Gay psychiatrist David R. Kessler dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023
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Dr. David Rudolph Kessler. Photo: Courtesy Dr. David R. Kessler
Dr. David Rudolph Kessler. Photo: Courtesy Dr. David R. Kessler

A memorial will be held next month for Dr. David Rudolph Kessler, who became the first openly gay psychiatrist at UCSF's Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital back in the 1970s.

Dr. Kessler died November 24, 2022 at the age of 92. His friend Dr. Demetri Polites told the Bay Area Reporter that Dr. Kessler had been in poor health for awhile and died after a long illness while in skilled nursing care at the Sequoias.

In an obituary he prepared before his death, Dr. Kessler wrote that he was inspired by Harvey Milk to come out in 1978 during a Langley Porter Institute grand round, becoming the first such openly gay faculty member on the campus. Milk, the first gay man elected to office in San Francisco in 1977, served 11 months on the Board of Supervisors before being assassinated by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978.

Polites said that Dr. Kessler gave one of the eulogies for Milk at his memorial at the San Francisco Opera House.

Dr. Kessler had other notable firsts, he wrote, including being elected president of the nation's first gay doctors' group, Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights (1978-1980), and then the first elected president of the national gay caucus of Members of the American Psychiatric Association (1980-1982). He served on many boards, including the National Gay Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force) and the NAMES Project, which oversaw the AIDS Memorial Quilt. (The quilt is now under the stewardship of the National AIDS Memorial Grove.)

In 1991, he endowed an annual lectureship on gay and lesbian issues at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the Graduate School of the City University of New York.

Dr. Kessler was also generous with Yale. He directed $5 million from his estate to the Yale School of Public Health, part of which is intended for the creation of the David R. Kessler Endowed Professorship, according to a 2019 article in Yale School of Public Health.

And he made a gift of $200,000 to support the work of Yale School of Public Health Associate Professor John Pachankis, Ph.D., and his Esteem Research Group, according to the publication, which reported on the donation. The money was dedicated to addressing the depression, anxiety, and substance use problems that disproportionately affect the LGBTQ community and can erode healthy relationships and behaviors, the publication reported. A clinical psychologist, Pachankis, is internationally known for his development of novel psychosocial interventions to improve LGBTQ individuals' mental health.

Dr. Kessler moved to San Francisco in 1962, where he became a full-time staff member at Langley Porter, his obituary stated. There, he helped to train many of the psychiatrists who would go on to practice in the Bay Area. He retired in 1986 as a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF. He was the author of several clinical papers and was co-author of an early textbook on marital and family therapy. For over 50 years he conducted a part-time psychiatric practice and was a consultant to the San Francisco Superior Court.

Dr. Kessler and his late partner, Steven Del Re, enjoyed all things Italian, and traveled extensively throughout the Italian peninsula, the obituary stated. Del Re died of complications from AIDS in 1986. "I must have been Italian in a former life," he quipped in his obituary. Dr. Kessler also enjoyed music, taking piano lessons on and off for years.

Early life

Dr. Kessler was born April 1, 1930 in Brooklyn, New York. He was the only child of Polish Jews, who emigrated to the U.S. shortly after World War I. His father, Benjamin, was a clothing manufacturer, and his mother later in life worked for the New York City Board of Education.

The obituary stated that he attended public schools in Brooklyn. In 1937, he accompanied his mother on a nine-month visit to her family in Poland. He served as student body president in junior high school. After graduation from Brooklyn College, he attended Yale Medical School, receiving his MD degree in 1955. Following three years with the U.S. Public Health Service, he returned to Yale for psychiatric training. He helped open one of the nation's first psychiatric hospitals in an American general hospital.

Dr. Kessler wrote that during adolescence he changed his middle name, adapting it from that of his musical hero at the time, Rudolf Serkin.

Several of Dr. Kessler's close friends died during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, but he managed to maintain warm relationships with a small circle of intimate associates, he wrote in his obituary. He considered himself to be extremely fortunate. He escaped without grave consequences after a hot air balloon crash in France, and he successfully survived leukemia several years later. Most importantly, he wrote, was having the opportunity to contribute to the struggle for gay rights.

"It could be worse," was one of his favorite retorts and expressed his sense of Jewish optimism.

"On his current voyage he hopes to meet up with Mozart and get a chance to hear some of his latest compositions," the obituary stated.

Surviving relatives include two cousins and their families in Los Angeles.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, March 11, in San Francisco, delayed due to the COVID pandemic. For details, people should email [email protected] with their name and phone number.

In lieu of flowers, Dr. Kessler asked that people send contributions to PFLAG or to their favorite LGBTQ charity.

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