Henry Krystal, M.D.
(1925 - 2015)
By Channing Lipson, M.D.
Henry Krystal was born in a small Polish village in 1925. As Nazi Germany began threatening Poland, Henry’s life and that of his family became progressively disrupted. As he reached his teenage years he became a prisoner of the Nazis and never again saw his family. Henry spent the war years in a series of five concentration camps, where he faced repeated deprivation, cruelty, and possible death.
Following liberation, he migrated to Detroit and to the care of cousins. With the help of his supporting relatives, he began attending a premedical curriculum at Wayne State University. It was here that he met his future wife, Esther Rose, whose caretaking and loving devotion ultimately helped him deal with the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, as she arranged for him to spend his final years at home, surrounded by the warmth and attention of friends and family.
I first met Dr. Krystal in 1954 when he arrived at Receiving Hospital to begin his psychiatric residency. We soon knew that he was smart, ambitious, and stubbornly persistent, but we certainly could not predict that he would publish over seventy papers, write two books, edit two others, and be the recipient of national and international honors and prizes.
Dr. Krystal began his psychoanalytic training as a member of the first class of the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute in 1958, the same year that he received the research award from the Michigan Psychiatric Society for his work with alcoholics.
He read his first psychoanalytic paper “Georgio de Chirico: Ego States in Artistic Production,” at a meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association on May 6, 1961. That same year he received, along with Tom Petty, M.D., the first prize Research and Essay Award, from the Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine. The following year he presented his and Dr. Petty’s essay on “The Dynamics of Migration” to the World Psychiatry Congress in Madrid. This pace of productivity continued throughout his career, accompanied by honors that include the “Pioneer Award” of the International Society of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as the Laughlin Award from the American College of Psychoanalysts.
Dr. Krystal is probably best known for his work on trauma, from which much of his understanding of affect theory emerged. Over a period of many years he was engaged in the comprehensive evaluation of literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of holocaust survivors for the purpose of obtaining restitution from the German government. In conducting these examinations and long-term follow-ups, as well as treating some survivors, he was willing to painfully expose himself to the vicarious experiences of a variety of reactions to severe trauma, while at the same time he was able to keep psychological eyes and ears open for observation. These observations suggested to him that psychological traumatization impairs the capacity to use emotions to guide self-regulatory and adaptive behavior. He noted that under stress, traumatized individuals tended to lose the capacity to accurately identify and to express their emotional states. Instead, traumatized individuals tended to experience emotions primarily as physical sensations, to regulate internal emotional distress through action or "freezing". This tendency made them vulnerable to impulsive behavior and addiction as coping strategies.
He shared these ideas in his many publications, which led to his being awarded the Elise M. Hayman Award for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, at the 1999 International Psychoanalytic Association Congress in Santiago, Chile. To quote: “This award is given to the individual or individuals who have written the most cogent, relevant and commendable work on the Holocaust and genocide issues.” The award included a $1000 honorarium and paid expenses to Chile. The occasion included a lecture by Dr. Krystal with a recommendation for publication of the lecture in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis.
To many of us Dr. Krystal is best known as a teacher. Graduates of the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute remember his lectures on affect theory. While the originality of the content was intriguing, it was the clarity of his presentation of complex ideas that was so appreciated. In his capacity as Professor of Psychiatry at Michigan State University, he initiated the medical student psychiatric rotations that exposed these future doctors to a psychoanalytic approach to human suffering. He also directed the postgraduate program at the Wayne State University Medical School Department of Psychiatry. In this capacity he initiated a program that provided education and consultation for small groups of non-psychiatric physicians and others who were providing care for individuals with emotional problems. He enlisted a number of his analytic colleagues to lead these groups. Many of these groups continued to meet for years to the benefit of the patients as well as the participants. This work was recognized jointly by the Michigan State Medical Society, the Michigan Academy of General Practice, and the Michigan Society of Neurology and Psychiatry, in a Testimonial Resolution. In 1998 the Distinguished Alumnus Award was conferred on Dr. Krystal by the Wayne State University Medical Alumni.
From early on in his career, Dr. Krystal’s curiosity and scholarship fostered his consideration of related disciplines before this was common in mainstream psychoanalysis. These interests led to his continuing an active participation in a study group devoted to neuroscience.
Our friend Henry admittedly did not escape all of the negative effects of the many years of trauma he endured. He was not, however, anhedonic. He enthusiastically enjoyed hiking, skiing, sailing, music, fine arts and especially traveling. His capacity to love endured and was most evident in his relationships with friends and family. Henry gave a remarkable talk on the occasion of his twin grandchildren’s Bnai Mitzvah. He stressed the health-promoting value of love on an individual’s psyche in contrast to the self-destructive effects of harboring hatred.
Henry Krystal, M.D. of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, died on 08 October 2015. Those of us who were privileged to know and love Henry will remember and miss him.