A Gentleman Psychiatrist

In memory of Philip Isenberg, M.D.

Posted Dec 10, 2019

Courtesy of Levine Chapel
Source: Courtesy of Levine Chapel

There once was a kind of psychiatrist that was a gentleman, a little elite, but maintaining the common touch. Three years ago, Philip Isenberg, M.D., passed away. He is not well-known outside of local circles of Harvard psychiatry. But he deserves some commemoration by those who knew him.

For over 20 years, he was the psychiatry residency director at McLean Hospital. In those decades of the 1970s to 1990s, McLean was the preeminent Harvard psychiatry program. Looking like a college campus, its manicured grounds oozed privilege, and it felt like a privilege to be there for those of us who trained there at that time.

I was in Phil’s last residency class, 1991-1994, after which he retired. Our assistant residency training director, Edward Hundert, M.D., would go on to be President of Case Western University in Cleveland, and now is Dean of Harvard Medical School. McLean was at its peak: Its faculty included Alan Schatzberg, who would go on to become chairman of psychiatry at Stanford; Mauricio Tohen, later to head antipsychotic development at Eli Lilly; Jonathan Cole, founder of the NIMH Psychopharmacology Program in the 1960s; Ross Baldessarini, a senior founder of the field of psychopharmacology; and John Gunderson, the prominent researcher in borderline personality disorder. We even had over 50 part-time psychoanalysts on the faculty who were available to us for supervision. They were all dismissed right after we graduated. We were lucky residents to have had such excellent teachers.

And at the helm of all this hubbub sat Phil Isenberg. He had a square jaw that gave him a rugged handsomeness, yet his eyes were soft, and his voice quiet. Trained as a psychoanalyst, he exuded a calmness that engendered trust. He didn’t seem to specialize in anything in particular, like everyone else, but he seemed to know enough about a lot. 

Psychiatrists never forget their residency interviews, especially where they end up training. I came to Harvard in the late 1980s from Virginia, where I had done all my education in public schools, including medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. I knew McLean was the most competitive program in the country, so I arranged a medical student elective before applying. I got recommendations from some of the faculty I met there, which, along with good grades and scores, landed me an interview with Phil. 

As we talked, I knew that I was not his typical trainee. In fact, of the nine people he eventually selected in our residency class, if I recall correctly, four were Harvard Medical School graduates, two were MIT graduates, and only three came from non-Ivy League schools: me, Godehard Oepen (a professor of neurology who had moved from Germany and already was well-published), and Jim Hegarty from Penn State, who would become my closest friend. Jim was only partially an outsider since he had obtained an MPH at Columbia, and also co-authored a cover article for the Journal of the American Medical Association before he applied. Of this crowd, I was the least accomplished.

I recall in the interview how nervous I was and how I knew the odds were against me. And I’ll never forget that twinkle in his eye when Phil signaled that he was going to let me in. We were discussing, I think, how all my education had been in Virginia up to that point, and he remarked: “Well, I’m glad I discovered you.”

I later asked Phil why and how he picked me to join that class, and how he picked residents in general, since McLean received so many applications from people with the highest qualifications.  “I know everyone is smart and capable who applies,” he remarked, “so what I do is to try to pick a group of people that will work well together.” In other words, he said, he took their intelligence and academic skills for granted; he chose based on their interpersonal skills.

I got to know Phil somewhat, though not too closely, over the next few years. I learned that he had been captain of the Harvard football team, and Jim (who had played high school football in Pennsylvania) mentioned that in his interview, football was a central theme on which they connected. I learned that he lived in a fancy house in Beacon Hill. I learned that he had suffered tragedy in the murder of his young adult daughter while she was living in New York City in the 1980s. 

Phil retired quietly in the mid-1990s, and I didn't see him again for over a decade when we ran into each other in the parking lot one night at McLean. He still came now and then for some events. Then a few years later, in my last interaction with him, he called me on my cell phone. “Nassir,” he asked, “do you think it’s safe for two old Jewish people to visit Iran with a tour?” Yes, I replied, without hesitation; I encouraged him to go and let me know how it went.

I didn’t hear back and then found out recently of his death. 

He left me with a parting gift: that brief interview—and all that it led to in my life and work—that twinkle in his eye; and that knowing comment.

“I’m glad I discovered you.”