Three eulogies for the Labor Day weekend.
Labor Day in the United States is the first Monday of September each year, traditionally celebrating the blue collar worker. It became a federal holiday in 1894. Generally, and historically, physicians and other mental health professionals have not been the focus of the holiday. Perhaps that has been changing, given both the drop in organized labor, along with the takeover of medicine by big business and for-profit managed care.1
I tend to provide some eulogies around Labor Day because whether the holiday refers to us or not, our work should be celebrated for its importance and toll on us, especially in these times of our burnout epidemic. Here are 3 psychiatrists and their various psychiatric labors, who I found out passed away in 2023.
Joseph Novello, MD: “Hello, My Friend”
Novello died on March 16, 2023 at the age of 81. Once of his unique characteristics was usually greeting others with “Hello, my friend.”
He was not only an expert in forensic psychiatry, but exemplified the goal of our Psychiatric Times column, “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News,” by having been so active in general society. For example, he was a consultant for media and a weekly columnist for “Good Parenting” for Women’s World Magazine.
To document his work and expertise, he wrote scientific papers and 7 books. Many honors came his way. No wonder he was named “Washington’s Top Doc” in Washingtonian Magazine.
His public visibility seemed to be reflected in numerous memorial service tributes:
“. . . Novello was on my WMAL show occasionally in moments of crisis and always at Thanksgiving, offering a prayer. On the #1 station in DC? Prayers? You bet! One of many reasons WMAL dominated back then.”
“We shared a common cause to help the children in Nairobi who were born from mothers who had HIV in the early days of the illness.”
And a clinically-related one:
“Dr Joe saved me. He diagnosed me with the horrible and debilitating affliction of bipolar.”
Mark David Graff, MD: “Love of Animals and Nature”
I hear of psychiatrists who have passed away in various ways, given that there is not a central repository. The most expansive listing comes out of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), but you have to have been a member and someone has to share the information with the APA to be included in the listing.
Graff came to my attention via my Rabbi son, Evan Moffic. His daughter was connected to my son’s synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois, and she contacted him a few days after her father died on June 2, 2023, at the age of 73. The daughter wanted advice on how to organize a memorial in Los Angeles where her father lived and worked.
Graff worked in various settings in Los Angeles, including the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health and the Southern California Permanente Medical Group as a partner psychiatrist. He also was active in the APA.
Outside of his psychiatric work, he was a member and past President of the Desert Tortoise Council, which connected so much to our own family and our beloved pet turtles. That was a testament to his love of animals and nature, including feeding them and enjoying his backyard wildlife. Love of nature and its therapeutic effects are so important in our age of climate change and environmental toxins.
George Aghajanian, MD: “It’s All About the Mechanism”
At his 90th birthday, his children and grandchildren got together and proclaimed his work mantra:
“It’s all about the mechanism.”
The mechanism referred to understanding how psychiatric medications seemed to work at a level much deeper and complex biological basis than the common chemical imbalance explanation.
He died a year later, at the age of 91 on July 4, 2023. His family had come to the United States after they fled the Armenian Holocaust. That anniversary of our country’s Declaration of Independence seems so fitting, as Aghajanian did so much to help reduce mental illness and increase freedom of thought.
Under the mentorship of Daniel X. Freedman, MD, who later deemed me a gadfly, Aghajanian’s research career at Yale was just taking off as I was a medical student there in the late 1960s. Although his neuroscience research became important for opioid withdrawal and depression, it is in the psychopharmacology of psychedelic drugs that he probably made his most unique and longstanding contribution. Starting that research in the 1950s when it was more open to exploration, decades later he also helped to discover the mechanism of the rapid antidepressant effects of ketamine. Ketamine seems to also have psychedelic effects, and many ketamine clinics have emerged in recent times.
A Prior Eulogy Update
I started doing these psychiatrist eulogies back in 2012. A year later, on June 7, 2013, I did one titled “A Eulogy for Psychiatry’s Abraham: A Model of Ethics, Forensics, Advocacy, and Humanitarianism” about Abraham Halpern, MD, fondly known as “Abe.” At the APA annual meeting earlier in 2013, he was posthumously honored for the second annual Humanitarian Award by the American Association for Social Psychiatry. My wife, who sings an introduction every other week on my weekly videos, sang the song “Mr. Wonderful” about him. Since then, the award has been named in his honor as the Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award. That has become even more personal to me because recently, about a decade later, I have been selected to receive the 2024 Halpern award at the annual APA meeting in New York. It is just another example of how the good work that any psychiatrist does in life can have lasting positive ramifications.
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 Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.
1. Moffic HS. The Ethical Way: Challenges & Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare. Jossey-Bass; 1997.