Dr. William Welch

Gurdjieff International Review

For Dr. William J. Welch


by Roger Lipsey

Eulogies are not written in tranquillity. They are an urgent response to the often abrupt departure of one loved or admired. They need not be mendacious, and this one is not. The eulogy that follows was offered on July 12, 1997, at the kind invitation of Dr. Welch’s family, at St. Thomas church in New York City. This version restores some biographical paragraphs passed over on the occasion itself. Those interested in knowing more of Dr. Welch will find no better place to look than in his own book, What Happened In Between: A Doctor’s Story.

“Bless your eyes,” he would often say at parting. I never quite knew what he meant, and perhaps you didn’t either. That he became partially blind in the last several years didn’t change a thing: eyes could still be blessed. I know that, as a doctor, he was not referring only to spiritual eyes, or some such—he was certainly blessing the very physical eyes of his friends and family, and the fragile bodies those eyes must guide. But as a man who almost unwillingly felt and acknowledged the sacred dimension of life, he was surely also blessing the mind and spirit that see and ensure for us something approaching a sound participation in life.

I say “something approaching a sound participation.” He would have understood that; he was not one to speak in absolutes or believe them. Everything was, as he often said, “more nearly” true, “more nearly” understood than before. Living for him was an approach to insight and love. The only absolute was the exercise of common decency, each toward the other and toward oneself.

Living for him was an unspeakable joy. Have we ever known anyone who so relished each event, large or small, each encounter with another?—and this despite, or perhaps because of an underlying skepticism and seriousness of mind that remained even in his laughter. He considered it an astonishing privilege to live, to think carefully about things, to be in touch with others. He never took life or his companions for granted.

This may explain in part why the journey to his apartment, for so many of us, was a pilgrimage; he was always fresh in front of us—or “very nearly.” Many here will remember their own occasions of pilgrimage. Some came in anguish; life is not easy. We left not lured from our sorrows or concerns, but more resolute, enriched in understanding, heard. “I have the ears of a lynx,” he would say—meaning that he heard the slightest sound. He also heard the sound of hearts, the sound of a thought barely formulated but seeking its way.

I don’t think he wanted to be viewed as a wise man, and I don’t think he viewed himself as an especially spiritual man. However, these things he was and they came about, one might say, as symptoms of the fever of his life. His calling, really, was truth-seeking—in medicine as in psychological and social experience. His calling was questioning. I remember a talk he gave years ago in which he didn’t actually assert a single thing: he simply questioned. Every statement was a question. At the time—I was young—this seemed astonishing, even suspect. Now I understand better.

What he couldn’t calculate, and had no need to, was the impact on himself and on those around him of his questioning. It probably remade him over the years. Simply by questioning and by attending to the answers that came of themselves or emerged in the course of unblinking inquiry, he became a wise man and a spiritual man. But there was something more: his feeling for people. It must have guided him into medicine in the first place; it certainly grew with the years as he looked after many thousands of patients. Dr. Welch had a capacity for unfeigned, immediate compassion: one experienced it at once when speaking with him of any real difficulty, be it medical or personal. He often railed at human self-preoccupation and described us, as Gurdjieff did, as lamentably unavailable to one another. This was somehow scoured out of him; perhaps his awareness of it was enough gradually to evict it. He had the rare attribute of welcoming people to be their best, didn’t invisibly compete. He was there for others, so fully that he almost shone with love at times. But some factor, perhaps good taste, certainly good sense, allowed him to feel much without becoming sentimental.

Gurdjieff. The great inflector of Dr. Welch’s life, the one who implicitly challenged him to be not just a superb doctor—already no small thing—but to explore human experience with wrenching honesty. Gurdjieff was the teacher whom he met in New York in the 1930s and loved ever after with the awe and delight of a son toward a difficult but astonishing father. It was this man, whom we can safely regard as a Western Zen master, who redefined for Dr. Welch—and many others of his generation—the full meaning of humanness and the possible scope of experience. Gurdjieff’s example and influence, falling on many different souls, bore fruit in many different ways. In Dr. Welch, is it saying too much, or saying falsely, to remember his enormous humanity, outsized really: more than one could hope for. Gurdjieff did not lead him to the heaven of the mystics—Dr. Welch thought earth to be heaven enough for now, if properly perceived and lived—but Gurdjieff did contribute in ways that can never be fully known to the emergence of rich humanity in his spiritual son. Gurdjieff said, if you work for your life you also work for your death. Dr. Welch worked for his life, and the lives of others.

Dr. Welch was born on September 12, 1911, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin—a town he described in his autobiography as having “one of everything.” In 1929, he graduated The Blake School, near Minneapolis, Minnesota, and attended Yale College, where he graduated in 1933. A loyal Yale man, in later years he would reminisce about the monumentally wastrel existence he pursued there, but his brilliant use of language, thoughtful approach to medical and human fact, and lifelong love of the study of American and world history suggested that he had not spent his time quite so prodigally as alleged.

