As a noted psychiatrist, humanist, and philanthropist, Dr. Assad Meymandi was our obvious first choice to interview for our new column, “I’m a Psychiatrist,” a series of interviews we will be featuring in the journal that recognizes practicing psychiatrists who offer something unique and positive to the ever-evolving field of psychiatry. With his unwavering commitment to give back to the community and help those less fortunate and his robust thirst for knowledge and appreciation of the beauty of life, Dr. Meymandi is an example to us all of how to be truly thankful for this world in which we live. We hope you enjoy getting to know Dr. Meymandi as much as we have.
Psychiatry (Edgemont). 2010;7(6):45–48
This column is dedicated to practicing psychiatrists worldwide. In this series of interviews, we will feature practicing psychiatrists who offer something unique and positive to the ever-evolving field of psychiatry. If you would like to recommend a colleague to be featured in the “I’m a Psychiatrist,” series, please e-mail Elizabeth Klumpp, Executive Editor, at eklumpp [at] matrixmedcom.com
What inspired you to become a psychiatrist? My parents were aesthetes. They exposed their children to the rich and wide disciplines of poetry, theology, philosophy, literature, music, opera, the arts, the humanities, and basic sciences, such as physics, mathematics, biology, and natural sciences. My siblings and I were blessed with books and literature. I was reading Eusebius of Pamphili’s (Josephus’) biography of Jesus when I was five and had published my first piece, a story translated from Honore de Balzac, in the local Newspaper, Bidaree when I was three.
To answer the question, at the start of my senior year in 1961 at George Washington University School of Medicine (GW), Washington, DC, I was flattered and humbled by the Chairman of Department of Surgery, Dr. Brian Blades, the demi-God of cardiothoracic surgery and fierce rival of Drs. Alfred Blalock of the Johns Hopkins and Michael DeBakey of Baylor. One morning, he called me into his vast office (so vast that a farmer could plant several allotments of tobacco, cotton, and corn). He said that he wanted me to go into surgery, and as a starter, he appointed me as an acting intern. That evening, he took me home in his chauffeur-driven limousine (almost two zip codes long) to meet his wife and have dinner with them. It was a heady trip, wearing a long coat, countersigning my classmates’ orders, and presenting clinical cases on Saturday morning surgical rounds—astonishingly appealing. I diligently discharged my responsibilities as a straight surgical intern, doing clinical work during the day, and working in the dog lab at night. But after a few months of scrubbing on unglamorous hemorrhoidectomies, hysterectomies, cholecystectomies, prefrontal lobotomies (Freeman and Watts were doing tons of them at GW) and the occasional thyroidectomies, I got so bored out of my skull that I could not take it anymore. However, I endured the ritual and enjoyed the lofty status of being Dr. Blades’s acting intern. Then, there was Dr. Winfred Overholser, Professor and Chair of GW Psychiatry as well as superintendent of Saint Elizabeth Hospital in DC. Dr. Overholser used to give us a three-hour Saturday afternoon lecture on all aspects of psychiatry with cutting-edge research in psychopharmacology and the exciting promise of tranquillizers and tricyclics. I fell in love with Dr. Overholser’s intellect, vast reservoir of knowledge, his wisdom, and balanced view of life. He offered me a position at St. Elizabeth to spend a little time in the White Laboratory under his direct supervision. Those hours with him brought me so much stimulation, excitement, and joy that I literally divorced surgery and the aspiration of becoming a neurosurgeon and quickly married psychiatry.
What has being a psychiatrist taught you most about yourself? After completing my rotating internship, I chose psychiatry. My fun and enjoyment continues to this day. Psychiatry has offered me the opportunity to have my roots grounded in mother medicine and be spiritually committed to the holy profession’s priesthood and the calling to be a servant to one’s fellow humans whose care we are privileged to assume. Additionally, psychiatry has offered me the opportunity to expand my horizon of knowledge and function as anything I choose: a poet, a philosopher, a biochemist, a physiologist, a healer, a basic scientist, and a chronicler/journalist/writer. In this era of super-specialization, there is the danger of learning more and more about less and less, the ultimate of which is knowing everything about nothing. Psychiatry prevents that from happening. In psychiatry, I learn more and more about more and more. The biodynamic, sociodynamic, and psychodynamic of humans, our patients, and life in its totality are powerful catalysts to continue to learn and expand one’s knowledge. I am in the process of endowing a Chair called Chair of Ideas and Curiosity to University of North Caroline system to encourage producing more learned generalists. The masthead of the Wake County Physician, a publication I edit that is now in its 15th year, reads “Celebrating Medicine, the Arts, Intellect, Ideas and Curiosity.” Psychiatry has shown me the landscape of my potentials in all phases of life and assisted me in ever approaching to meeting those potentials.
