updated 4/10/2006 1:44:47 PM ET 2006-04-10T17:44:47

Psychiatrist Leonard Neff, who worked with Vietnam veterans and helped improve diagnosis and treatment for what became known as post-traumatic stress disorder, has died. He was 80.

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Neff died March 26 at his home after battling cancer, daughter Jane Neff Rollins said.

Neff was working at what is now the Veterans Affairs psychiatric hospital in West Los Angeles in 1974 when he helped persuade a 22-year-old Vietnam veteran to surrender after the man dressed in combat gear and took three men hostage, said Floyd Meshad, a psychiatric social worker who was at the scene.

Himself a World War II veteran, Neff joined an effort to study the disorder that had described for decades as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue.” He helped officials understand how a traumatic experience in wartime can surface much later, and urged better services for Vietnam veterans.

“He said no matter who you are under this kind of circumstance, that being war it will leave a mark, and that mark is predictable and understandable, and we need to do something about it,” said psychologist Charles R. Figley, who heads the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University.

In 1976, Neff and others presented a definition of the phenomenon to a psychiatric association convention. Neff was “instrumental in making sure (post-traumatic stress disorder) became an actual diagnosis in 1980,” Figley said.

After leaving the veterans hospital, Neff entered into private practice. He also was an adjunct professor at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.

The Illinois-born Neff was attending college when he was drafted into the Army. He served in the Pacific but did not see combat.

He is survived by his wife, Essie; three daughters; a son and four grandchildren.

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