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‘Faith is the belief that truth matters,’ child psychiatrist Dr. Donald S. Gair, 96, taught his students

Dr. Donald Gair, at his 50th Harvard reunion.
Dr. Donald Gair, at his 50th Harvard reunion.Courtesy of Gair family

Several years after serving in the Navy during World War II, Dr. Donald Gair found himself on a different kind of front line back home when he signed up to work with the Massachusetts Medical Society’s just-formed emergency medical service.

“During my second year of residency in psychiatry, I tore about Boston two or three nights each week with my doctor’s bag and Merck’s Manual as an instant GP,” he wrote years later. “An unexpected revelation to me was to see psychiatric problems in the home through the eyes of a general practitioner, and to learn what art it takes to make the initial referral to a psychiatric hospital or clinic.”

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He went on to become one of the state’s most significant child psychiatrists, serving as superintendent of the Gaebler Children’s Center in Waltham and as a professor and chair of the child and adolescent psychiatry department at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Dr. Gair, who as a mentor wove his own aphorisms into the guidance he offered, died July 8 in his Arlington home. He was 96 and his health had declined in recent weeks.

“I relish the opportunity to share (or inflict) my aphorisms — which is about all that I have that residents can’t read elsewhere,” he wrote in 2005 for the 60th anniversary report of his Harvard College class, when he had become a professor emeritus but still was supervising trainees at Boston Medical Center one day a week.

His favorite aphorism, he added, was:

Truth is the fragile child of skepticism,

Dogma the brutal spawn of certainty.

Though his often frantic nights in Boston as part of the emergency medical service were memorable, Dr. Gair traced his decision to pursue psychiatry to the jobs he and five classmates landed at Northampton State Hospital between their second and third years at Harvard Medical School.

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“It was an immersion in the world of chronic psychiatric problems treated in a state hospital,” he wrote in a September 2011 essay for a publication of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “I date my commitment to psychiatry to that summer.”

Dr. Gair remained committed to his profession to the end, only retiring four years ago and continuing to see a few patients into his 90s.

Teaching was a parallel and equally important pursuit, in the classroom, at home, or anywhere else.

“Dad loved to teach absolutely everyone,” said his daughter Jane Gair Prairie of Westbrook, Maine. “He taught anyone who would listen.”

At a private burial a few days ago, she read from her eulogy, speaking of lessons he offered that went beyond his profession.

“Dad often talked about the ongoing dance in relationships,” Jane said, “our yearn to merge with the people we love, to have them be the same as us, and then the necessity of pulling away, knowing our uniqueness and separateness.”

Donald Saul Gair was born in New York City on Jan. 25, 1925, and grew up there, including on Central Park West.

His father, Harry A. Gair, had been one of the nation’s most prominent trial lawyers for negligence cases. His mother, Mollie Arginteanu, was a clinical psychologist. Dr. Gair’s parents divorced, and his stepmother, Harriet Rosenberg Gair, was a partner in his father’s law firm.

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Dr. Gair “was someone who was fascinating to listen to. He was a real intellectual,” said his younger brother Anthony, a prominent trial attorney in New York City.

“He was a very giving, compassionate man who really helped so many people,” Anthony added. “Anytime I had any problems, he’d be the first person I’d call for advice, and he’d always have the answers.”

After graduating from Birch Wathen High School in New York City, Dr. Gair attended Harvard College, where World War II interrupted his education.

He served in the Navy as a lieutenant, junior grade before graduating as part of the class of 1945. Dr. Gair recalled in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class that his diploma arrived by mail while he was aboard the USS Brooklyn.

“Medical school was a remarkably happy time. Initially, I’m sure it was the release from the restrictions of service life,” he wrote of going to Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1950.

During residency, Dr. Gair met Joyce Rae Moon, a nurse, and they married in 1953. Early on, they lived in London and Zurich, where he studied while on a traveling fellowship.

Returning to Boston, he worked at Boston Psychopathic Hospital, which became Massachusetts Mental Health Center, as chief-of-service and then as head of the children’s ward.

He went on to direct the child psychiatry training program of Metropolitan State Hospital’s children’s unit, and he developed a private practice. When the children’s unit became Gaebler Children’s Center, Dr. Gair served as its superintendent until he stepped down from that part of his career.

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His wife, meanwhile, managed the gift and coffee shops at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.

“There she helps patients with their first steps at rehabilitation into the work world,” he wrote in his 50th Harvard class report. “Joyce has succeeded with charm and grit in dealing with the state bureaucracy, the IRS, institutional politics, and a temperamental work force, earning universal admiration and love. She says it’s easier than managing me.”

Their marriage was a duet in more than metaphor, their children said.

“For me, one of the striking aspects of both of my parents is their singing,” said their son, Peter of Jefferson, N.H. “Mom would harmonize magically.”

In song and speech, Dr. Gair’s voice rang rich in low octaves.

His daughter Nancy of Newton recalled that he told his family he was almost kicked out of Harvard for spending too much time with theater productions, and he kept performing under a stage name after his father visited from New York to tell him to concentrate on his studies.

And as a father and grandfather, “no one understood children like he did and I felt we were the beneficiaries of that in a non-professional way. He always had the children’s view in him,” Peter said of his father.

“He took delight in the delight of children,” Nancy said.

Dr. Gair, with one of his grandchildren.
Dr. Gair, with one of his grandchildren.Courtesy of Gair family

A memorial gathering will be announced for Dr. Gair, who in addition to his wife, three children, and his brother Anthony leaves another brother, Elwood of Ojai, Calif., and six grandchildren.

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A fan of the Celtics, Harvard football, and the Red Sox, Dr. Gair attended countless games, including the last appearance in Fenway Park of slugger Ted Williams, who hit a home run in his last at-bat.

The American Psychiatric Association honored Dr. Gair for lifetime achievement in his specialty, and throughout his life he was devoted to how language can be used in conversation and writing.

“I have 2,000 pages of essays and reflections that I have accumulated over the years,” he wrote in his 60th Harvard class report.

Still, “he was always fine-tuning his knowledge down to shorter and shorter paragraphs,” Jane said.

And that included aphorisms he crafted.

In his 60th class report, he said that after he set the “truth is the fragile child of skepticism” aphorism as his computer screen saver, “I have added the following:”

Faith is the belief that truth matters.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.