Thomas Detre

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Thomas P. Detre, M.D. (17 May 1924 — 9 October 2010) was a psychiatrist and academic at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, eulogized as the "visionary" leader most responsible for UPMC's transformation, beginning in the 1970s, into the top-flight treatment facility, medical school, and research powerhouse that it is today.[1][2][3][4][5][6]

Early life[edit]

Born "Tamás Feldmeier" to a Hungarian-Jewish family in Budapest, he decided at the age of 14 to become a psychiatrist,[3] and avidly read the works of Sigmund Freud and other medical authors as an adolescent. in 1942 he earned his bachelor's degree in classical languages from the Gymnasium of the Piarist Fathers in Kecskemét,[1] where his father was a widely respected physician.

Having heard eyewitness accounts in Budapest of Nazi atrocities in the East, Tamás warned his parents they would not be safe in Kecskemét after the arrival of the Germans; his father was convinced the community itself, where he had delivered more than 4,000 babies, would permit him no harm. Taking some family jewelry to sell, Tamás fled on his own to Budapest before the Germans arrived in March 1944; after living hand-to-mouth for many months and narrowly avoiding deportation himself, he would discover as a 20-year-old student that his parents and twenty members of his extended family (virtually everyone to whom he was related) had been murdered in Auschwitz.[1][2][3] The following year, Tamás formally changed his surname to Detre, a name variably pronounced as DEBT-tree, DEE-tree, or de-TRAY by people who later worked with and knew him. (Although some of Detre's friends believed the name was inspired by the French verb être, "to be", and several obituaries reported this as fact,[1][2][3][7] Detre himself never explained his name's origins.)

While completing his medical studies in Rome in the early 1950s, Detre counseled a small American expatriate clientele which included the writer Claude Fredericks and his 25-year-old friend, the poet James Merrill, who sought Detre's help for writer's block. In his 1993 memoir, A Different Person, Merrill wrote of the lifelong recurring dividend from his early, formal, and painstaking psychoanalysis in Rome with "Dr. Detre", with whom he kept daily appointments throughout 1951-1952 (with Detre saying little or nothing in most sessions).[8]

After Detre obtained a U.S. visa in 1953,[8] the poet and physician would reunite in New York and see their friendship expand to include Detre's wife Katherine (herself a renowned epidemiologist).[9] The couple moved to Connecticut in 1957 after Detre was hired by Yale University, and successfully transplanted their loyalties to Pittsburgh in 1973 (a city in which Merrill was hospitalized several times in 1993-1994 for AIDS complications, his spirits lifted by Detre's promise: "Katherine and I will see you through"[10]).


Between 1957 and 1973, Detre established at Yale School of Medicine a new model of psychiatric care which dramatically reduced hospitalization lengths, and which in its broadly integrative approach ultimately brought psychiatry much closer to other domains of medicine.[4][5] With co-author Henry Jarecki, Detre would write a 733-page overview of Modern Psychiatric Treatment, an extended meditation on the value (and perceived deficiencies) in the state-of-the-art psychopharmacology of the era. The book was published by J. B. Lippincott in 1971.[11]

In 1973, Detre gave up tenure at Yale to lead the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and become Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.[5] (Although a Yale colleague warned him that "planes fly over Pittsburgh, they do not land there," Detre drolly and presciently suggested that "they will land when we land."[2]) In time, Detre attracted more than 30 Yale faculty to Pittsburgh,[5] where he developed a reputation for political skill, compassion, persistence, and diplomatic charm,[1][2] virtues which helped inspire the School of Medicine to higher achievements in research, teaching, and patient treatment.[1][2][3] Named Vice Chancellor of UPMC in 1984, Detre oversaw an institution consistently ranked among the nation's top ten in research funding.[4]

Following Katherine Detre's death in January 2006 (after 49 years of marriage),[9] Detre courted and married Ellen Ormond.[1] In addition, Detre was survived by two adult sons and four grandchildren.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Fuoco, Michael A. and Chute, Eleanor. Obituary: Thomas P. Detre / Visionary who took UPMC to top dies, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10 October 2010, accessed 6 June 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Thomas P. Detre, M.D., Academic Leader and Architect of UPMC, Dies at 86, UPMC, 9 October 2010, accessed 6 June 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e Tabachnick, Toby. Thomas Detre built his career on the ashes of tragedy, The Jewish Chronicle, 2010 obituary, accessed 6 June 2013.
  4. ^ a b c Kupfer, David J. Thomas P Detre, obituary, Neuropsychopharmacology, (2011) 36, 2783; doi:10.1038/npp.2011.110, accessed 6 June 2013.
  5. ^ a b c d Kupfer, David J. Obituary, Thomas P. Detre, ACNP, October 2010, accessed 6 June 2013.
  6. ^ Thomas P. Detre, MD, Academic Leader and Former NLM Board of Regents Chair Dies, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 19 October 2010, accessed 7 June 2013.
  7. ^ Brignano, Mary. Beyond the Bounds: A History of UPMC, Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing, 2009, p. 20: "The Russian 'liberation' of Hungary in 1945 enabled Detre to attend medical school at the Pázmány Péter University of Science in Budapest. Like many people who had lived through the Holocaust, he changed his German sounding name. Those close to him suggested that he chose Detre because in French, être means 'to be', and d'être is 'for being'."
  8. ^ a b Merrill, James. A Different Person: A Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1993. Chapter XXI describes Detre's move to New York in January 1953.
  9. ^ a b Srikameswaran, Anita. Obituary: Dr. Katherine Detre / Renowned epidemiologist taught at Pitt, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 26 January 2006, retrieved 17 June 2013.
  10. ^ McClatchy, J.D. Two Deaths, Two Lives, a chapter in Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, Edmund White, editor. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2001, p. 228: asked by Merrill to "cover" for various missed engagements due to his worsening health, McClatchy began keeping a diary of Merrill's medical circumstances. On 4 October 1993, McClatchy wrote "[... w]hen it comes to hospitals he said he'd take himself off to the one in Pittsburgh. He has a doctor there. And he distrusts NYC hospitals. Another reason, he said, is that his old psychiatrist Tom Detre told him that 'Katherine and I will see you through.' He wonders if—and hopes?—this means Detre would give him pills to end it if the situation deteriorates badly." Merrill ultimately died of a heart attack on 6 February 1995 while hospitalized for pancreatitis in Arizona, where he had been on vacation.
  11. ^ Detre, Thomas and Jarecki, Henry. Modern Psychiatric Treatment, New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1971.