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Shervert Frazier, 93; catalyst in mental illness field

Dr. Frazier had served as psychiatrist in chief at McLean Hospital and with the National Institute of Mental Health.Globe staff/file 1984/Boston Globe

In November 1998, McLean Hospital announced that a dinner honoring Dr. Shervert Frazier had raised $1.2 million in donations for the research institute there that bore the former psychiatrist in chief’s name.

At the time Dr. Frazier, who died March 3 at 93, was more than a half-century into a career that would stretch for yet another decade, into his late 80s. Along with his McLean post, he had been a professor and administrator in New York and Texas, and had taken a two-year leave from McLean in the mid-1980s to serve as director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

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“He was such an important man and such a force in the field,” said Dr. Scott L. Rauch, McLean’s current president and psychiatrist in chief, who added that Dr. Frazier’s national impact on psychiatry and mental health can also be measured by the ripple effect of those he mentored. “There are so many of his disciples in leadership positions across the country.”

That 1998 fund-raising dinner also fell nearly 10 years after Dr. Frazier’s career survived an unusually high-profile humiliation over writings he plagiarized. Spurred by the findings of a graduate student in Rochester, N.Y., a Harvard Medical School committee investigated in 1988 and found that Dr. Frazier had used in a handful of research papers passages or paragraphs he had lifted virtually verbatim without proper attribution. At the request of the Harvard Medical School dean, Dr. Frazier resigned from his McLean post and from the medical school, where he was a psychiatry professor.

His supporters at McLean and elsewhere sharply criticized what they saw as a punishment too severe, because Dr. Frazier’s papers did not purport to present original scientific findings. Less than three months after resigning, Dr. Frazier was back at McLean as a staff psychiatrist with the title of psychiatrist in chief emeritus.

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His resignations and reinstatement drew extensive news coverage and prompted furious debate. Mental health officials across the country weighed in, with some supporting Dr. Frazier and criticizing the medical school’s actions. Others, however, disparaged his plagiarism and thought the hospital showed too much leniency by allowing him to return.

In a 4,000-word Sunday Magazine piece published in May 1989, more than a year after the reinstatement, The New York Times quoted a note Dr. Frazier had sent to Dr. Daniel Tosteson, then the dean of the Harvard Medical School, during the upheaval. Dr. Frazier wrote that it was evident he had used the intellectual property of others “without quotations and without attribution. … The actions were not taken by me knowingly, but they were mine. I apologize profoundly for my actions.”

When news of the resignations was announced in November 1988, however, Edward Murphy, who was commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, told that Globe that Dr. Frazier’s “contributions have been enormous in areas other than written research. He has turned the field of psychiatry toward the treatment of people with serious mental illness — a forgotten population — and that has made a tremendous positive impact on some of the most seriously mentally ill people in the country.”

The oldest of three children, Shervert H. Frazier was born in Homer, La. His father was a Southern Baptist minister, and during the Depression, he was sometimes paid with food.

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Dr. Frazier “was a great student, very bright, with almost a photographic memory,” said one of his daughters, Elise Woodward of Concord. He was 14 when he started at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and 21 when he received a medical degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. By then he was in the Navy, serving in the Pacific during World War II.

While his father had a pastorate in Harrisburg, Ill., Dr. Frazier met Gloria Barger, whom he married in 1947.

After the war, he began a private practice and co-owned a hospital in Harrisburg. He had an internal medicine fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and finished a psychiatry fellowship in 1956, graduating the following year from the University of Minnesota with a master’s in neurologic sciences. The internal medicine background allowed Dr. Frazier to approach “patients with mental illnesses with a kind of a holistic view of their entire being,” his daughter said.

After practicing and teaching psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he also trained in psychoanalysis, Dr. Frazier became a professor and psychiatry department chairman at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston during the 1960s. He simultaneously In 1965 and ’66, he was the Texas commissioner of mental health and mental retardation.

After Charles Whitman went on a shooting rampage in 1966 from the bell tower at the University of Texas, Dr. Frazier led a committee examining causes of violent behavior, a topic that would remain one of his specialties. His other research through the years focused on areas including headaches and anorexia nervosa, and expanded research of chronic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

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Dr. Frazier returned to New York to serve as a clinical psychiatry professor and also as deputy director of the New York Psychiatric Institute before moving to McLean in 1972. While at McLean, research grant awards to the hospital rose from $3.2 million in 1977 to $11 million in 1988, said Rauch, who said the increase reflected Dr. Frazier’s vision and his success in recruiting top researchers. “It was a kind of charismatic leadership,” Rauch added.

In every job through his career, Dr. Frazier made a point of knowing and greeting even support staff by their first names. “He wanted to make sure he made a personal connection,” his daughter said.

“He would always say, ‘Well, how are you today?’ That was his first question,” she recalled. “And if you said, ‘Fine,’ he would say, ‘Well, how are you really?’ ”

Over the years, Dr. Frazier and his wife spent summers in Wellfleet and lived in Belmont and Concord before moving to Acton. They had been married nearly 64 years when Mrs. Frazier died in 2011.

“He told me the week before he died, ‘I miss Gloria every day. I’m thinking about her more and more,’ ” his daughter said.

A service has been held for Dr. Frazier, who in addition to his daughter Elise leaves another daughter, Rosalie, of Bainbridge Island, Wash.; a son, Stephen, of Wellfleet; and four grandchildren.

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Dr. Frazier “was incredibly generous with his time, his talent, his intellect,” Elise said. “He approached life expecting abundance, not scarcity. I think he gave abundantly in everything he undertook.”

That included making himself available to all who called, no matter the hour, his daughter said. Dr. Frazier also was particularly fond of marching music, such as the work of John Philip Sousa.

“I think it really supported his internal metronome,” she said. “He had a marching pace internally that kept him moving every day.”


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