Dr. Shervert Frazier, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia, Baylor, and Harvard Medical Schools, died March 3 in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 93 years old. The world gazes warily on psychiatrists, worried that they possess preternatural secrets about human nature. In offices painted neutral shades, these mythic psychics — these omniscient beings — listen hard, sit silently, and don’t move much.
Dr. Frazier lived in constant colorful motion. With his wife and four children, he relocated across the country 17 times, building the academic career of a supernova. He ran a series of prestigious psychiatric institutions, directed the National Institute of Mental Health, and combined a charisma for administrative diplomacy with a genius for fundraising. There’s a research institute at McLean Hospital named after him.
At the same time, he was intensely devoted to the smallest details of personhood. He treated celebrity private patients — famous artists and musicians — but also recalled the names of elevator operators, and details of someone's sister who was recovering from a respiratory infection. At 3 a.m., on his way up to a hospital ward, he brought overnight security guard staff doughnuts. The institute he ran supported employees who supported families, and he wanted to know them.
As a boy, Dr. Frazier learned to eat fast, because if he didn’t, a line of indigent men waiting at the family’s back door finished his leftovers. He was raised in a series of small Louisianan and Texan towns, following his father’s career as a Baptist preacher. Even in childhood, he was full of what-if ideas, so intellectually restless that, later on, he was as fascinated by anorexia as he was by psychosis and mass murder — and headaches. He entered college at 14 and graduated from med school at 21.
Dr. Frazier was already a psychiatrist, and commissioner of mental health in Texas, when in 1966 a young engineering student murdered his own wife and mother, then climbed a university bell tower and shot 14 more people to death. Studying violence became an immediate and life-long preoccupation. For years afterwards, he consulted to prisons, and the Secret Service called on him to interview suspects whenever the president was threatened. “What kind of man,” his wife sometimes mused, “would specialize in mass murder?”
He understood all the variants of psychiatric darkness, but reveled in practical jokes. When the family lived behind one hospital, he nabbed a skeleton from the anatomy lab, and hung it on the porch for Halloween. He himself was easily surprised. Watching a horror film once with his children, he stood up in the theater and screamed when the murderer leapt out from behind a curtain.
After retirement, he read widely — the last book was a biography of Teddy Roosevelt — and ate a great deal of chocolate ice cream not on his diabetic diet. He met with mentees and students, but also discussed Bible with a beloved Pentacostal caretaker, because he knew that would interest him.
It had been a life of inconceivable accomplishment and busyness. It could have left no time for personal passions. But, fortunately, Dr. Frazier’s greatest passion was people.
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