Ronald Melzack, Cartographer of Pain, Is Dead at 90

“Finally, for the first time, people had a model to try to prove or disprove,” Jeffrey Mogil, a professor of pain studies at McGill, said, in a phone interview. “There was no real pain research field before the gate control theory; after it, people started thinking of themselves as pain researchers, and soon an international society was established.”

Doctors loved the theory, and so did their patients, said Dr. Allan Basbaum, chairman of the anatomy department at the University of California, San Francisco. “The key was the gate,” he said in an interview. “Turn it one way and it closes, and the other way it opens. Whether the information that gets to the brain causes pain depends on the balance of activity in small and large fibers coming through the gate.”


In the 1970s, Dr. Melzack turned to another problem he had been thinking about for years: pain measurement. At the time, doctors had only very crude instruments, like simply asking people to rate their pain level on a scale from 1 to 10 (a method that is still in use). As a young researcher, Dr. Melzack had worked in a chronic pain clinic and befriended a 70-year-old woman with diabetes.

“She was a highly intelligent person with a good vocabulary, and I began to collect her descriptive words about pain, like ‘burning,’ ‘shooting,’ ‘horrible’ and ‘excruciating,’” he told McGill Reporter in a 2008 interview.

He continued to build his adjective collection by listening to many patients’ descriptions and, working with a statistician, divided them into 20 categories, each describing a particular kind of pain: “tugging,” “pulling” and “wrenching” in one category, for instance, and “pinching,” “pressing” and “gnawing” in another.

This descriptive catalog, published in the journal Pain in 1975, became the McGill Pain Questionnaire. It soon became a standard measure worldwide, deeply enriching the conversations doctors have with their patients, and in many cases helping with diagnosis.