David Drachman; helped found neurology unit at UMass

22drachman - David Drachman. (University of Massachusetts Medical School)
University of Massachusetts Medical School
Dr. David Drachman

In an unpublished memoir, Dr. David A. Drachman reflected on a career that included being the founding chairman of the neurology department at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

“From the very first, I always knew that I wanted to be a ‘fixer,’ the person who could take apart a broken clock and make it run, someone to be called when anything went wrong,” wrote Dr. Drachman, who this fall received the medical school’s Chancellor’s Medal for Distinguished Clinical Excellence.

“I have diagnosed, treated, and managed many patients and tried to serve as a ‘court of last resort’ to resolve their most complex neurological problems,” he added.


Renowned for his pioneering Alzheimer’s disease research and his expertise in the complex causes of dizziness, Dr. Drachman died of leukemia Dec. 5 in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was 84 and a longtime Concord resident.

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Department chair from 1977 to 2002, he was instrumental in developing the National Alzheimer’s Association and founded the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society chapter at UMass Medical School.

“AOA’s mission motto is ‘worthy to serve the suffering,’ and that was more than a motto to Dr. Drachman. It was the essence of the man,” said Dr. Michael Collins, the medical school’s chancellor. “He was the physician to consult when all others needed answers – listening intensely, caring deeply, examining thoughtfully, and diagnosing expertly.”

Dr. Drachman’s seminal papers on evaluating patients with dizziness, written in the 1960s and ’70s, are still read by neurologists in training today, said his son, Dr. Douglas Drachman of Newton, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“My father looked beyond the neurological issues and saw the big picture for his patients,” he said, “and he worked right until the time he was admitted to Brigham & Women’s, where he brought a manuscript that he was revising.”


Dr. Drachman, who also was affiliated with UMass Memorial Medical Center, wrote in his memoir that rather than be satisfied with the general diagnosis of an inner ear problem, he would try to identify which of the causes of dizziness – which could involve numerous categories of disorders – prompted a patient’s symptoms.

He shared such observations in scores of articles in scientific and medical journals and through lectures and papers presented throughout North America and Europe.

He formerly was president of the American Neurological Association, chaired the Medical and Scientific Advisory Board of the National Alzheimer’s Association, and was a member of the Advisory Panel on Alzheimer’s to the US Department of Health and Human Services and to Congress.

Before UMass Medical School, he was associate chairman of neurology at Northwestern University’s medical school.

“David was a terrific writer, a preeminent clinician and diagnostician and a gentleman,” said Dr. David Chad, an associate professor of neurology at Mass. General who had been hired in 1982 by Dr. Drachman.


Dr. Drachman’s office was at the end of a row of 10 fifth-floor offices. “At the end of the day, you anticipated his footsteps as he stopped in each office to see how we were doing,” Chad said. “He was a wonderful mentor then, and today he is my neurological father figure.”

Dr. Majaz Moonis, director of stroke services at UMass Memorial Medical Center, recalled walking into Dr. Drachman’s office late at night to seek an opinion on a report Moonis had written. “I was a resident at the time and he spent an hour and a half suggesting changes,” Moonis said. “You had to earn his respect, but when you did, he was always there for you and his humanity touched me.”

An accomplished birder, sculptor, and photographer, Dr. Drachman vacationed for the past 50 years with his family on Sanibel Island, Fla.

His daughter Jessica Blaustein of Newton said that when the family drove over the bridge to the island, “we exuberantly sang ‘Sanibel We Pledge to Thee’ ” – an adaptation of a camp song from her father’s youth.

Dr. Drachman’s striking photographs, including several of birds in flight at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, are displayed at UMass Medical School.

David Alexander Drachman grew up in the Manhattan Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. He was a son of Julian Drachman, who chaired a high school English department, and the former Emily Deitchman, who taught Hebrew.

His grandfather, Bernard Drachman, was a founding dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Dr. Drachman’s career and life were enriched by his identical twin, Dr. Daniel B. Drachman of Stevenson, Md., a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Standing over 6 feet tall, with distinctive voices, both graduated in 1952 from Columbia College and from what was then the New York University College of Medicine. They served residencies at hospitals in Boston and were researchers at the National Institutes of Health. Over the years, they relaxed by fly-fishing together throughout North America, including in Alaska and Canada.

“To have someone so close at hand who is both a competitor and a supportive best friend is probably the best way of getting things done,” his brother said. “Throughout our lives, if either had a difficult case to discuss, who would we call? The other one, of course. We talked every day, twice a day.”

Dr. Drachman married Eleanor Derby of Arlington in 1959. A former copywriter and past president of the Radcliffe College Alumnae Association, she recalled telling an acquaintance that she was dating a “tall, bright, and handsome doctor who had a twin brother.” Her acquaintance, Jephta, ended up marrying Daniel Drachman.

“David was always trying to find a better way and he was our go-to person,” said Dr. Drachman’s wife, who is known as Ellie. “He loved classical music, which he would listen to on the early morning drive to Worcester and studying in the library at our home, which is on the Assabet River.”

A service has been held for Dr. Drachman, who in addition to his wife, son, daughter, and brother leaves another daughter, Laura of New York City; another brother, Richard of Bethesda, Md.; and six grandchildren.

“He always knew how to say the right thing to put me on the right path,” said his son, who added that through Dr. Drachman’s guidance “he gradually imparted skills and insights which I will carry with me forever.”

Marvin Pave can be reached