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Bernard Schoenberg 1927-1979

By Nicholas P. Christy '51

This series, Faculty Remembered, features profiles of former faculty members at P&S. The author of the series is a 1951 P&S graduate and former professor of medicine. He is now special lecturer in medicine and writer-in-residence at P&S.

Bernard Schoenberg, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, held P&S faculty and hospital appointments for a short time—only 20 years—but he made a powerful impact on the medical center and on psychiatry at large. Colleagues in New York and around the country regard his contributions as unique, seminal, and significant.

Looking back, you find that his short career showed a curiously orderly progression—probably unplanned—from the particular to the general: organic medicine in medical school and internship, residencies in psychiatry, training in psychoanalysis, the “discovery” of psychosocial psychiatry (a term he coined), study of death and bereavement, development of novel methods for psychiatric training, administrative work chiefly concerned with academic matters or, plainly put, with teaching in general.

The bare bones of his curriculum vita merely sketch his accomplishments. A native New Yorker, he attended Columbia’s School of General Studies, graduated from P&S in 1954, interned in medicine at Boston City Hospital, and took residency and traineeship at Boston State Hospital, Presbyterian Hospital, and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, earning his certificate in psychoanalysis at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1964. Rising through the P&S academic ranks, he became professor of clinical psychiatry within 16 years, in 1975. Also that year he was named associate dean for academic affairs at P&S and director of the Health Sciences Program on Ethics and Values in Health Care.

With his left hand, so to say, he engaged in the private practice of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, held five editorial positions, founded and edited a new publication, Man and Medicine: The Journal of Values and Ethics in Medicine, and took part in 20 seminars or symposia on psychosocial subjects and on death and dying at a time—1962-1978—long before death became a fashionable subject for serious study in medical schools. For most of those scholarly meetings he served as chairman or co-chairman. He also was appointed to 38 committees and advisory boards dealing with increasingly general topics: from teaching nurses a psychiatric approach to patient care, through design of new curricula, to community affairs, thanatology, relations between Columbia University and P&S, and medical ethics. He produced 46 papers and authored or co-authored six books; he held several grants from the federal government and other agencies.

That catalog speaks for enormous and varied activity and academic success but fails to define the far-reaching quality of his influence on the teaching and practice of psychiatry—earning him the Dean’s Award for Contributions to Teaching in 1977.

Understanding the characteristics and novelty of what he did requires detail. Schoenberg was widely known for understanding and espousing the needs and point of view of the medical student. Since his empathy with all kinds of people was obvious this is no surprise. But his lifelong partiality toward the student was probably intensified by an event that occurred during his second year at P&S: He was, he believed, victimized by what seemed tyrannical behavior by a faculty member, requiring Schoenberg to repeat the year to avoid expulsion. This punishment he never forgot.

In developing new psychiatric teaching programs for students, residents, and members of the allied health professions he displayed an uncanny talent for seeing the implications of present actions for future outcomes—an ability to translate concepts into plans, plans into detailed procedures. In all his instruction, he laid stress upon physician behavior, a matter all but ignored by most faculty members, with the notable exception of the late Albert W. Grokoest, a distinguished rheumatologist in the P&S Department of Medicine. His “invention” of psychosocial psychiatry grew out of a perceived need to know in detail the patient’s physical, family, and social background in order to construct a treatment plan specifically suited to that patient. His interest in death, dying, and bereavement stemmed from the neglect of those subjects in the training of doctors. Many of Schoenberg’s papers, books, and seminars dealt with these topics in general and in particulars.

His later concentration on ethics (from a Greek word meaning “character”), variously defined as “the habits and manner of man or of animals,” “the rules or principles which govern right conduct,” or “a study of the … specific moral choices to be made by the individual in his relationship with others,” came from his preoccupation with right action by physicians. He was the prime mover in the systematic study of medical ethics at P&S.

In his final years in the dean’s office, first specializing in allied health affairs and later in academic programs, he broadened the scope of psychiatric teaching as it pertained to other medical fields. He also supported the dean at the time, Donald F. Tapley, in many capacities: as sage adviser in difficult personnel problems, in recruiting senior faculty members, and in crisis management—in the common phrase, as troubleshooter.

In January 1979, at the onset of his final illness, he was solicitous in talking to his wife, carefully editing what he told her about his disease and his grim prospects for survival in a way calculated to impart enough to instruct, not enough to distress. She recalls, “He left me verbal legacies,” which she treasures. Dying only four months after the start of his lymphoma of the brain, he left a host of mourners. His friends comprised an astonishingly wide range of people within and outside of medicine. A staff member who had spent fewer than eight hours in Bernard Schoenberg’s company still thinks of him as an intimate friend. Such was Schoenberg’s effect on his associates. A great bear of a man with a booming voice, he was nonetheless unfailingly gentle, leaving to the profession and to patients a general legacy of warmth, concern, and constructive imagination, a combination uniquely his own.

The writer acknowledges the help of Donald F. Tapley; Sidney Malitz of the Department of Psychiatry; Robert J. Weiss, former dean of the School of Public Health; Mrs. Kermit L. Pines; and Dr. Schoenberg’s widow.

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