HILLEL I. SWILLER, REMEMBRANCE
CORNELL, B.A. 1961 AND CORNELL M.D., 1965
Our Class of 1961 classmate, Hillel Swiller, died on May 7 at age 83. Family, friends and colleagues gathered for a May 10 funeral service at the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, NY. Hillel is survived by his wife of 56 years, Willa Radin Swiller (Cornell 1962), their four sons, Ari (Cornell 1991), Joshua, Zev and Sam Swiller, sisters Judi Davidson and Raphy Haimowitz, brother Jonathan, and Willa and Hillel’s seven grandchildren.
Born in Brooklyn, in September 1939, Hillel graduated from his neighborhood elementary school, P.S. 99, in 1953, and from Midwood High School in 1957, then to Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences where he majored in English literature. Over the course of his undergraduate years, Hillel pursued a range of extracurricular activities as a freshman dorm counselor, chairman of the Freshman Residential Judiciary Board (F.R.J.B.), chairman of a student government advisory Committee on Academic Affairs, and elected officer of our Cornell class (sophomore year Treasurer).
Likely his personally memorable extracurricular experience was playing the role of Willie Loman’s son Biff in a January 1960 Cornell Dramatic Club, Willard Straight Hall production, of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The Ithaca Journal review described Hillel’s portrayal as “excellent.” The Cornell Daily Sun wrote that Biff was “compassionately acted by Hillel Swiller.”
Hillel’s next four years were at Cornell Medical School in Manhattan, from which he graduated in 1965. Following an internship in San Francisco and residency in psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Hillel served as a medical officer in the United States Navy, treating U.S. military personnel returning from Vietnam. He then undertook specialty training at, and graduated from, the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.
A career long association with Mount Sinai then followed, with Hillel progressing to be a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Psychotherapy at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. In the Summer 2011 issue of the Magazine of Weill Cornell Medical College, Hillel described the Mount Sinai Division of Psychotherapy (which he co-founded in 1988): “Our division serves as a counterweight to the overreliance of psychopharmacology that pervades modern psychiatry. We have a voluntary faculty of about 80 physicians, psychologists, and social workers who provide much of the teaching of all modes of psychotherapy to students and residents.”
At Mount Sinai, Hillel did pioneering work in addressing the impact of the stresses of medical education on medical students. He co-founded a program for which the American Medical Student Association, in 1993, conferred on the school its first Paul R. Wright Excellence in Medical Education Award for programs in student well-being.
In an obituary in the New York Times on May 14, leaders and colleagues at Mount Sinai noted Hillel had received Mount Sinai’s Lou Linn Award for Excellence in Teaching. They wrote, “Dr. Swiller was a pioneering psychiatrist who played a leading role in expanding mental health services at Mount Sinai for more than half a century.”
In 2009, the American Psychiatric Association published its comprehensive Textbook of Psychotherapeutic Treatments. For the writing of the textbook, the APA (on its website) described the assembling of “50 of the world’s most renowned experts on every psychotherapeutic school of thought to create this definitive volume.” Hillel, one of those experts, wrote the chapter on group therapy.
Creative Alternatives of New York (CANY) is an organization that provides therapeutic workshops for populations with special needs, including using drama to enable them to deal with trauma. In 2011, it honored Hillel for his leadership and teaching. Perhaps Hillel’s own opportunity to be on the stage at Cornell in a complex family drama contributed to his insights on the therapeutic use of drama.
In 2013, Hillel contributed a memoir chapter to a book, edited by a fellow psychiatrist, Norman Straker, entitled Facing Cancer and the Fear of Death: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Treatment. Hillel’s short chapter (at pp. 12-14) is headed On Illness and Death. Describing the lengthy list of health issues he had faced, and concluding the essay with what he continued to experience, he built the chapter around his spontaneous assurance to the young doctor who first described to Hillel an initial cancer: “I’ve had a good life.” His essay elaborates.
Cornell Class of 1961
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