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John C. Nemiah, professor, medical journal editor; at 90

John Nemiah's lectures were popular when he was a professor. John Nemiah's lectures were popular when he was a professor. (Allen Palmer)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / May 20, 2009
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On the verge of beginning his 15-year tenure as editor of The American Journal of Psychiatry, John C. Nemiah jotted an entry in his notebook reflecting on the immensity of the task he faced.

"Every month," he wrote in May 1978, "I shall have to decide who is to be admitted to the most exclusive psychiatric club in America."

As editor, he had to turn down about 75 percent of submissions for publication, but as one of the finest prose stylists in psychiatry, he crafted what may have been the most eloquent rejection letters his recipients would ever get.

"John loved words far better than numbers," wrote Dr. George Vaillant, a senior psychiatrist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in a tribute published in the journal when Dr. Nemiah stepped down as editor in 1993. He added that Dr. Nemiah wrote "all of his journal correspondence in careful longhand and in elegant prose style."

A former professor at Harvard and Dartmouth medical schools, Dr. Nemiah died of kidney failure May 11 in The Huntington at Nashua, a retirement community in the New Hampshire city. He was 90 and had previously lived in Hanover, N.H.

"He was a splendid teacher, primarily because he was so ordinary, not spooky," said Dr. Larry Strasburger of Belmont, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who was one of Dr. Nemiah's students at Harvard Medical School. "At that time, people frequently had the sense that psychiatrists were odd or peculiar, but he was ordinary, and he drew his examples from everyday life."

Unusually large crowds attended Dr. Nemiah's lectures, said Strasburger, who graduated in 1961, "and his approach was so appealing that an enormous percentage of my medical school class went into psychiatry, I think primarily because of his appeal."

He could be just as charming as a boss, even during his run as editor of the psychiatry journal, which coincided with significant changes in his field as the treatment of mental illness with drugs became an accepted practice.

There were changes at the journal, too. Dr. Nemiah decided that each manuscript would receive at least two peer reviews, and instituted a system to track the reviewers by computer. He also implemented a statistical review of all manuscripts and brought the journal into the age of computer desktop publishing so that copyediting was all done in-house to ensure continuity.

"Not only is John Nemiah among the finest of editors, but he is among the finest of human beings," Dr. Nancy Coover Andreasen, who succeeded him as editor, wrote in the journal in 1993. "He has shaped the journal by using his many talents: a keen intellect; impeccable fairness; a deep sense of compassion, integrity, modesty, and humility; a bright sense of humor; and a love of language."

That affection for language began when John Case Nemiah was a child. Born in Cheshire, Conn., he moved with his family to Hanover when his father became a classics professor at Dartmouth. Traveling with his father on trips and sabbaticals, Dr. Nemiah gained some fluency in French and German as a child and had a solid educational grounding in the classics. He studied Latin for nine years and Greek for seven.

From repeatedly rereading Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" with a flashlight under his bedcovers, to sidestep the "lights out" order as a child, he progressed to admiring the humorists James Thurber and S.J. Perelman. Dr. Nemiah graduated from the Hotchkiss School, a private boarding school in Lakeville, Conn., and became editor of the campus humor magazine at Yale.

After finishing at Yale, he graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1943. Except for two years in the Army, when he was stationed in Panama, Dr. Nemiah furthered his studies at Boston City Hospital before working at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he became acting chief of psychiatric service.

Meanwhile, he wrote "Foundations of Psychopathology," a widely used textbook that was published in 1961.

"I can remember, as a first-year resident, reading 'Foundations of Psychopathology' and wishing that when I 'grew up' I too could write such a book," Vaillant wrote in a 1993 tribute.

In 1967, Dr. Nemiah moved to Beth Israel as psychiatrist in chief, a position he held until retiring from there and Harvard Medical School in 1985. While continuing his work as the American Journal of Psychiatry editor, he moved back to New Hampshire and taught at Dartmouth Medical School until becoming professor emeritus in 2002.

Dr. Nemiah was married for 30 years to Muriel Harris Nemiah Geist. Their marriage ended in divorce. For 32 years, he was married to Margarete Skalla Silverman, who died in 2007.

"He had a wonderful sense of humor, and that sense of humor was with him up to the end of his life," said his daughter, Ann Conway of Hollis, N.H.

He used to begin classes with a joke, she said, "and I think that put him at ease, as well as setting an easy tone for the lecture."

Writing in 1993 about his term as editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Nemiah noted wryly that in Roget's Thesaurus, synonyms for the word edit included "such derogatory terms as 'chop,' 'shuffle,' 'warp,' 'subvert,' 'tamper with,' and 'topsy-turvy.' "

He added that "as I have commented before, if editors cannot be diplomatic, they will have few friends in this life and sparse attendance at their memorial service after their demise."

Friends say such a conclusion did not await Dr. Nemiah.

"He was extremely likeable," Strasburger said. "He was a scholar, and he made the process of developing a mental life interesting and fascinating."

And Dr. Nemiah never lost sight of the role psychiatrists and physicians often played in the lives of their patients. In a Harvard Medical Class Day address he delivered in 1967, he wrote a verse that included this couplet: Ours is an intimate ministry. Priests we began, and priests we must always be.

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Nemiah leaves two sons, James of Bedford and David of Fairfield, Conn.; a stepdaughter, Elaine Cohen of Oxford, England; and eight grand- children.

A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Pine Knoll Cemetery in Hanover, N.H.