An initial position in advertising, with Benton & Bowles, left him unsatisfied and he quickly reoriented his career into medicine. He graduated the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, in 1942, and completed his internship and a residency in cardiology at Bellevue Hospital in New York. From 1942 through 1946, he participated as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in a malaria research project under the direction of Dr. James Shannon, who later became director of the National Institutes of Health. In 1950 through 1955, he was in private practice in Princeton, New Jersey, where he and his wife Louise shared a home with the legendary dean of Princeton University, Christian Gauss; I understand that the two families would meet mainly in the common kitchen, where tacit but binding rules governed times for conversation and times for privacy. Returning to New York City, where he practiced privately from 1955 through 1981, he was affiliated with New York University Medical Center and Doctors’ Hospital, and was Medical Director of the New York Cardiac Center in Yonkers. Many of us will recall our unspoken pride and involuntary feeling of personal safety during his tenure as president of what was then the New York Heart Association, in 1967 through 1969; that institution is now an affiliate of the American Heart Association. Until this year, Dr. Welch retained his rank at NYU as an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Dr. Welch wrote a syndicated newspaper column called “Dr. Welch Says,” on medical issues, and conducted a call-in radio show, “Ask Dr. Welch,” again on medical issues. Always quick to appreciate those who know their trade well, he refined through these activities the lively style that adds to the pleasure of reading his 1972 autobiography, to which he gave the title What Happened in Between: A Doctor’s Story. It might as well have been titled “The Education of William Welch,” as its sustained clarity, verve, and flawless listening to the resources of language recall one of the great American autobiographies, The Education of Henry Adams.

Dr. Welch’s private practice of medicine was paralleled by public practice—activities serving the larger community. Along this avenue of endeavor, he responded to a distinguished patient’s invitation to provide the intellectual framework for the Emily Davie and Joseph S. Kornfeld Foundation, which focuses on medicine and human dignity, particularly in the closing phase of life. Dr. Welch was instrumental with Prof. John Fletcher, first and current holder of the Kornfeld Chair of Bioethics at the University of Virginia, in the founding of The Center for Biomedical Ethics at that university. Dr. Welch was also an active member of the advisory board to Howmedica, a division of Pfizer.

In later years, Dr. Welch took pleasure in his membership in The Century Association, a New York club where he annually exhibited the honorable results of his late-found avocation, oil painting. He also felt it a considerable achievement to have been invited to do the “voice over” for the celebrated film, Places in the Heart, directed by his friend Robert Benton. His membership in the Screen Actors Guild as a result of that venture struck him as a sign of successful retirement from medical practice.

From 1984 until his death, Dr. Welch was President of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City and advisor to affiliated Canadian organizations, the Society for Traditional Studies in Toronto and the Association for Experimental Studies in Halifax, both of which he co-founded with his wife Louise. From the mid-1950s, Dr. Welch and his wife had a wide circle of friends of all ages with whom they shared their understanding of the Gurdjieff teaching.

Dr. Welch was a worldly man, contributing vigorously in many walks of life. But to which world, exactly, did he belong? To many, I would say. As a physician, he belonged closely and loyally to this world, the world of hearts and vessels, CAT scans and hope for the best. As a friend and advisor, he belonged also to this world, where our lives play out with their fair share of tragedy and comedy; he knew how to help. But surely in his most intimate being, which one heard at times in his words and felt in his attitude, he belonged also to another world, a spiritual world. He had not really anticipated this, I think; but he was honest enough to recognize good evidence and vulnerable enough to be moved by it. He would say on occasion to Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff’s successor and a woman he both respected and loved—he would say, “Madame, your secret is safe with me,” by which he meant that since he didn’t really understand what she was saying, he could be trusted not to repeat it. But I suspect her secret was not so safe, after all; he understood quite well.

He was sometimes taken by surprise by the depth of his own feeling and vision. He and some friends of his conducted, in the basement of the townhouse we shared, what amounted to an 18th century Academy of Art. It met weekly among the water pipes and electrical conduit, none the worse for its setting. And for the most part, his own paintings were increasingly skilled exercises in traditional realistic oil painting. But once, working with the others to meet who knows what unusual challenge in a quick-drying medium, gouache or something of the kind, he permitted himself to paint a spontaneous vision: the vision of a landscape, balmy and expansive with a sparkling blue sky—and white stairs mysteriously mounting here and there, as if floating within or above the landscape. Looking at it while he cheerfully explained that he had no idea where the image came from, I realized at once that when the time came, he would know his way.

Dr. Welch, bless your eyes.

Copyright © 2000 Roger Lipsey
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2000 Issue, Vol. III (2)
Revision: April 1, 2000