By Daniel de Visé
Jonathan Lewis, a psychiatrist who treated hundreds of survivors of war and torture in Vietnam and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, died Monday. He was 73.
Dr. Lewis died following a stroke at Weiss Memorial Hospital, where he was admitted after collapsing in his Edgewater apartment.
Jonathan David “Jon” Lewis was born on October 10, 1943, the only child of Leonard “Lenny” and Sybille Lewis. He spent his early childhood in an apartment on Drexel Boulevard at 43rd Street. Lenny Lewis was an actuary who labored in secret on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago. Sybille was a child psychologist. They were Ashkenazy Jews from the most unlikely of places, he from Winnipeg, she from Charlotte. They became immersed in a tight-knit community of Hyde Park leftists, whose causes included the 1948 presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace.
An exceptionally studious child, Dr. Lewis devoured chapter books almost as soon as he could hold them. He attended Chicago Public Schools and, after his family moved north, Evanston Township High School. His father died of multiple sclerosis when Jon was 14. The illness had thrust Sybille Lewis into the dual roles of caregiver and breadwinner, and had cast a pall of grief over Jon’s childhood.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in social science at the University of Chicago, spent a year in further study at Berkeley, and then earned a master’s degree in education at Roosevelt University via the Teacher Corps, a Johnson-era program to improve pedagogy in low-income areas.
Though he came of age in the Civil Rights era, Dr. Lewis was, by most accounts, too busy with study and work to protest. But once, in 1963, he joined two hundred students on the fifty-yard line of Stagg Field in a sit-in to thwart the return of football at the university. Such was his love of South Side blues that he became friends with members of the Butterfield Blues Band, Hyde Park fixtures all.
When urban teaching proved too arduous, Dr. Lewis took a job teaching science at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Hyde Park. Then, still intellectually restless, he entered medical school.
Dr. Lewis graduated in 1974 from the Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine at the University of Illinois, choosing the field of psychiatry when he found he could not stand the sight of blood. He joined the faculty and taught there as an assistant professor of psychiatry for fifteen years.
By the 1990s, Dr. Lewis was engaged full-time in private practice. He was that rare workaholic who logged a true 72-hour week, toiling into the evening on weekdays and working through every weekend. As a longtime member of the venerable Hyde Park Cooking Club, Dr. Lewis specialized in choosing the wine, because he seldom had time to cook.
In private practice, Dr. Lewis developed a passion and a specialty in victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. He treated refugees first of the Vietnam war and later of the Clinton-era Bosnian genocide. Many patients were high-ranking political and military officers from South Vietnam, singled out by their communist captors for imprisonment and torture that sometimes stretched for years. Others were children born to Vietnamese mothers and American serviceman fathers who had survived sexual slavery.
Most of his patients subsisted on public aid, and Dr. Lewis seldom collected more than $30 for an hour of therapy, leaving him perpetually cash-strapped despite the long hours of work. To show their gratitude, patients would shower him with fresh fruit, Vietnamese sausage and Balkan baklava.
Dr. Lewis soon became convinced that he could not cure post-traumatic stress, only help patients to manage its effects.
“He once said, ‘I feel like it was futile,’” recalled Joel Shufro, a lifelong friend. “It was dealing with the symptom and not the cause.”
Dr. Lewis often delved deeply into the personal plights of his patients, sometimes at his own expense. “He helped people with housing. I know he sometimes gave people money,” said Dr. Karlene Goodman, his longtime office partner. “He did the sorts of things that normally psychiatrists don’t do, and he would do it in an attempt to make life better.”
As Dr. Lewis’s psychiatric career slowed in later life, his many other passions accelerated. He played the horses, crafted jewelry and painted portraits. He cultivated a vast repertoire of jokes – – “corny, terrible Borscht Belt jokes,” Goodman recalled. He edited a collection of essays and lectures by the late George S. Becker, a onetime Roosevelt lecturer and “private intellectual” whose work had inspired his own. At the end of his life, Dr. Lewis had published a children’s book and was completing a non-fiction volume examining the link between Shakespeare and Freud, two of his heroes.
Once, when an old friend complained that he was bored, Dr. Lewis replied, “Bored? I haven’t been bored since I was eleven years old.”
Dr. Lewis is survived by his wife and companion of more than twenty years, Betty de Vis√©; by seven cousins, Marion Korn of Toronto, Joel Korn of Vancouver, Roberta Redford of Colorado, Elaine Rawlings of Hamiota, Manitoba, Norman Levi and Miriam Levi of Winnipeg, and Lynn Horwitz Coe of Chicago; and by a stepson and two grandchildren in Garrett Park, Md.