Dr. Barry Blackwell has spent half a century working as a psychiatrist. But since moving from Britain to Milwaukee decades ago, he’s explored something quite unexpected for a medical practitioner: poetry.
For Blackwell, this wasn’t a midlife change-of-heart. Throughout his self-published memoir, Bits and Pieces of a Psychiatrist’s Life, Blackwell makes reference to his lifelong interest in writing. He recently sat down with WUWM’s Lake Effect to discuss his 600-page magnum opus.
“I wanted to do creative writing since I was a medical student,” says Blackwell. The poetic side of his mind found unique ways to emerge; he recounts that “my anatomy tutor wanted me to write an essay about the blood supply to the uterus. My essay was so florid he said to me, ‘Blackwell, one day you’ll end up writing for Reader’s Digest!’”
While that particular prediction was not realized, Blackwell developed into a prolific writer, penning more than 200 scientific research articles as well as his personal essays and poems. His memoir serves as the culmination of his aptitude and passion for both writing and medicine. Bits and Pieces is divided into 31 larger “Pieces” of his life that are further parsed into 261 “Bits,” including anecdotes, scientific articles, and, last but not least, poems.
But one aspect that distinguishes this memoir as unique is Blackwell’s ability to transport the reader back in time. Instead of writing from a purely reflective standpoint, Blackwell includes poetry he wrote over the course of his career as well as dated essays, academic and personal.
While being a gifted writer, Blackwell has also played a significant role in medicine. Though primarily a psychiatrist, his exploration into clinical pharmacology research contributed many novel findings to the field. He was one of the first to note the adverse effects of eating foods high in the amino-acid tyrosine while taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), a class of antidepressant used to treat atypical depression. Research into this phenomenon has saved countless from experiencing hypertensive crises as a result of the interaction.
Ultimately, Blackwell felt he could better serve others by being a family practitioner and then a psychiatrist in the long-term. “You want to have a person who is competent and knows as much as they can know, and therefore is safe,” says Blackwell, but it is also important “to have someone who is caring.” Blackwell’s memoir touches time and time again on patients he encountered whose stories still affect him today.
Though he is recently retired, Blackwell has not yet finished contributing valuable writing to the public sphere. Blackwell is one of the four founders of the International Network for the History of Neuropsychopharmacology (INHN) project, dedicated to providing an accurate and accessible history of the field and facilitating intergenerational communication between neuropsychopharmacologists. He is responsible for covering controversies. Previously, he was heavily involved in interviewing and writing for the Oral History of Neuropsychopharmacology, an older sister project of the INHN.
Blackwell says he wrote the memoir as "a way of saying thank you” to everyone he knew and cared for over the course of his lifetime.
Dr. Blackwell will speak about his memoir Wednesday, July 10th at 7 p.m. in Milwaukee’s Boswell Book Company. It is located at 2559 North Downer Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53211.