Dr. Paul S. Appelbaum ’72 Comes Home to Columbia
By Martina Brendel '05
Dr. Paul S. Appelbaum ’72, former president of the American Psychiatric Association, is now the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine and Law at P&S.
PHOTO: Eve Vagg for the New York State Psychiatric Institute
Things have come full circle for Dr. Paul S. Appelbaum ’72.
The Brooklyn native left his post as chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of
Massachusetts Medical School last year to accept an endowed professorship at P&S. He and his wife, Diana Karter
Appelbaum ’75 Barnard, who lived on the banks of an old mill pond outside Boston, packed up
their home of 16 years and moved into a faculty apartment on Claremont Avenue.
Now, Appelbaum, 55, who holds the title of Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine
and Law, divides his time between research, teaching a weekly seminar on mental health law
at the Law School and browsing the bookstores of his beloved Morningside Heights.
“Common wisdom has it you can’t go home again — but sometimes you can,” he
wrote last spring in his CCT Class Notes column. Appelbaum has served as a volunteer class correspondent
since the mid-’70s.
As a student, Appelbaum never lived in Morningside Heights. The son of a letter carrier
and a teacher, he and his family couldn’t afford room and board. Instead, he took three trains
to get from Canarsie to Columbia — a 90–minute commute each way.
Appelbaum majored in biology, but when asked, he says he really majored in debate. Every
spare moment he had was devoted to researching debate topics, preparing for tournaments
and eventually organizing them as president of the Debate Council.
“The irony is that ... almost everything I learned in biology is almost completely out of
says. “The things that really made a difference for me, that stuck with me and haven’t
changed, are the courses I took in the Core Curriculum.”
At Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1976, Appelbaum became interested
in the intersection between law and psychiatry, his chosen specialty. The field was
undergoing dramatic changes at the time, as states changed their laws to prevent the
involuntary commitment of mental patients. Boston became a flash point in the debate
in 1975, when a group of patients sued Boston State Hospital for medicating them against their
Appelbaum was curious about the implications of patients refusing medical treatment.
He conducted a study of such patients to see how long they would refuse treatment
and at what cost during his residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. His
study, the first of its kind, was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
From there, Appelbaum became interested in what qualifies a person to refuse treatment,
consent to clinical research or testify during a trial. His research helped clarify
what it means for a patient to be competent to make such decisions, and the structured
interviews he devised now are the most widely used tools by psychiatrists to assess competence.
The hectic pace Appelbaum adopted in college, as a pre-med student and president
of the debate team, never really subsided. He has published more than 170 peer-reviewed
articles and as many non-peer-reviewed articles and books. In 2002–03, he was president of
the American Psychiatric Association, a commitment that took him around the world.
In the midst of it all, Appelbaum and his wife raised three children: Binyamin,
28, who graduated from Penn in 2001 and is a business reporter for The Charlotte Observer;
Yoni ’03, who is pursuing a doctorate in American history at Brandeis; and Avigail ’05
Barnard, a student in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
“Columbia was right for [most of] us in some very important ways,” Appelbaum says. “The
Columbia campus is an intellectually active and challenging place. Ideas are an important currency
of interaction. For people who enjoy confronting ideas and living with them, not just in class but
outside, Columbia is the perfect place to be.”
Which is why, when the opportunity to return to Columbia presented itself, Appelbaum,
worn from his years as an administrator, couldn’t resist. He now is doing what he loves most — research,
teaching and writing — in the city where he grew up.
“There comes a certain point in life where closing the circle has a certain pleasure to it,” he
says. “I still root for the Patriots and the Red Sox, but New York is home in a way that no other
place could ever be.”
Martina Brendel ’05 majored in political science and is a reporter for The
Salem News in Beverly, Mass.