Susan Michal Fisher, noted psychiatrist, 1937-2012

Susan Michal Fisher, BS’59, a distinguished psychiatrist and a former clinical professor in Psychiatry and Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, was particularly adept at understanding the needs of people suffering under a variety of conditions. Fisher, 74, a resident of Hyde Park, died June 21.

Her life will be celebrated during at a memorial service at 6 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Women’s Club of Evanston, 1708 Chicago Ave. in Evanston.

She was the widow of Prof. Herman Sinaiko, a celebrated philosopher and well-loved faculty member at UChicago. He died in October 2011.

“Susan inspired many students with her strong commitment to psychoanalysis and related therapies in this increasingly pharmacological world,” said Richard P. Taub, the Paul Klapper Professor and chair of Comparative Human Development.

Added Martha McClintock, the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology: “Fisher could ‘see’ people: their character, their foibles, their strengths, pain, motivations and joys. She was not only a brilliant clinician in the grand psychoanalytic tradition, but passed on the skills and art as a beloved teacher and mentor.” More broadly she was nationally known and honored in her field.

Early in her career Fisher worked with extremely challenging populations: as a therapist at Walpole Maximum Security Prison, as the chief psychiatrist for a children’s pretrial detention center in Washington, D.C., and as the medical liaison for the burn unit of Children’s Hospital, also in Washington. She also worked with communities in rural China and Africa.

“Knowing how wonderful a life could be, made her more keenly aware of — and eager to relieve — the suffering of others. She spent a lifetime refining her skills as a physician and psychiatrist so that she would be of the greatest possible service,” said her friend Penny Mesic.

Fisher was born Nov. 15, 1937 in New York and received a BS from the University of Chicago in 1959. She received an MD from Columbia University in 1963 and worked as a psychiatrist at Massachusetts Mental Health Center Boston, Beth Israel Hospital, Boston, and Children’s Hospital of the District of Columbia.

She graduated from the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1987 and served there as a faculty member.

In 1979, she was named lecturer and consultant in psychiatry at UChicago. In 1999 she was named a clinical professor in Psychiatry and Comparative Human Development. 

She also held positions at Rush Medical School, Tufts Medical School and Harvard Medical School.

She was the co-author of two books on topics close to her heart: To Do No Harm: DES and the Dilemmas of Modern Medicine, and Talking with Young Children About Adoption. The former book, which Fisher co-authored with Roberta J. Apfel, concerned DES, or diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic estrogen that caused numerous medical problems, including birth defects.

Despite a full professional career and a lively personal life, Fisher managed to read widely and collect an astonishing quantity of information. Friends said they marveled at her mind and how much it held—long poems memorized by heart, a compendious grasp of the music she loved, the lyrics of songs, the cabinet members of deposed Rumanian dictators, all the steps of the carbon cycle, the Latin names of tiny facial muscles, friends said.

“When Susie contracted an illness that initially robbed her of memory, it was like witnessing the burning of the library at Alexandria—so much knowledge in one place, suddenly upturned, scattered, gradually reassembled but with a few gaps on the shelves,” Mesic said.

But it was at this point that her lifelong courage was most evident. She did not complain or lapse into self-pity, Mesic added. “She knew who she was, she knew what it was to be strong and brave, and to a good friend to people, and she was those things.”

Fisher’s intelligence and judgment were still healthy despite some memory problems, friends said. Mesic said Fisher took great solace from her husband, who helped her through difficult periods.

“Herman Sinaiko’s death in the autumn of 2011 was a mortal blow,” Mesic said. “Trying to endure his loss was a pointless exercise, and her death from heart failure followed relatively soon after, bringing to a close a life that held abundant love and many triumphs.”

She is survived by two children, Benjamin Jacob Sinaiko and Jane Rebecca Sinaiko, and by her granddaughter, Addison Rose Hagen.

In lieu of flowers. the family asks that donations be made to Doctors Without Borders, PO Box 5030, Hagerstown, MD 21741-5030, or The Center for Victims of Torture at 649 Dayton Ave., St Paul, MN 55104.