association of America, an advocacy group with hundreds of chapters. He remained director of the Cognitive Rehabilitation Center until 1998.
In retirement, the Pollacks split their time between Arizona and Vermont, where he pursued his lifelong passion for sculpting. Among his favorite subjects: the heads of friends, in indestructible stone.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Pollack is survived by sons Nathaniel, Joshua, and Jonathan; and three grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife, Lois Franco Pollack.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, at Splendido Continuing Care Community, 13500 N. Rancho Vistoso Blvd., Tucson.
Donations may be made to the Irwin Pollack Scholarship Fund, University of Vermont College of Medicine, 85 S. Prospect St., Burlington, Vt. 05401.
Contact Kathleen Tinney at 610-313-8106.