How has your love of humanities and the arts affected you as a psychiatrist? It is the other way around. Psychiatry has enhanced my love for, and commitment to, all muses (arts and humanities). Psychiatry has offered precedence to many notable scientists/ humanists, such as J. J. Putnam, Professor of Neurology at Harvard who became the first president of American Psychoanalytic Association, and Sir Philip Roth, a physiologist who became Putnam’s counterpart in England. The 21st century is witnessing the creation of the science of mind of which Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel is a pioneer. Psychiatry with its vast reservoir of possibilities offers its student the incredible capacity to learn, process, and enjoy all forms of knowledge and information, including astronomy, theology, and physics.
If you could change just one thing about mental healthcare in the United States, what would it be? For the discipline to become more scientifically oriented, to return to its roots of medicine, and for its practitioners to become more altruistic and less worried about income stream. I do worry about our ignoring the basic principles of practice of our holy profession— ethical codes, such as that of Hippocrates, Moses Maimonides of Cordoba, and Persian physician Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna), and the writings of Sir William Osler. The centrality and centricity of any medical practice should be on the joy and privilege of taking care of others.
What excites you most about current research in the field of CNS/psychiatry? I think the emergence of “science of mind,” which is the marriage of the basic sciences of genomics and neurobiology with psychoanalysis, will produce the majority of Nobel Laureates in the 21st century—folks like Eric Kandel.
What do you anticipate will be the next big breakthrough in psychiatric treatment? The influence of genomes—predicting diagnoses and preventing illnesses from ever becoming clinically manifest. I believe the gospel of prevention at its molecular level will be widespread and available to every citizen as inoculation and vaccination were in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The 21st century will see prevention of disease on the molecular and genomic level.
You were born in Kerman, Iran, youngest of nine children, to parents who encouraged a love of education, arts, and charity for the less fortunate. How do you think your heritage and upbringing shaped you as an adult? They say Moses wrote the Pentateuch, scholarship notwithstanding. But in those five books, no matter who the author, I see hundreds of references to “How You Become What Parents Teach You to Become!” Before Moses, the Egyptian and Greek writers and sages elaborated on parental influence on children’s upbringing. My ancestral religion Zoroastrianism and Zarathustra’s holy book, Avesta, devotes the entire Book of Goshtasb to the issue of parental influence in raising children. Zarathustra or Zoroaster’s holy trinity is “Good words, good deeds, and good thoughts.” Avesta is all about how you imbue your children with this holy triad emotionally, intellectually, and actually.
From my parents and older siblings as well as teacher at the French Jesuit school, College Saint Louis, in Tehran where I attended, I learned that in life one should grow and not stagnate. The three essential elements of growth are as follows: know a little more today than you did yesterday, be a little more loving today than you were yesterday, and do fewer bad things today than you did yesterday. To this day if I go to bed and in my intellectual inventory I realize that I do not know something more today than I did yesterday, I get up and read or do something about that obligation. Expanding one’s intellectual capacity by enriching one’s cognitive functions is an essential part of growth.
I also learned the triad of how to love and be loved, which is 1) to not be abusive to one’s self, such as overeating, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, falling victim to addictions, not exercising, and allowing stress to overcome you; 2) to not be abusive to others, such as classmates, colleagues, hired help, and patients. To this day I am never late for patient appointments. A 10:00 AM appointment is not 9:59 and is not 10:01. It is 10:00 AM. I do not abuse my patients by making them wait for me; and 3) to not allow others abuse you. There is no excuse for peer pressure. Learn the holy word “NO.”
I have a 13-chapter outline of a book on the essentials of emotional and mental health, which I will publish one of these days, and these chapters have nothing to do with psychiatric training and have all to do with parental influence.
How old were you when you immigrated to the United States? I did not immigrate to the United States. I came to the United States in 1955 at age 20 to go to college and study medicine. Seven years later (after 3 years of pre-med and 4 years of medical school [I became an MD in 1962]), I decided to stay here. I accepted a permanent visa in 1966 and citizenship in 1976. It took me 21 years to make the decision of staying. To change my citizenship and abandon my heritage and allegiance to my homeland was a gradual, deliberate, and taxing task.
