Purcell Pearson: A Young Black Man Who Dreamt of Becoming a Psychiatrist

February 23, 2021
H. Steven Moffic, MD

A potential young psychiatrist lost too soon.


Virtually all of the eulogies that we have published over the years have been about psychiatrists. The only exception I recall has been the neurologist Oliver Sacks, MD. We now add another, a 22-year-old black male who was planning to be a psychiatrist. Purcell Pearson was shot and killed in broad daylight on Saturday February 6th, in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee is where I have lived for over 30 years now. When I first came to town, I was asked by the media if there was rampant psychosis in the black community. I answered that it was more likely posttraumatic stress disorders (PTSD) from all the trauma encountered by those living in our very segregated inner city. That was verified 20 years later when I worked part-time in our medium security prison, where young black males were overrepresented and were almost inevitably diagnosed with sociopathy, whereas my reassessment often came up with PTSD.

Over those 30 years, the number of black psychiatrists was minuscule. Research continues to indicate that black psychiatrists are significantly underrepresented among psychiatrists nationally, yet black patients trust them more and tend to have better outcomes, all other variables being more or less equal. In 2020, the overt resurgence of racism, which seems to me to be a psychosocial pathology, calls for more black psychiatrists.

We had Mr Pearson in that pipeline in Milwaukee. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel feature article reported that he wanted to be a psychiatrist to help people of color and to address the stereotypes that negatively influence how black males view themselves.1 In an article posted by his college, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Pearson is quoted as saying:

“If you start to break down some of the stereotypes and break down some of the challenges and barriers to African-American males being successful in society, you might start to create different outcomes for these males.”2

A psychology department chair and mentor also noted Pearson’s interest in how buildings influenced people psychologically. Also stressed was his curiosity about individuals and the world.

Of course, we have black male psychiatrists who are doing just what Mr Pearson called for, including the editor of this series, Frank Clark, MD, and my coauthor, Rahn Bailey, MD, among so many others. But what a tragedy that we will not have another in Purcell Pearson, who already showed signs of being a charismatic leader. We can honor his legacy and life by continuing to address racism, not only with an increase in black psychiatrists, but by reducing gun violence, among other antiracist actions.

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.


1. Shastri D. ‘He held us all together’: UW-Whitewater grad and young entrepreneur Purcell Pearson remembered as a leader. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. February 11, 2021. https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/obituaries/2021/02/11/purcell-pearson-uw-whitewater-grad-killed-milwaukee-leader/4440656001/

2. Pohorski J. Warhawk Purcell Pearson wins 2020 WiSys Quick Pitch state final. University of Wisconsin Whitewater. June 17, 2020. https://www.uww.edu/news/archive/2020-06-purcell-pearson