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Melvin Sabshin: A Profile

Melvin Sabshin: A Profile

Bestowed in gratitude in recognition of (his) superb, invigorating leadership of the American Psychiatric Association, his dedication to the principle that the highest quality patient care rests firmly on a true integration of the latest advances in psychodynamic and psychobiological thinking, and his strong advocacy for the scientific validation of what we do--all accomplished with his own consummate grace and elegance.

Thus reads the latest award given to Melvin Sabshin, M.D., just before his full retirement in January from almost a quarter-century of serving as medical director of the 41,000-member American Psychiatric Association.

Given by the American Psychoanalytic Association, this first-ever President's Award is just one of many prizes Sabshin has won over past decades, including the Thomas William Salmon Medal of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Award from the APA 10 years before.

Although Sabshin, 72, retired from his long-held APA position, he did not retire from psychiatry. He accepted a position as clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland, and will be working on an encyclopedia and other writing projects while remaining active in international affairs.

In a telephone interview with Psychiatric Times, Sabshin, the author of more than 140 scientific reports and coauthor of five books, reminisced about his life and career, and discussed his future plans.

Early Years

He was born in New York City where his father, a doctor, had his office in the house. This influenced Sabshin to practice medicine. "As a kid, I actually went out on house calls with him. He was this great old-fashioned general practitioner who charged $2 if you came to the house and $3 if he went to your home. My mother was very much involved in his work, and it was all quite marvelous."

The young Sabshin attended Townsend Harris High School, a city school that required an entrance examination.

"It was one of the best parts of my education," he said. "I graduated at age 14 and then we moved to Florida, where I graduated from the University of Florida at age 17." He laughed. "I was sort of a fast spurt as a kid."

After receiving his B.S. degree, he went into the United States Army. The year was 1944.

"By this time, I had pretty much decided I really wanted to go to medical school," he said. "We had fun in our family by agreeing I would go to medical school and decide afterwards what I wanted to do. So I was assigned in the army to a hospital in New Orleans and got accepted to Tulane University School of Medicine."

It was during medical school that he moved toward psychiatry.

"There were a lot of things combined in that, including the fact that Robert Heath had come down from New York to chair the department of psychiatry [at Tulane]. He had all sorts of exciting ideas so I applied to stay in New Orleans after medical school."

Sabshin did his internship at Charity Hospital, followed by a three-year psychiatric residency and then a one-year fellowship in psychiatric research at Tulane.

"This was a very exciting time," he said. "Heath had a very interesting department in which there was heavy emphasis on his particular research, which was related to neurophysiological aspects of schizophrenia."

"He did some real pioneering work in that, and the department also had a great psychoanalytic program, which was connected to the program at Columbia University."

After finishing his work at Tulane in 1953, Sabshin went to Chicago, where Roy Grinker, M.D., gave him a research assistantship at Michael Reese Hospital.

"In those days it was a very good hospital," recalled Sabshin, adding that recently the institution has had problems under managed care. "I worked there at the Institute for Psychosomatic and Psychiatric Research and Training, and then became assistant director to Roy, with David Hamburg as the associate director. Grinker himself had been a neurologist before going into psychiatry, and had written a textbook in neurology as well as some of the early books on psychosomatic medicine. It was a great group and those were fun years, with a lot of first-class research done there in psychosomatic contexts."

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