Did any of your siblings move to the United States? I have a brother, who is now 85, who received his PhD in plant ecology from Catholic University of Washington, DC, in 1954—before ecology was chic! Many members of my family studied abroad in Paris and the United States. One if my sisters studied at Puget Sound College in Tacoma, Washington. She returned to Iran and taught high school chemistry and English. She died last year.
What do you miss most about your homeland? Not being able to enjoy the architecture, history, Persepolis, and the sense of connectedness with my heritage. It is regrettable that because of my closeness to the late Shah, I cannot visit home, lest I will be arrested and imprisoned.
What is something you want our readers to know about your birthplace? Kerman is a city with a known history of 8,000 years (Yale studies, 1948). There is a town called Meymand (it can be Googled) whence Hassan Meymandi (935–1010), the educated and wise Vizier (Prime Minister) to Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi, hailed. We have 1,000 years plus of recorded Meymandi genealogy. I miss that sense of connectedness to my rich history. Kerman is a city with character and historical presence.
What do you love most about America? Supremacy of the rule of law; the United States constitution, which I believe asymptotically approaches the holy; and the separation of church and state.
If you were forced to live on a deserted island and were allowed to bring one book, one selection of music, and one piece of artwork, what would they be? That book has not been written. It would be a book containing the genomic display of all the biblical (Old and New Testaments) characters, including Christ. If it is not written by the time I am assigned to a deserted island, I will take pen to paper and write it myself. Nobel Laureate Craig Venter, has given us a taste of that venture. Since I have not written that book and it is not yet available, I guess I will settle for the Bible, an amazingly comprehensive and complex book. There are 114 references to King Cyrus of Persia alone in the Bible (see Isaiah 45 as an example. Cyrus is called Messiah).
The music choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece of transcendent theology and musical genius, bringing the message of hope, promise, possibility, and redemption to all humans. I will devote a future “Meymandi at Large” to dissecting this truly miraculous opus magnum.
The art would be Pieta.
What is the perfect meal? Food is number 33, or even lower, on the list of my priorities. However, how the meal is consumed is rather important. Being with loved ones, friends, and having a glass of 1924 Mouton Rothschild on a moon-drenched terrace with my beloved wife, Emily, would be nice. Warning: the oldest Mouton Rothschild available in auction houses are the two years 1985 and 1986. You cannot find 1924!
What is your favorite way to spend a Saturday night? In our private box at the Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh, listening to the North Carolina Symphony or having just attended the Met Opera in New York on Saturday afternoon or perhaps going to the chamber music performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Who has been the most influential person in your life and why? The most influential person in my life has been my mother. She was a person of abundance—abundant with life, abundant with love, abundant with joy, abundant with all the good things inside (compassion, caring, giving, love), and all the good things outside (music, dance, flowers, nature, poetry), abundant with discipline, and abundant with responsibility, accountability, and altruism.
What are you most thankful for? One of the things that brings extreme intellectual gratification and joy to me is the Meymandi Fellowship at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The fellowship is designed and dedicated to the proposition of bridging the gulf between basic sciences, the arts, and humanities. We have had several Nobel Laureates as Meymandi Fellows, as well as people such as Oliver Sachs, Ed Wilson, and Michael Poland.
I am most thankful for life, for my family, for America, and for who I am.
Editor’s note: Dr. Meymandi is in private practice as a psychiatrist and neurologist and serves as an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a noted physician, editor, and philanthropist who frequently speaks and writes on diverse topics that relate to his interests in medicine, the arts, religion, and philanthropy. He lives in Raleigh with his wife Emily. Dr. Meymandi is a huge supporter of the arts and serves on numerous music, ballet, and art boards in North Carolina. Dr. Meymandi has also endowed several Fellowships through his Meymandi Philanthropic Program. The Meymandi Philanthropic Program has also named many University Chairs. Among them are the Dr. Assad Meymandi Distinguished Chair of Psychiatry at UNC-Chapel Hill and the Dr. Assad Meymandi and Family Andre Malraux Chair of 18th century French Literature at the Sorbonne, University of Paris, France. He is in the process of endowing the Meymandi Chair of Ideas and Curiosity for UNC. In 2001, the Meymandi Concert Hall was opened and named by Dr. Meymandi in honor of his mother. The N.C. Museum of Art pavilion for touring exhibits in the new museum complex is named for Dr. Meymandi’s father.