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Saturday, 25.03.2017

Heinz E. Lehmann By Barry Blackwell

Paul Grof Comment. A few personal recollections

Barry Blackwell did a fabulous job describing the life, discoveries and achievements of Professor Heinz Lehmann.  Nothing noteworthy could be amended to his description except perhaps complementing Blackwell’s essay with some personal reminiscences to add my own touch.

 Professor Heinz Lehmann was a major influence in my professional life.  I met him for the first time in 1961, when he came to lecture in Prague as part of an international symposium on antidepressants. Having read his earlier papers on the topic, I was curious what he would be like in real life and went to his lectures. As with his publications, I was very impressed by his presentations.

They stood out then and again whenever I listened to him during later years. I found in his thinking unusual combinations: originality linked with an intimate knowledge of tradition; and American-style borderless innovation united with classical German precision. Added to all this was an intense fascination with the mystery of the human psyche. He encouraged me to continue with my research on mood disorders, and I kept following his publications carefully, whenever I could get my hand on them in communist Czechoslovakia.

After the Red Army had occupied Czechoslovakia and I came to North America, I was faced with the decision of where to settle and continue my research. Working with Heinz Lehmann, who I so profoundly admired, was high on my list of options.

After I had contacted him, he invited me to visit and give a talk about our lithium research at Douglas Hospital in Montréal. He offered me to work with him. But getting a medical licence in Québec and passing French exams turned out formidable obstacles. With only $20 in the pocket, there was no way to survive the next couple of years that would have been required.

As a solution, Heinz suggested that I could work experimentally, utilizing my Ph.D., but that would have stopped my clinical research in mood disorders. Fortunately, through his multiple connections, Tom Ban found for me a position at the newly opened McMaster University in Ontario. The dream of working under Professor Lehmann had to be abandoned, and I wrote to Heinz how disappointed I was about that.

Since then, Heinz and I kept meeting off and on, in Canada and abroad, at clinical conferences, research meetings and similar occasions. Some events stand out, in particular, a trip to South America.

But I have to preface this. In 1972, Professor Lehmann completed his assignment as a psychiatrist on the Canadian Royal Commission for the Nonmedical Use of Drugs. Set up by the Canadian federal government and chaired by Judge Le Dain, the commission travelled across Canada for two years to collect relevant information. After a very careful analysis of the facts, they then recommended decriminalizing the use of marijuana. The commission was forty years ahead of its time, as in 2016, the federal government finally has the legalization on its agenda.

His task on the Commission was completed but his commitment to the task continued. In 1974, we both participated in an international meeting in Buenos Aires and an extended tour through South America. In Peru, Heinz invited me to visit together some farmers' markets, where Heinz searched for various types of coca leaves and similar products, so that we could sample them by chewing.  Heinz felt that it was important to test out the substances about which he had been writing. But the main effect of using the leaves was a temporary anaesthesia in the mouth.

This self-experimentation approach was just part of Heinz' philosophy, as he explained it to me – to try as many medications as possible before one actually prescribes them to a patient or passes judgements about them. He was correct, and I fully agree.  It is imperative to experience the side effects that patients later describe. Without that subjective experience, the clinician can never fully appreciate what some of our patients go through. From what he told me, Heinz applied some of these principles also to the members of his family.

            In Brazil, we had a wonderful time on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and took several boat trips. Heinz rented diving equipment.  And although he was the eldest member of our group, he never missed the opportunity to dive into the ocean. He told me that it is an addictive experience and once you submerge in the sea, you will always want to go back. At the next opportunity, I followed his example, got certified and fully concur with him.

In Rio, we also spent much time in the jewellery shops and admired particularly Brazilian emeralds that Heinz considered special and collected. It turned out that he was enormously knowledgeable about the precious and semi-precious stones and was intrigued by the fact that, with the right equipment, one can identify each precious stone precisely. Another hobby of his, stargazing, was driven by the same desire to identify exactly what one observes. His point was that, in clinical psychiatry, one can never diagnose with the same certainty.

In Canada, Heinz and I met on a number of occasions. One that stands out, in particular, was his visit to Hamilton. In 1978, we designed an early project with transcranial magnetic stimulation. I was afraid to tell him, as I assumed he would be critical of a seemingly far-out idea and think that I was out of my mind. But to my surprise, he had similar interests and could offer many useful suggestions. The extent of his appeals was extraordinary, indeed.

Interestingly, one more opportunity to work together with Heinz came up in 1990’s, when I was invited to interview for the Directorship of a psychiatric research institute in Montreal. Despite his retirement, Heinz became a senior member of the institute’s leadership. But it was a complex situation, not meant to be. This time, it was Heinz who wrote to me, regretting that another opportunity for working together did not materialize.

The last time I talked to him was a couple of months before he passed away. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry was preparing an issue on mood disorders, and my task was asking Heinz for an Editorial. In the past, he had never shied away from any challenge. This time it was different. He did not feel well enough to take on the task.

Heinz Lehmann was an extraordinary man to whom I feel very grateful and whom we all deeply admired.


Paul Grof

April 07, 2016