Will Bueché



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Dr. John Mack: Discovery of Note

Posted in Personal by Will on Wednesday, January 7th, 2009 ~ 2pm

I am the de facto archivist for many of the writings and related materials of the late Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack. And in the course of my work for the Mack family I have this week come across something heretofore only rumoured to exist — an audio recording of the first day of Harvard’s Ad Hoc Committee inquiry into the work of Dr. Mack! This is exciting.

As followers of academic controversies may recall, in the mid-1990s, Dr. Mack published a book in which he philosophized about the nature of alien encounters. For this heresy, a committee of peers (though arguably not true peers since there was only one psychiatrist among the committee members) was secretly convened by the Dean of the Harvard Medical School to seek out any possible wrongdoing that Dr. Mack may have done as he explored this subject.

There had been no complaint lodged against Dr. Mack, it was, as he described it at the time “a committee in search of a charge”. And because there had been no charge against him, the committee was not a disciplinary or ethics committee subject to rules or guidelines; it operated without rules of any kind. It was free to search every aspect of his work, his career, his funding, etc. until it found something, anything, that would prove that his work had not been worthy of a tenured Harvard professor.

As you can imagine, when the existence of this committee became known, there were some rather intensely mixed feelings in academia. Everyone, one can safely assume, wants assurances that everyone’s work is being done professionally, but by the same token, open-ended investigations into people for no known reason suggested that academic freedom may be a freedom that expired too easily under select circumstances.

The first meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee, led by kidney specialist Dr. Arnold Relman, was the most collegial of all the meetings. At the time, Dr. Mack had not fully realized that the committee was not simply doing what Dr. Relman claimed was its mission: “to find out more about what you are doing and put to all together and give him (the Dean) some summary and then the Dean will decide what if anything ought to evolve from that.”

The truth was that the Ad Hoc Committee was not only exploring what Dr. Mack was “doing” for the purpose of a summary — it was an assessment. It even solicited opinions on what he was doing from a set of hostile witnesses outside Harvard, including a doctor whose dissatisfied patient had left him for Dr. Mack. (Dr. Mack, in contrast, was not allowed to offer witnesses until after the Committee had already written its final report.)

And, the committee offered their own member’s opinions — which included the outrageous suggestion that Dr. Mack, a psychiatrist, should prove the reality of other dimensions before considering that people’s recollections of other dimensions might have some validity. (Such proof better left to physicists, one would imagine.) “I think what this is about is opening us to other levels of reality that we are closed off from, and I will never be able to provide the kind of evidence that will document something that exists in that subtle realm,” Dr. Mack said in feeble defense.

“Of course you don’t know until you try” was Dr. Relman’s (the lead inquisitor) retort.

Dr. Relman’s own bias was evident in that some twenty years later, he still holds Dr. Mack’s opinions in contempt, and has served as a counterpoint to a range of academics who have explored edge subjects. “Dr. Relman was extremely provocative throughout the entire meeting and convinced me that he does not possess the temperment or character to consider these matters in any type of dispassionate fashion,” Mack’s attorney noted after his first (and Mack’s second) meeting with the committee.

When the committee ultimately presented its report to the Dean, some 14 months (and $100,000 in legal fees on Dr. Mack’s part) later, the Dean found nothing in their report merited any action, and Dr. Mack was reaffirmed as a professor in good standing with Harvard Medical School.

This was hardly a victory for Dr. Mack, however. The committee, or someone in the committee’s sphere, leaked their report so that their damning opinions of Dr. Mack would enter the public record despite the Dean’s decision. Their opinions made the papers, including the Harvard Crimson and the Boston Globe, and from there the world. Dr. Mack remained largely silent about the painful details of the investigation.

Until now. A couple years before his death, Dr. Mack began writing about the Harvard ordeal. Several hundred pages were complete before his death, though they lack the polish that would have come from another pass at the material. (A pass that he’d told me to expect upon his return from England — a return that never came.)

The discovery of the audiotape of the first meeting is but a part of making sure that Dr. Mack’s account is accurate, since accuracy is the best and only defense when one presents an account of a controversy. I am not in a position to say whether his account will ever be published — that is a matter for the Mack family, and there may be legal obstacles to this happening — but, I can assure that these historically significant materials are safe and sound.

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  1. Kathy Vaquilar said,

    on January 15th, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Wow, Will. Thanks for sharing. Glad I saw this. Such a tragedy that Dr. Mack had to endure this. We still miss him. I know I do.

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