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Celebrate the lives of psychiatrists we lost this year.
February 14th, Valentine’s Day, is generally a day to celebrate love between a couple or others in love. Yet, it can equally apply to those beloved ones who have passed away. Among psychiatrists, here are some that have died over the last couple of months since our last series of eulogies, in order of when I heard of their deaths. As usual, the sources of information were published obituaries, knowledge I had of their work, and any personal connections that I had.
Darold Treffert, MD: My Name is a Palindrome!
Some readers may recall that Dr Treffert was one of the psychiatrists who wrote his self-portrait, “Get That Piece of Paper” (October 13, 2019), from the series I edited in 2019. It was a poignant, folksy piece about his father, who wanted him to be sure to go far in his education so that he would not be limited in his options. What a prescient piece of advice, given the uniqueness of Dr Treffert’s career.
As part of a career plan for psychiatric residents at the time he went through his residency, he was paid a living wage for 2 years of service at a Wisconsin psychiatric center. His assignment was at Winnebago Mental Health Institute, where he started a children’s unit. There, he encountered some very unusual children who had unique mental abilities, like assembling a 200-piece puzzle upside down. That led to his special interest in savant syndrome, characterized by “islands of genius” within overall limitations. That led to consulting on the movie Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, in which the public was lovingly exposed to an example. That in turn led to many appearances on national media over the years. He ended his career as Research Director at the Treffert Center, an integrated education and treatment center for children.
Since I also worked in Wisconsin from 1989 to the present, I knew Darold both personally and professionally. He was beloved, as was conveyed by all the tributes he received on social media after he died at the age of 87 on December 14, 2020, including:
“Friendly, humble, caring, down to earth, blessed with sheer brilliance and deep wisdom.”- Lamis Jabri, MD
When he saw the son of Dr Jabri for an evaluation, he said to the son as he met him:
“Did you know my name is a Palindrome?”
From then on, he was affectionately known as Dr Palindrome by many, as his name could be spelled the same backward or forward.
Dr Treffert wondered whether there was a little bit of Rain Man in all of us that perhaps could be assessed. Do you have any?
Rodrigo Muñoz, MD: The First Hispanic President of the American Psychiatric Association
I knew Rod from our shared interest in the cultural aspects of psychiatry. When he became president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for 1998-1999, I happened to become president of the American Association for Social Psychiatry, so we tried to put some focus on underserved minorities during our terms.
When Dr Muñoz was introduced as president of the APA at the annual meeting, some of his background was covered. He was born in Colombia and had a grandfather who was renowned as a heroic revolutionary figure. Rod left Colombia to begin his residency at a hospital affiliated with Yale. There, he came under the influence of Daniel X. Freedman, MD, as I did too when I was a resident at the University of Chicago. In 1970, he moved to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee, where I now live. After his first wife died, he and his 3 children moved to California.
He was a beloved educator and received teaching awards from the University of California, San Diego. He also became a role model and hero to many international medical graduates and minority physicians. Still, his major focus was being a clinician, like he was in Sheboygan, and he chose the theme of the 1999 annual meeting: “The Clinician.” Of course, patient care is the essence of who we all are.
Dr Munoz died on November 28, 2020 at the age of 81.
Arthur Meyerson, MD: Community Psychiatrist at Ground Zero
Dr Meyerson was basically a lifelong New Yorker and a leader of psychiatry there. He was a role model for me because of his focus on community mental health, and beloved by many of the community psychiatrists who knew him. He pressed early on for the rights of the chronically mentally ill.
Usually, community psychiatry is practiced for the poor over an extensive geographical area, what used to be called “catchment areas.” However, Dr Meyerson also practiced a unique community service for the traumatized at a much more constricted area. After 9/11/01, he provided leadership and free therapy for those needing it, as clinical director for Disaster Psychiatry Outreach at Ground Zero.
Besides psychiatry, he was also quite involved with the arts, including reading, writing poetry, and singing with his glee club. This is reflected in requested donations made in his name to the Young People’s Chorus and the University Glee Club, both of New York City.
He died on January 27, 2021, at the age of 84. He is survived by his wife, Carol Bernstein, MD, another renowned psychiatrist.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski, MD: Religion and Psychiatry Meet in the “Peanuts” Comic Strips
Abraham Twerski was one of the rare psychiatrists who was also a Rabbi. Or was it the other way around, a Rabbi who was also a psychiatrist? His career made it hard to distinguish, though he mainly worked in psychiatric settings. I identified him as both, as he did in his book, The Rabbi and Nuns.
When growing up in Milwaukee as one of the Twerski Hasidic dynasty of Rabbis, this Twerski had an interest in the comics as silly entertainment. Later he kept books of them, especially the “Peanuts” comic strips, at his desk to reduce his own stress. Specializing in substance abuse, he once had a patient who could not admit that he was an alcoholic until Dr Twerski showed him the familiar “Peanuts” strip of Charlie Brown repeatedly trying to kick a football, but continually missing. The patient connected Charlie Brown’s failure to appreciating his own limitations.
After that, Twerski wrote several books (among his scores of books on the wisdom of the “Peanuts” comic strips) and used them for educational and therapeutic teaching, especially regarding self-esteem.
Eventually, a lasting friendship developed between Twerski and the “Peanuts” writer, Charles Schultz. After Schultz died, Twerski often wore a “Peanuts” tie as a public tribute. Rabbi and psychiatrist Abraham Twerski died himself at the age of 90 after battling COVID-19.
Robert J. Ross, MD, PhD: Combining Science and Clinical Care
Most of the psychiatrist eulogies that I have done over the years have been on psychiatrists my age (74 years) or older. Not so with Dr Ross, who died at home on January 17, 2021, age 38. Given his promising career, that seems especially tragic.
Like myself, he went to medical school at Yale, but in his case, he pursued the even more rigorous MD-PhD combined program. He then continued on to the psychiatric residency program at Yale, where he “was so genuinely enthusiastic about patient care” that he was awarded the Ira R. Levine Award for his skill and devotion in caring for patients with severe psychiatric illness. He was beloved as both a teacher and a colleague. We can only imagine where his twin loves of basic science and clinical care would have led.
Kenneth Altshuler, MD: Hearing the Needs of the Deaf
Spending part of my career at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston from 1977 to 1989, it did not take long for me to know of Dr Altshuler, who came to Texas also in 1977 to begin his career at the University of Texas, Southwestern. He reached the heights of academic psychiatry over a 42year career, 23 of which he was chair of the department of psychiatry. While there, I watched from afar as he transformed a fledging department into one of national scientific renown, as the faculty grew from 6 full-time members to more than 100 psychiatrists.
Besides his administration, he had diverse interests in psychiatry, including psychoanalytic principles, geriatric psychiatry, dreams, and mental illness in the deaf. His services for the deaf were duplicated in many countries.
He received many awards, and with his wife also set up philanthropic funds for clinical psychiatry, education, and communication disorders. Despite all his work, he kept time for his family, including hosting an annual family vacation. He died on January 6, 2021 at the age of 91. Perhaps it was just coincidence that January 6 was the day our Capitol building was stormed, but he might have thought otherwise.
This article was originally posted on February 12, 2021. It was updated for print.
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He has recently been leading Tikkun Olam advocacy movements on climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM.