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Obituary: Professor Leon Eisenberg, M. D.

Prof. Leon EisenbergThe flag was lowered to half-staff in honor of Leon Eisenberg, the Maude and Lillian Presley professor emeritus of social medicine at HMS, who died on September 15th. He was 87 years old. A child psychiatrist, Eisenberg is known around the world for innovative research in autism, groundbreaking advances in pediatric clinical trials and psychopharmacology, and integration of social experience into the study of disease. He also was a leader of the Medical School’s affirmative action program, established in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Recently, Eisenberg had advocated for a rigorous code of ethics to avoid conflicts of interest in medicine and for depression screening in the primary care setting. In June, he was recognized by Children’s Hospital Boston with an endowment in his name.

Alvin Poussaint, now faculty associate dean for student affairs at HMS and an HMS professor of psychiatry at Judge Baker Children’s Center, joined the School in 1969, just in time to welcome the first class to include black students recruited through the affirmative action efforts. Eisenberg had helped lead the search for Poussaint, a medical doctor who could serve as liaison between the new minority students and the faculty and administration, and who could help continue attracting top minority students from around the country.

What Eisenberg made happen in 1968, said Poussaint, "had an impact on diversity efforts all around the country. …Leon cared." At Harvard, he said, Eisenberg was regarded by many administrators, faculty and staff as a "moral compass".

Kravitz, the George Packer Berry professor of neurobiology at HMS, emphasized that Eisenberg had a deep commitment to increasing and supporting diversity at the School throughout his career. “He was always the first person to be involved," Kravitz said, "and he spoke with authority and with knowledge."

"There are too few tzaddiks [righteous people] in the world," Kravitz added, "and I am greatly saddened that one of them is now gone."

"Leon created an incredible academic environment - probably there has never been an environment quite like that as measured by the number of trainees who went into full-time academic careers," said Arthur Kleinman, the Esther and Sidney Rabb professor of anthropology at Harvard and professor of medical anthropology at HMS, who entered the Psychiatry Department soon after Eisenberg arrived.

Howard Hiatt, HMS professor of social medicine and of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health said, "Leon Eisenberg set standards for his colleagues and his students - standards of which we could be proud."

In 1980, Eisenberg was invited by then HMS dean Daniel Tosteson to build the Department of Social Medicine (recently renamed the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine). Under the stewardship of Eisenberg and then Kleinman, it helped to ignite the careers of students such as Paul Farmer and Anne Becker, the current chair and vice chair of the department, and Jim Yong Kim, the previous chair, who now is president of Dartmouth College. According to Kleinman, the entire lineage has been shaped by its exposure to Eisenberg.

"Leon, together with Arthur, created the environment that allowed all of us to study social sciences relevant to medicine," said Farmer, who in 1990 received joint degrees in medicine and anthropology. Subsequently, Farmer trained at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and, along with Kim, was a founder of Partners In Health, which Eisenberg had supported since its founding. "Without the MD–PhD program Leon crafted in the mid-80s, without his example and teaching and mentorship, it would have been impossible for us to pursue academic careers in social medicine.  The fact that he also supported the development of a new paradigm in social medicine permitted his students to develop service projects that eventually led to new training possibilities for the next generation of physicians."

"I would say Leon follows in the great footsteps of the physician-psychologist-philosopher William James,” said Kleinman, “because James argued powerfully for the broad range of normal experience, for our tolerance of multiple ways of being human."

"Leon Eisenberg is one of the seminal figures in American medicine and in psychiatry of the past half century" Kleinman said.  "He is surely one of Harvard’s greats."

(*) We are thankful to Maynard S. Clark, Faculty Assistant to Leon Eisenberg, from the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA, who had kindly send us the official obituary of HMS, where the above text is qouted from.

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