A Eulogy for Psychiatry's Abraham: A Model of Ethics, Forensics, Advocacy, and Humanitarianism

Psychiatric TimesVol 30 No 7
Volume 30
Issue 7

At the recent annual APA meeting, Dr Abraham Halpern was posthumously honored for the second annual Humanitarian Award by the American Association for Social Psychiatry. He was honored for his contributions to ethics, forensics, and advocacy of social issues.

Last September, I wrote a blog on American Psychiatric Association (APA) members who had passed away. Although this year’s list from the APA has not yet been released, one of psychiatry's giants died recently. This was Abraham Halpern, MD, fondly known by his peers as “Abe.”

First names, especially in the Jewish tradition, often have important meaning. They can honor an ancestor, portend a person’s future, or even serve as a prayer that the person should live up to the potential expressed in the name. Later, as my rabbi son once wrote, there can be a name we earn for ourselves. It would be hard to imagine a first name more fitting for Dr Halpern than Abraham.

At the recent annual APA meeting, Dr Halpern was posthumously honored for the second annual Humanitarian Award by the American Association for Social Psychiatry (AASP). He was honored for his contributions to ethics, forensics, and advocacy of social issues. If one looks at some of his namesakes in history, it is clear how well he fulfilled these challenges, as did some of the great Abrahams in history.

First, there is the Abraham in the Old Testament, destined to be deemed the father of 3 religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the Old Testament, God is said to have called out to Abraham (or, "Abram"), who quickly answered, “Hineini, Hineini!" ("Here I am! Here I am!”). He then went on a journey, perilous at times, for a covenant that would produce a nation devoted to ethical monotheism, to change the world for the better. Serendipitously, psychiatry’s Abraham was chosen for the AASP award right around the time of last year’s Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In the morning service, I noticed that my prayer book read, “You called Abraham to righteousness.” I am convinced that our ancient Greek god of medicine and healing, Asclepius, who Dr Halpern talked about a lot, called out in some way to our Dr Abraham and he answered, “Here I am! Here I am!”

Surely Dr Halpern traveled far and wide to support-and demand-medical ethics in the former Soviet Union; China; the US; and Canada, where he started his medical career. In the 1950s, he answered the call as a Medical Officer at the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia. During a mine disaster there, which trapped 127 miners 6000 feet underground, he set up a first aid station 5000 feet below ground while a fire raged in the adjoining mine shaft. Fortunately, 88 miners survived.

We can have no more appropriate model for forensics than Abraham Lincoln, the lawyer turned president, the focus of the Steven Spielberg movie, and subject of over 16,000 books. Dr Halpern has been a leader and president in his own right in the areas of forensic psychiatry and psychiatry and the law. He recommended a change in the insanity defense. He argued successfully in court against his friend Thomas Szasz, also recently deceased, when he felt there was a higher moral cause, like helping to create psychiatric inpatient units in a general hospital.

For an advocacy namesake, I would pick Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Coming from a line of 7 generations of rabbis, Rabbi Heschel came to the US and became a close friend of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, standing in the front line with him on the march from Selma to Montgomery. Abraham Halpern was right there with them, accompanying Rev King as a “medical bodyguard” on his trip. Would it now surprise anyone to know that until his father, there was a legacy of 1000 years of rabbis in the family of Dr Halpern?

Rabbi Heschel was also a major protester of the Vietnam War. Dr Halpern was a leader in the successful protests of the abuse of psychiatry in the former Soviet Union, of the abuse of medicine in capital punishment, of the abuse of the Hippocratic Oath in the use of torture in detainees, of the abuse of the Chinese non-consensual organ removal on Falun Gong adherents, and for the appropriate use of medical marijuana.

Then, there is an Abraham model of sorts in the field of psychiatry for humanitarianism. This is psychologist Abraham Maslow, PhD, who developed the hierarchy of psychological needs, with self-actualization at the top. Some of his criteria for self-actualization seemed to fit Abraham Halpern well: goodness, aliveness, justice, and transcendence, among others.

A moment of silence
These are the Abrahams that I would associate with psychiatry’s Abraham. He does the name Abraham proud, does he not? At the AASP forum, my wife sang a revised version of the song “Mr Wonderful” for him. Now, if you will, take 88 seconds of silence to honor his 88 years of life. Then do what you can to follow in his footsteps. Thank you.

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