F1 was Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College and Psychiatrist-in-Chief of its affiliated Payne Whitney Clinic from 1936 to 1962. A protégé of Adolph Meyer at Johns Hopkins’s Henry Phipps Clinic, Diethelm moved to New York City and the Payne Whitney Clinic (architecturally modeled after the Phipps Clinic, but 25% larger) at the age of 39. Meyer had warned him to be wary of accepting the position if he would have administrative authority over so many patients that he would not be able to know each one personally.
Diethelm would make rounds daily at Payne Whitney, monitoring the care of all inpatients and overseeing each treatment. Every patient was "the Professor’s." As a clinician, he espoused a humane, pragmatic, "patients-first" focus. L. Jolyon West, a Payne Whitney Clinic resident (and later Chairman at the University of Oklahoma and the University of California, Los Angeles) remembered being scolded for having magazines on the inpatient unit that were 4 weeks old, the message being one of always respecting the dignity of patients.
During Diethelm’s tenure as Chairman, he transformed Payne Whitney from an elite private hospital to an academic department of psychiatry. He fostered a number of research endeavors, including Harold Wolff’s work in psychosomatic medicine and the social psychiatry studies of Thomas Rennie and Alexander Leighton. However, the research closest to Diethelm’s own heart was historical. Diethelm firmly believed that only by examining the history of psychiatry could the discipline more firmly come to grips with the fads, customs, and fashions that too often dominated the field. Deeply interested in the psychiatry of the Renaissance, Diethelm wrote an important scholarly work on this poorly known period of our history (1). He also spent summers scouring Switzerland (the fourth generation in a family of Swiss physicians, he was born in Lachen), as well as the rest of Europe, searching for rare books that related to the history of psychiatry. Diethelm’s book-hunting expeditions marked the beginning of what today is one of the great collections of materials pertaining to psychiatry. The collection, appropriately known as the Oskar Diethelm Library, contains more than 50,000 volumes that date from the 15th century to the present. The collection is part of the Institute for the History of Psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City.
Address reprint requests to Dr. Michels, Department of Psychiatry, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, 418 E. 71st St., Ste. 41, New York, NY 10021; firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail). Photograph by Karsh, courtesy of Woodfin Camp and Associates.