A Life: Raymond Sobel, 1917-2013; ‘He Did a Lot of Different Things, and He Did Most of Them Well’

Monday, February 10, 2014
Lebanon — Ray Sobel, according to neighbors and family, was a Renaissance man.

A Harvard-educated battalion surgeon in World War II, Sobel became an innovative psychiatrist, influential both in child psychiatry and in his work on combat-related stress.

He also continued working long after his 1977 retirement from what is now known as the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, running a private psychiatric practice, building a greenhouse to grow orchids below his house, selling his own jewelry at art shows, and painting water colors from his backyard.

“He did a lot of different things, and he did most of them well,” said his son Jonathan Sobel, 60, a Portsmouth, N.H. resident.

Above all else, Sobel, who died at his Lebanon home on Dec. 30, at 96, was an intellectual, ever curious about the world.

When he decided to start working as a blacksmith in the 1980s, his wife Pamela Nauman Sobel said, he “did it properly,” learning from a local blacksmith.

He took flute lessons as well, and read voraciously.

“That was Ray being Ray,” she said. “If you want to do it right, you take lessons. You don’t just muddle through it.”

At 90, Pamela Sobel is spry and white-haired, with a cheery laugh.

“This makes him sound rather sticky, but he wasn’t — he was a lot of fun.”

In his final few months, Sobel could often be found in his armchair, warmed by the sun streaming through the south-facing windows, with his “reference books,” — Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Machiavelli and a dictionary — always handy at his side.

Sobel was born in on Jan. 19, 1917 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Aaron and Frieda Sobel. His grandfather Adolf Sobel, an immigrant from what is now Slovakia, owned a hotel in the area, and Ray spent much of his early childhood in the hotel and around the immigrants who passed through the saloon inside.

Sobel graduated from high school at age 16 and attended Harvard University the following year to study psychology.

Sobel stood just 5 foot 6 inches when he graduated from high school, his son Andrew Sobel said. Though he grew two inches his freshman year of college, his small build served him well as coxswain on the Harvard crew team.

He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1937.

“He was studious — he did well in school,” Pamela Sobel said. “But he always told me he felt like he should have waited another year to go to college. He was so young.”

After college, Sobel applied to 15 medical schools, but because of his Jewish heritage, he was accepted to just one.

“The head of admissions at Harvard Medical School, told him, ‘Raymond, we’re very sorry, we filled out our Jewish quota for this year,’ ” Andrew Sobel said.

Sobel received his medical degree in 1941 from New York University.

The following year, outraged at the headlines coming from Europe, Sobel signed up for the Army, cutting short his surgical internship at Morrisania General Hospital in New York. When he found out that he was ineligible for service because of a past bout of tuberculosis, the ever- determined Sobel signed a waiver and went to war.

“You can say you’ll join up anyway,” Pamela Sobel explained. “And that’s what he did.”

As a battalion surgeon, Ray Sobel served at front line field hospitals in Italy and North Africa, working with a team of medics to bring back and treat the wounded.

In his 33 months on the front lines, Sobel carefully documented the psychological stress of war on soldiers he saw. He wrote a paper on the subject, detailing his observations of what he called “Old Sergeants’ Syndrome.”

Although soldiers and doctors throughout history have noticed the psychological effects of war, said Matthew Friedman, the former executive director of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in White River Junction, Sobel, “like any gifted, incisive professional, was an astute observer of human nature.”

“It was a distillation of his war experience,” Friedman added.

Sobel’s research later formed the basis for the current troop rotation of the U.S. Army, and in Italy, he was appointed to be the first-ever division psychiatrist, according to his family.

After a “whirlwind romance,” Sobel married a Florentine woman, Marcella Olschki, though the union was annulled mere months after returning to the U.S.

After the war, he established a private psychiatric practice in Chappaqua, N.Y., and later moved to Seattle to teach at the University of Washington Medical School. In 1948, he married Alma Watson, an Ar my nurse, and had four children, Michael, Jonathan, Andrew and Patricia.

Jonathan Sobel painted a picture of his father as a “powerful intellectual,” deeply involved in academia. Ray Sobel worked six days a week at the University of Washington, teaching and seeing patients. At home, “there were no simple discussions,” Jonathan Sobel said, referring to the intellectualism that pervaded the house.

In 1964, Ray Sobel was offered a position at Dartmouth Medical School and he moved to Lebanon.

Sobel and his first wife had divorced by that point, and he and Pamela Nauman were married in 1969.

Meanwhile, Sobel headed up the division of child psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School.

His primary advice to psychiatry students, Pamela Sobel said, was to “shut up.” Only then would patients share their thoughts and challenges.

According to his wife, Ray Sobel was responsible for introducing home visits to psychiatric practice. He’d made an appearance at the patient’s house in the early morning around 8, “before they’d have time to change anything,” Pamela Sobel explained. “Then he’d see what the man or woman or child’s home life was like. They didn’t do that before.”

In 1982, an appreciative patient endowed a permanent professorship in Sobel’s name. Dr. Alan Green serves as the current Raymond Sobel Professor of Psychiatry Chair and called Sobel a “pillar of the department.”

“It’s grown into a substantial program, of which he was a key part,” Green said. “I’m just honored to be an occupant of his chair. Ray was very well thought of.”

Upon retirement, Sobel took to his hobbies the same way he took to his work; with insatiable curiosity and persistent dedication.

When he took up blacksmithing, he built his own forge down the hill from his Stevens Road home.

“If you’d go into his shop, there’d be little tags on everything, explaining what it is and what it’s used for,” Andrew Sobel said. “He was extremely meticulous.”

Sobel made boxes, pendants, ladles, and weathervanes, and switched to jewelry when he developed arthritis in his wrists. He sold his work at galleries around New England and has pieces on display at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater and the Freud Museum in London.

A man of many talents, Sobel was also bluntly honest with himself.

Until Sobel was in his 70s, Pamela Sobel recalled, he loved riding his motorcycle — “a beautiful shiny BMW.”

One day, at a Lebanon gas station, a group of bikers invited him to join them on a ride.

“It made his day,” Pamela Sobel said. “Then he came home and told me ‘I’m 73, I’m too old for this.’ ... He stopped then and there.”

Through and through, Andrew Sobel confirmed, Ray Sobel always looked objectively at the world and accepted his own limitations, though he never felt obliged to conform to others’ expectations of him.

“He always just saw things as they were,” Andrew Sobel said.

Katie Jickling can be reached at katiejickling@gmail.com

Raymond Sobel

1917 — 2013

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