Eugene Meyer III, who died Wednesday, was a psychiatrist at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a member of the board of directors of The Washington Post Company. The writer of this appreciation is a professor of psychiatry and of social medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Bill Meyer was a doctor's doctor, the kind I would have wanted for myself when ill: highly skilled, compassionate and caring. Despite what people say, it isn't true that they don't make them that way anymore. There are others like Bill, though not many, and none better. There never were many; it's only nostalgia that makes us think there were. Medical training, when it is good, provides the skill and the knowhow, but it is the inner qualities of the man or woman that transmute life experience into compassion and care.
Bill, for that's how his friends knew him, was a psychiatrist, but a psychiatrist of a very special kind. He was a competent internist as well, and managed to do what few can: as a doctor, he embodied an integrated approach to mind and body that neglected neither and remained alert to their subtle interaction. From my years at Hopkins, I still remember patients whom others referred to him as psychiatric problems but in whom he unmasked an underlying and neglected medical problem. I remember as well medical patients whose disorders he was the first to identify as psychiatric. The difference for the patient was literally a matter of life and death. Diagnostic triumphs like that make an academic reputation, but there was more, far more, to his physicianship. He was superb at managing psychological concomitants that are part of all serious medical disease. He knew how to do it, and he knew how to teach it. As chief of the psychiatric consultation service at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, he helped make a generation of medical and psychiatric residents better doctors.
This is not the place or the time to review his many contributions to research. Perhaps the quality of the man can be conveyed by referring to just one of his interests: the psychological effects of plastic surgery. Before he undertook his research collaboratively with Milton Edgerton, the professor of surgery, conventional wisdom held that repair of cosmetic flaws would only result in a shift of symptoms to some other focus of concern, with no benefit to the patient. But the conventional opinion was just that: opinion without facts to back it up. Bill, against advice that it would all be a waste of time, undertook a careful investigation that provided a forceful demonstration of quite the opposite. Most patients obtained substantial psychological gains from cosmetic surgery, provided that they had been properly prepared and provided that individuals with severe psychopathology were excluded. It was typical of Bill not to take anything for granted.
The last 20 years of his life were encumbered by a series of illnesses and multiple complications from unsuccessful attempts at treatment. Yet he continued to bring solace to others in the face of pain that afflicted his days and nights. When he died, he was laden with cancer cells. He knew it, and he didn't flinch. It was as if the gods of disease had exacted a ghoulish revenge for his fight in behalf of their victims. Like Prometheus, for inspiriting ordinary men and women, he was condemned to a painful death.
Let me confess: Bill would not have tolerated my metaphor for a moment. He was too modest and too shy to allow himself to be portrayed as a hero. His ambitions were more modest. He wanted to be thought of as a good doctor. That he was, and a good father, a good friend and a good man.