Leon Eisenberg, MD
Physicians for Human Rights mourns the loss of child psychiatrist, medical educator, and human rights advocate Leon Eisenberg, MD, husband of PHR founding board member Carola Eisenberg, MD.
PHR CEO Frank Donaghue said:
The board and staff of Physicians for Human Rights express our appreciation for Leon’s lifelong commitment to the advancement of human rights, and extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Carola, and his family and friends. We will all miss our dear friend and colleague.
PHR Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin added:
Leon was a towering figure in advancing social medicine and passionate about human rights and dignity. He will be deeply missed.
The American Academy of Arts Sciences captured many of Dr. Eisenberg’s accomplishments in a death notice published in the New York Times:
To the medical community, he contributed pathbreaking work in child psychiatry and an abiding concern with the relation between the practice of medicine and the lives of patients. As the Communications Secretary of the Academy for seven years, he informed our work with his gentle humor and his wide-ranging knowledge and interests. He helped to ensure that merit and diversity were the hallmarks of our membership and that the communication of information and ideas across fields and professions was our responsibility to society.
PHR is deeply moved and grateful that Dr. Eisenberg’s family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Physicians for Human Rights or Partners In Health.
Last year, Harvard Medical School’s Focus Online profiled Dr. Eisenberg. The piece described Eisenberg’s difficult entry into medical school in the 1940s; he was a straight A student but most schools would not admit him because he was a Jew. He was eventually admitted to Pennsylvania School of Medicine, rose to the top of his class and graduated valedictorian. He was nonetheless denied an internship, along with the seven other Jews who applied, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
He went to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, where he discovered psychiatry…. In 1952, after a two-year stint in the Army teaching physiology to military doctors, he began a residency in child psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, where his doubts about psychoanalysis were encouraged by the great psychiatrist, Leo Kanner….
Eisenberg would join him in his exploration of the newly identified psychiatric disorder, autism, paying special attention to the social, and especially, the family setting of the children in which it appeared.
Though Eisenberg suspected a genetic basis to the then rarely diagnosed disease, it would be years before the tools existed to look at it. In subsequent years, he turned his attention to more common childhood problems, such as school phobia, looking once again at the social setting in which they occurred.
In 1962, Eisenberg launched the first randomized clinical trial of a psychiatric medicine. “As simple as it seems, as straightforward, child psychiatry had gone on for 40 years before somebody did a randomized clinical trial,” said Earls.
The Focus piece also noted Dr. Eisenberg’s role in increasing the number of Black students at Harvard Medical School.
“Since being Jewish was no longer an issue in medical school after about 1950, I had thought that my job was to fight for the people who were being excluded, which were blacks,” he said. He was asked to chair the HMS commission on black community relations and the HMS admissions committee for the first seven years of affirmative action. “It was a wonderful place to see to it that the plan was implemented.”
Dr. Eisenberg’s commitment to fairness was constant and always included a focus on the institutions that he worked in.
A case in point was a festschrift held on the occasion of his 60th birthday. Former students presented an extraordinary array of papers, each of which Eisenberg thoroughly critiqued.
“At the end, when you would have expected Leon simply to say, ‘I’m so delighted, and I want to thank you for what you’ve done,’ well, he said all those things, and then he said, ‘You know, I just want to be honest with you,’” said Kleinman. “‘You’ve all become professors now, and you’re all outstanding in what you do, but I want to ask you this—have you used your tenure to go up against the system that we’re in? Have you spoken out?’”
With great admiration for Dr. Eisenberg’s contributions to psychiatry, medical education and human rights, the entire PHR staff extends our condolences to his wife, Carola; to his family; and to all who have been his friends, colleagues and students.