Monday, March 26, 2007

The man who harnessed the power of dialogue

Dr. Milton Wexler died earlier this month at age 98. Dr. Wexler was a sucessful Hollywood psychotherapist who co-wrote the screenplays for the films "The Man Who Loved Women" and "That's Life!" with the director Blake Edwards. But those factoids were not what interested me when I read his obituary in last Saturday's New York Times.

Dr. Wexler devised a new technique to spur progress on the research of Huntington's Disease, a terrifying genetic disorder that claimed the life of his first wife. (Here's a recent story about Huntington's.) The Times obit stated:

He formed the Hereditary Disease Foundation to gather young scientists from different disciplines and institutions for freewheeling talks about Huntington’s as well as to sponsor research....

His strategy was one he developed for group therapy among creative people: no-holds-barred discussion toward a common purpose in a nonthreatening climate.

The research that emerged “changed everything in the world of genetic disease,” Dr. Housman said, adding that many influential scientists had not expected so much progress for 100 years.

What can a psychotherapist--not a medical researcher--do to attack the disease that took his wife and threatened his children? One would imagine that Dr. Wexler would feel powerless. Instead, he harnessed the power of dialogue and spearheaded significant advances against the disease.

It might not be a stretch to call the Hereditary Disease Foundation the world's first open source project. In that, Dr. Wexler was twenty years ahead of his time.

, , , ,