Campus & Community

Harvard Medical School fetes scholar, names chair

5 min read

Legendary child psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg’s career celebrated

Harvard Medical School (HMS) will endow a new chair named for child psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg, the School’s longtime Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Social Medicine, starting July 1.

Emeritus since 1993, Eisenberg has taught and mentored generations of physicians at Harvard (since 1967) and elsewhere (since 1947).

At 86, Eisenberg is still an active medical scholar and writer. Most recently, he has pressed for a rigorous ethical code to avoid conflicts of interest in medical practice – and for screenings for depression in the primary care setting.

He was celebrated this week (June 22) with a symposium at Children’s Hospital Boston, an event in honor of both the new chair and the intellectual and moral legacy of the man for whom it is named.

At least 75 people crowded into the Enders Auditorium to hear; others listened and watched through a computer simulcast. Master of ceremonies was David DeMaso, who will first hold the new Eisenberg chair. DeMaso is psychiatrist-in-chief and chairman of psychiatry at Children’s Hospital Boston and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at HMS.

Eisenberg, recovering at home in Cambridge from a fall suffered earlier this year, could not attend. But six of his former students and research collaborators told stories of his wide-ranging influence, and along the way compared the longtime researcher and practitioner to Darwin and Lincoln.

“Leon Eisenberg is one of the seminal figures in American medicine and in psych of the past half century,” said Arthur Kleinman, a friend and colleague since 1970. “He is surely – he is surely – one of Harvard’s greats.” (Kleinman, a physician, is the Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor in Harvard’s Department of Anthropology and professor of medical anthropology in social medicine and professor of psychiatry at HMS.)

Myron Belfer, a professor of psychiatry in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at HMS, said his old friend was generous, witty, and modest – as well as the man who ushered in the “modern era” of child psychiatry.

DeMaso recently videotaped a series of oral history interviews with Eisenberg. He reminded the audience that the older scholar’s brilliance might never have lit up the practice of medicine.

He quoted Eisenberg, who grew up in Depression-era Philadelphia: “I had the damnedest time getting into medical school.”

Grades were not the issue; ethnicity was. Eisenberg was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, and the prejudices of the time held many back. But by 1946 Eisenberg was valedictorian of his medical school class at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the two hours of storytelling and reminiscence, a picture emerged of a man who since 1946 has been a nonstop student of how the human mind works, as well as a reliable critic of his own profession.

In a medical discipline once dominated by psychotherapy, Eisenberg was an early advocate for evidence-based psychiatry, arguing that mental illness can be understood best by studying measurable biological factors and environmental influences.

As a scientist, he is known for pioneering work in autism, child psychopharmacology, randomized controlled trials, “brief psychotherapy” for anxiety disorders, and stimulant drugs for troubled adolescents, and for investigating the ways brain structure is molded by social experience.

As a humanist, Eisenberg was an early supporter of social medicine – the practice of health care informed by the social and economic conditions borne by a patient.

He favored bringing the social sciences into a partnership with medicine to improve the delivery of care and forge awareness of cultural contexts.

At Harvard, Eisenberg was in 1968 part of what HMS Professor of Psychiatry Alvin Poussaint called a “gang of nine” – faculty members who pushed for affirmative action in HMS admission practices.

Poussaint is director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children’s Center, and the HMS faculty associate dean for student affairs.

What Eisenberg made happen in 1968, said Poussaint, “had an impact on diversity efforts all around the country. … Leon cared.”

Eisenberg “lights up a room” with engaging ideas, always asks tough questions of his peers, and has created a medical legacy that will “endure long into the future,” said William R. Beardslee, the George P. Gardner and Olga E. Monks Professor of Child Psychiatry at HMS and director of Baer Prevention Initiatives at Children’s Hospital Boston.

Beardslee recalled Eisenberg’s classic paper on the mental health benefits of a healthy social order. Its gist, he said, was “a friend, not an apple a day, will keep the doctor away.”

Kleinman remembered that at professional meetings, Eisenberg was often the only dissenting voice. Over the years, he took on many prominent theorists of the mind, including B.F. Skinner.

“To stand up and speak out was a moral act,” said Kleinman, “not only an intellectual act.”

His old friend was also troubled by what he saw as psychiatry’s failure to influence effective social policy, said Kleinman – so he championed bringing social sciences into the realm of medicine.

Eisenberg “was always an empiricist at heart,” he added, “but one who realized that facts were nothing unless they advanced theories about how to intervene in the world to improve people’s lives.”