Dedicated to Laura Wolf
After Charles Krauthammer died at the age of 68 on June 21, 2018, I debated whether he qualified for one of our regular eulogies about psychiatrists. My ambivalence had nothing to do with politics (although my political beliefs generally differed from his); it was a question of whether he should be considered—and identified as—a psychiatrist. After all, for decades he did not make that part of his identification, nor did he put the salutation “Dr” in front of his name (or “MD” after it). Krauthammer was a student at Harvard Medical School. However, researching his medical career proved difficult for me, even in the age of Google, perhaps because it paled in comparison to his later career.
Krauthammer was described himself as a “Jewish Shinto” who engaged in “ancestor worship,” and later studied the renowned medieval physician/rabbi, Maimonides. Like many Jewish boys of his youth, he (and I) wanted to become a physician.
Early in medical school, his spinal cord was severely cut in a diving accident. As chance would have it, two books were left on the side of the pool: Man’s Fate and The Anatomy of the Spinal Cord. Though it was virtually unheard of at that time for someone with his type of paralysis to get through medical school, he did so. He then completed three years of psychiatric training and, according to Wikipedia, he became involved in the creation of DSM-III and in 1978, director of psychiatric research during the Carter presidency.
After becoming a speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale in 1980, his writing ability became obvious, leading to his award-winning journalistic career, highlighted by a longstanding weekly syndicated political column. He thereby became a different kind of diagnostician, evaluating our societal ills and suggesting how to treat them. In a way, that would be consistent with the “social” of our bio-psycho-social model of medicine and psychiatry. As reported in The New York Times, he said he said in a FOX News special in 2013, “If you’re going to leave the medical profession because you think you have something to say, you betray your whole life if you don’t say what you think and if you don’t say it honestly and bluntly.”
Upon his death, his friend George F. Will wrote that when asked about how he became a columnist, “Charles Krauthammer would say, with characteristic drollery, ‘First, you go to medical school.’”
He didn’t write a lot about medicine, but one column in 2015 titled “Why Doctors Quit” got my attention, especially because physician burnout is a special interest of mine. Krauthammer closes with a line about the number one complaint of physicians, electronic health records: “Like my old classmates who signed up for patient care—which they still love—and now do data entry.”
Now that I’ve been retired from patient care for 6 years, I know that “once a psychiatrist, always a psychiatrist.” You can’t help thinking like a psychiatrist even if it was your career for only a few years. I would assume that background helped give his columns an extra level of depth, of insight.
In comparison to other medical specialties, few psychiatrists have received media prominence. Though Charles Krauthammer didn’t publicly identify himself as a psychiatrist, I for one always shall.
Dr Moffic is an editorial board member and regular contributor to Psychiatric Times. Before he retired from clinical work for the underserved population, he was a tenured Professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin.