My dad, wearing many hats

“What does your dad do?” people used to ask me when I was a kid. Always my dad, not my mom, even though she too was a professional. Things have changed today (I think).

This article is about my dad, Henry A. Davidson (1905–1973), who was a doctor, a hospital administrator, a parliamentarian, an author, an editor, a public speaker, and a teacher. Talk about setting a high bar! I can’t imagine what he did with all his free time.

In my post of April 21, 2019, I wrote that most of my academic interests clearly came from him. Now I want to write a brief account of some of his accomplishments.

He was principally known as a doctor (psychiatrist and neurologist) — partly in private practice but much more extensively in related roles. When I was seven, which is about the earliest I can remember hearing about my dad’s professional activities, we moved from Arlington, VA, to Cedar Grove, NJ, so that he could begin a new phase of his career, as Assistant Superintendent and soon-to-be Superintendent/Medical Director of Essex County Overbrook Hospital, a huge public mental hospital that occupied over a thousand acres in Cedar Grove. Growing up there informed my life in many ways, but that’s not the subject of this post. It also provided the topics for many a dinner-table conversation, where I learned about a great many issues, ranging from medical diagnoses to budgeting. As if running this large institution — where he insisted on being both superintendent and medical director, as he deeply believed that there was no such thing as a purely medical issue in a hospital — as if that wasn’t enough, he simultaneously wrote a number of books, wrote countless articles, gave countless lectures, and was the editor in chief of the Journal of the Medical Society of New Jersey (JMSNJ) for a quarter of a century. He also served as parliamentarian of the American Psychiatric Association. As I said above, what did he do with his free time?

His editing the JMSNJ gave me the opportunity to observe literal cutting and pasting (the days before computers, remember), where I would see my dad wield scissors, pen, and tape to edit and improve articles on all sorts of medical subjects. The journal wrote this about him:

…and we are, indeed, fortunate in having Dr. Henry Davidson as our editor. He is renowned and experienced; he is knowledgeable in matters editorial, medical, and organizational; and, in addition, he works!…

Along with editing, he wrote dozens (perhaps hundreds) of articles. I remember three in particular:

  • “The Land of Insulin Addiction” was a satire on popular attitudes toward drug addiction, in which he described a fictional country in which nobody believed that diabetes was a disease. Diabetics were described as “insulin addicts” and filled the prisons because they didn’t have the will power to stop using insulin. Some readers, of course, totally missed the point and thought that he was claiming that diabetes wasn’t a real disease!
  • “Call Me Mister” asked doctors to stop first-naming their patients though they insist on being called Dr. So-and-so themselves. (As an aside, I note that my current doctor (actually a physician’s assistant) insists on being called by her first name though she always addresses me as Mr. Davidson. Something gender-related here, perhaps?)
  • “Competition, the Cradle of Anxiety” (published in Education magazine in 1955) was a plea for academically oriented schools to be less focused on being hyper-competitive, a plea that is even more relevant today, 64 years later.

There were also plenty that I don’t remember, even though I have copies of articles that range from “Plantar Reflexes in Normal Adults” to “Mental Deficiency and Criminal Responsibility” to look through the early 1930s alone!

I also have copies of all six of the books he wrote:

  • A Short History of Chess
  • Forensic Psychiatry
  • A Handbook of Parliamentary Procedure
  • Guide to Medical Writing: A Practical Manual for Physicians, Dentists, Nurses, Pharmacists 
  • The World of Doctor Whatsisname
  • Opportunities in a Psychiatry Career

You may be wondering what the common theme is among all these books on disparate topics; at first glance they seem to be randomly diverse. But there’s a hidden theme, as I eventually figured out.

Do you want to know?

They all sit on the interface between the technical and the non-technical, the scientific and the humanistic. That interface ended up informing my entire career as well, and it can’t be a coincidence.

Unsurprisingly, there’s also a Wikipedia article about my dad. And you can find his obituary in the New York Times.




Categories: Books, Life, Teaching & Learning