Today is not an easy day for me.
I pause today to think about a person in my life. A person who was dedicated to science and discovery and improving the human condition. A person who was idealistic and sensitive and also had some mental health issues. A person who was pushed over the edge by an overly aggressive, misguided investigation. A person who became lost in some sort of downward spiral triggered by this investigation. A person who then took their own life and in one moment created a catastrophic ripple in the world around them.
This person was not Aaron Swartz, though I am thinking of him today too. The person I refer to was my father. On this day, February 7, 1987, my father Howard J. Eisen took his own life. I was a freshman in college then. Enjoying life on my own at Harvard. Exploring the world of new friends, academic pursuits, and the usual college antics. And then it all exploded. The details are a bit of a blur and most are not really important for what I write about here. But suffice it to say I was devastated.
I flew home to Maryland with my brother and slowly the details emerged. My father was a researcher at the NIH. A paper was being prepared for publication by a post doc who worked for a colleague / boss of my father and who my father also worked with. My father was apparently asked to look at the paper and some “discrepancies” were noted and my father helped launch an investigation into the work. The NIH panel that was brought in to investigate the work of this post doc was very aggressive – very unpleasant – and even though no accusations of wrong doing were made against my father – the style and tone of the investigation pushed him over the edge. And he could not dig himself out. Some people knew he was having trouble with the whole incident but others (e.g., myself) were not in the loop at all. I knew nothing. Perhaps people thought I had enough going on as a freshman in college or perhaps it just never came up. But all I knew was discovered after finding out my father had died, by taking his own life, on February 7, 1987.
Losing my father at the age of 18 was devastating. Still is. The fact that he killed himself made it even worse of course. There were even news stories for a while about it – in the Washington Post, and New York Times, and the Associated Press and Nature and such. Some of the stories helped in a way because they did not accuse my father of any wrong doing. For example the Washington Post reported
“Dr. Howard J. Eisen, a respected scientist at the National Institutes of Health, committed suicide at his Bethesda home last week while under pressure from an investigation he helped initiate of alleged scientific fraud by a coworker.
The suicide has shocked the NIH community and outraged some scientists there, who think that the stress of the investigation triggered Eisen’s death. They view it as a case of the system making a responsible scientist suffer even though he acted aggressively to uncover possible dishonesty in his laboratory. Eisen’s friends and family acknowledged that his personality-he was intensely idealistic and unusually sensitive-made him vulnerable.”
And the Nature article, by Joe Palca, reported “NIH made no allegations against Eisen.” Did these make me feel better? I suppose. But of course, not really. Suicide is brutal for those left behind (and I am sure for those who commit it). I have never recovered. But I note – the life and death of my father, and the story of the investigation, have shaped my life. It is why, when I went to graduate school, my #1 criterion for choosing a PhD advisor was that they were a good, kind person. After struggling with some of the people I worked with I found such a person in Phil Hanawalt and, really, never wanted to leave his lab. I see so many examples of scientists and MDs and administrators abusing their positions of power and finding someone who does not do any such things can sometimes be a challenge.
The story behind my father’s death is also why, a few years ago, when I realized my father’s publications were not freely and openly available that I got so angry. My father had, in a way, died over his research. And for it to not be available pained me to no end. When David Dobbs wrote a story about my quest to Free my Father’s publications I felt some peace that I had done something in his name. And when I finally made them all available a week later, I was truly happy.
The story behind my father’s death is also why, when people have pointed out to me that I have been a bit over the top in critiquing others, that I back off. And I have tried to get others on the web and in my arena to be much more careful about avoiding personal attacks (e.g, see here).
I also note that the story behind my father’s death is why the death of Aaron Swartz hit home so hard to me. I knew Aaron a tiny bit (having met a SciFoo many years ago) but not in any deep way. I read the stories about his JStor download and even wrote about it a little bit. But I was not aware of the demented, aggressive prosecution of him and when I read about his death I was devastated. The story reminded me a great deal of my father. I wrote about Swartz and about the follow up PDFTribute movement (here and here) but it felt a bit awkward since I did not know quite how to discuss my own personal feelings about this story. So I said nothing. But now, in tribute to my father, I am trying to not ignore the facts around his death. They are a part of his life and a part of why I am the way I am. So I write this post. And I call for others out there to remember – life is fragile. Be careful with your words and your actions. No – one cannot blame everyone – or anyone really – for complex things like suicide. But we can all do a little bit to improve how we treat others. And on this day, when I am 44, the same age as my father was when he died, that is what I think about.
|My father, Howard J. Eisen
UPDATE 2/8: See my brother’s nearly simultaneously written post about this topic (which we did not discuss – typical – here).
Storification of responses