In Memoriam: John A. Talbott, MD, A Community Psychiatrist for America and Paris


John A. Talbott, MD: More than just a community psychiatrist.

John A. Talbott, MD

John A. Talbott, MD


From our last column on Tuesday, the atypical eulogy of a nonpsychiatrist, that being Norman Lear, we turn now to our usual psychiatrist eulogies. However, there was nothing usual about John A. Talbott, MD, and in his own way, he also tried to improve the culture of America, as well as to praise a certain cultural tradition of Paris later in his life. As such, he was much more than the usual community psychiatrist.

He was born on November 8, 1935, and died on November 29, 2023. His father, John Harold Talbott, was a professor of medicine and editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the kind of editing work that our John later did for Psychiatric Quarterly, Psychiatric Services, and The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Earlier, he attended Harvard and was on the Lampoon staff.

In his editing and other work, Talbott always challenged our status quo to get better. That became evident when he was drafted into the Vietnam War as a captain in the Medical Corps from 1967 to 1968. During that time, his base was overrun during the Tet Offensive. At the same time, I had started medical school and was worried about being drafted when I finished.

Talbott investigated on his own why many soldiers became psychotic when using marijuana, and almost being court marshaled for that, but it turned out that the marijuana was impure. He was awarded a Bronze Star for that as well as succeeding in convincing the troops to take their malaria pills with this strategy:

“The reason they weren’t taking them was because a case of malaria was a ticket home. Then I scared the hell out of them by showing them examples of what malaria could lead to.”

I do not know if he ever used that strategy with patients to get them to take their psychiatric medication.

Later, he became an advocate for the Vietnam vets who developed posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and also became publicly active in the antiwar movement.

His later achievements as a psychiatrist are way too many to give them justice. As he exhibited about Vietnam, any disillusionment in a cause was followed by constructive criticism and corrective action. He backed deinstitutionalization early on, but then criticized the lack of community resources. He served on President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on Mental Health and became President of the American Psychiatric Association in 1984, focusing on the homeless. He was a prolific author, including a book on this distressing trend titled, The Death of the Asylum.

Over all those years, he and his wife visited Paris, where they came to love French food. After he retired from psychiatry, he began the blog “John Talbott’s Paris,” in which he discussed their meals. I love the picture he used for this blog. Instead of his serious professional pictures, this one was of him with a beret on, smiling with the twinkle in his eyes that I recalled when seeing him live.

As usual, I used public obituaries for anything about him that I did not already know, but just in case he wrote his own obituary for family and friends. In it, he wrote:

“If my colleagues wish to hold a Remembrance at either Cornell-Columbia and/or the University of Maryland they may do so as long as they keep their remarks brief, funny, and outrageous.”

I think my remarks are longer than my usual eulogy of a colleague, mainly serious, and complimentary. Sorry, John. I hope you would like this anyways.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

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