Ken Thompson '76
"Seventies radical" Ken Thompson '76 follows through on a commitment
Say "psychiatrist" and most people conjure up the sterotypical image of a detached-looking man pretending to listen to a patient stretched out on a couch. Not only does this image not fit most psychiatrists today, it is worlds removed from the daily life of Kenneth S. Thompson '76, a psychiatrist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. If Thompson's patients are on a couch, it's probably one someone threw away under a bridge.
"The area in which I work in Pittsburgh is known as the Green Ghetto," he says. "It looks bombed out. People hang out, loitering on street corners and dealing drugs. What you don't see is the fabric of church and family life that provides a web of strength to those struggling to survive the environment."
Thompson grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of an internal medicine specialist and a history teacher. In the 1960s, he attended meetings of the Medical Committee for Human Rights with his father, who was on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh.
Once he enrolled at Kenyon, Thompson found his interest in issues of social justice nurtured by many of his professors, especially National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Peter Rutkoff. "Studying the French and Russian revolutions with Rutkoff helped put intellectual feet under my general tendencies," he says. "I knew pretty early on that I wanted to study psychiatry, but I also knew there would have to be some component of social activism to my work."
A psychology major, Thompson did not apply to medical school in his senior year. "I wanted to work at least a year first, and I did that as a mental health worker at Maclean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts," he says. He then applied for and won a National Health Service scholarship to Boston University Medical School, where, in addition to his studies, he met and married Andrea Fox, also a medical student.
Prior to their last year at Boston University, in 1980, Thompson and Fox, who share a commitment to bringing health care to the more fragile members of society, spent a year in Scotland and Nicaragua looking at the national health service in Scotland and health care in Nicaragua in the aftermath of the revolution. "We took a bus from Boston to Nicaragua," he recalls, still a little awed by the experience.
Thompson completed his residency in psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, serving as a psychiatric liaison for the primary-care team at Jacobi Hospital Primary Care Clinic, a public hospital in the Bronx. Ever the social activist, he "kept sane," as he likes to put it, by working on medical aid for Central America and serving as a delegate to his union, the Committee of Interns and Residents.
A condition of Thompson's scholarship was that he agree to practice in an underserved area. To this end, he had been training himself to work in a ghetto. But now, as the Reagan era unfolded, programs in those areas were being systematically dismantled. The only choices, both unappealing to him, were the white rural South or an Indian reservation. By a stroke of good fortune, research in psychiatry was declared an underserved area, and he was able to land a postdoctoral fellowship in mental health services at Yale University, where he later joined the faculty, working in the Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven. "It was perfect," says Thompson. "I was able to do my research in an urban setting with homeless cocaine addicts. The downside was that my wife was still in New York City, and the commute was a bit strenuous."
About five years ago, Thompson was recruited to join the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh as an assistant professor. "It was ironic," he says. "As a native of Pittsburgh, I had spent my whole life escaping from there. But it has been an excellent move. Being a native has helped me become acquainted with the people I need to know to accomplish my work." He is also the director of the Institute for Public Health and Psychiatry at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC), where he focuses his energies on the mental-health needs of persons and communities he describes as forced to live in the margins of society in poverty and under oppressive conditions: substance abusers, persons with severe and persistent mental illness, homeless individuals, and public housing residents. In addition, he is the medical director of Community Services and Training.
Thompson's wife, a passionate advocate for the elderly, is an internist specializing in geriatrics. She, along with their children, Harry (twelve), Alice (ten), and Lewis (four) are what keep him grounded, Thompson says. That and a sense of humor. "My wife is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. We like to joke that we're the Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman of Pittsburgh."
Thompson works in a WPIC satellite clinic located in the Hill District, an economically distressed, predominantly African-American community. "When working with people overwhelmed by poverty and distress, I view my role as being much like that of a professor," Thompson explains. "The professor's job, and my job, is to figure out what a person's strength is and bring it to the fore. If you can create the right conditions, the spark will ignite."
Thompson has recently renewed his association with Rutkoff, who will be bringing a class to the Hill District next year as part of his National Endowment for the Humanities-funded study of the Great Migration of blacks from the rural south to the urban north. "Ken is a man who has been faithful to his most deeply held beliefs for as long as I've known him," says Rutkoff. "I'm really looking forward to working with him as a colleague. He will be our eyes to the neighborhood."
The view of the neighborhood from Thompson's perspective is a compassionate one. "My understanding of the world is a gift from my patients," he says. "I don't know what I do for them, but what they've done for me is without price."
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