John E Mack

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 14 October 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:920

Psychiatrist who studied claims of alien abduction and won the Pulitzer prize for biography

John E Mack, a psychiatrist at Harvard, won the Pulitzer prize for his 1976 biography of T E Lawrence, A Prince of Our Disorder, and both fame and notoriety for his 1994 bestseller Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens.

He was concerned with social causes, especially nuclear threats and the human environment. His disparate personas—from esteemed professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School to social activist and believer in alien abductions—were as incongruent as the extraordinary assemblage of his supporters, who included venture capitalist Laurence Rockefeller and attorney Daniel Sheehan, best known for his defence of left-leaning causes.

Dr Mack was the founding director of the Center for Psychological Studies in the Nuclear Age and was active as a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility and of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. He made a “landmark” contribution to the study of children's responses to nuclear war, said Dr Robert Jay Lifton, lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who worked with Dr Mack for over 25 years in the antinuclear movement.

His interest in the stories of people who said they had been abducted by aliens—he called them his “experiencers”—began in 1990. He told an interviewer, “When I heard about this phenomenon in 1990, I was very doubtful. I thought it must be some kind of mental illness.” He later described the abduction claims as “an authentic mystery” that deserved to be researched. A third of US adults say they believe aliens have visited the Earth at some time in the past, according to a 2001 Gallup poll.

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Dr Mack's embrace of hypnotism to draw out stories of alien abduction drew fire from those who cautioned that “recovered memories” were unreliable. They warned that, for example, in the Satanic abuse cases that were sweeping the nation, innocent people were being imprisoned because hypnosis and suggestive interview techniques often created fabricated memories.

Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, and an expert in the malleability of memory, said that Dr Mack “underestimated his own role in creating the recollections and beliefs” of his patients. “His use of hypnosis gave the method undeserved credibility.”

Dr Mack shrugged off demands for physical evidence, saying such demands were merely part of a flawed “Western” construct of science that failed to appreciate “other dimensions”—dimensions that he said could not be measured or proved by ordinary means. By listening to patients carefully, Dr Mack claimed he could determine that their stories were true and not explainable by other phenomena such as mental illness, sleep paralysis, seizures, or dreams.

Dr Mack, who founded the department of psychiatry at Cambridge Hospital, Massachusetts, in the late 1960s and became professor of psychiatry at Harvard in 1972, faced potential loss of tenure because of his unconventional methods. Harvard authorities launched an inquiry into his work in 1994. The review committee was headed by Arnold Relman, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and professor of medicine at Harvard. He told the BMJ, “We quickly came to the conclusion that he had the right to investigate any issue he wanted, no matter how weird. After all, Galileo sounded weird to many people of his day. But we did believe he should use rational and scholarly methods.”

Ultimately, the committee concluded that Dr Mack was not using “rational and scholarly” methods, but he was allowed to stay on, with recommendations to improve his methods.

Dr Mack's indifference to scientific principle rankled Dr Relman, who said, “If we abandon scientific principles, then we can't deal with the real problems we face.”

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Dr Mack continued to dismiss concerns about his methods, saying that people should keep an “open mind.”

John E Mack was born in New York city in 1929. He graduated from Harvard in 1955 and trained at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, before serving as a psychiatrist in Japan with the US air force. After setting up Cambridge Hospital's psychiatry unit, he became its head of department from 1969 to 1977.

He was struck by a car and killed while in London to speak at a symposium of the T E Lawrence Society. His marriage to Sally Stahl was dissolved in 1995. He leaves three sons.

John Edward Mack, former professor of psychiatry Harvard (b New York, United States, 1929; q Harvard 1955), d 27 September 2004.

[Jeanne Lenzer]

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