In October 2008, I wrote a memorial tribute to Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., with whom I had a longtime doctor-patient relationship.
Dr. Colp’s oldest daughter arranged to have the tribute distributed at his memorial service at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I attended the service.
What follows is my tribute from then – originally in the form of an email — which I have edited and amplified slightly.
Dear Ms. Colp,
I feel encouraged by your warm response to my email to discuss my relationship with your father, whom I miss greatly, and my thoughts about him.
I started therapy with Dr. Colp, as I always addressed him, in the mid-1970’s when he was on the staff of Columbia University Health Services. I was employed as an administrative assistant in the dean’s office at Columbia then.
We had almost instant rapport and after a few sessions at Columbia, Dr. Colp said he thought he could help me and suggested that I see him privately. The doctor-patient relationship continued, more or less uninterrupted, for over 30 years.
The relationship ended abruptly a few months ago when I got a call from your mother informing me that Dr. Colp would be unavailable to see me at the usual Monday morning time (6:20 a.m.; Dr. Colp was an early riser).
I did not know that Dr. Colp was ill, which seems incredible to me now; he had never told me. I have gleaned some information about his illness by email correspondence with one Darwin scholar whom I contacted and from your mother in a follow up call.
I can hardly think of an illness or death that has affected me so profoundly, with the exception of the death of my mother just prior to my beginning therapy with Dr. Colp.
One of the first things that struck me about Dr. Colp when I met him around 33 years ago was his gaze, which was both gently inquisitive and, at the same time, penetrating. He was intensely curious about people. You sensed that he felt it was a special privilege to have the opportunity to have people tell him about themselves. I also sensed in him another quality which immediately made me like and trust him: a self-deprecating or humble nature, which few doctors seem to exhibit.
Dr. Colp became a surrogate father to me. He was the good father and role model I never had. He was one of the most sincerely empathetic persons you can imagine, yet he never lost his professional bearing or acted inappropriately. How he could have been so effective and professional as a medical specialist and yet at the same time not lose the human touch is something I marveled at. He never seemed jaded or to be going through the motions.
Dr. Colp was one of the warmest, most insightful, most intelligent people I have ever met. He also was a hero to me in his professional capacity.
I have not mentioned my esteem for Dr. Colp the intellectual. He told me that intellectual stimulation, the life of the mind, was for him “like breathing.” He was one of the most well read and intelligent people I ever knew.
His comments during our sessions showed me his depth as a thinker and person. Where did he get the knowledge he had? He knew so much that I either hazily or imperfectly knew or learned entirely from him: that the letters of John Keats were among the greatest in English literature, for example; that not even Flaubert could match Tolstoy as a novelist; that Pitirim Sorokin, the sociologist and historical philosopher, whom I admired, was a “quixotic figure”; that the novelist Theodore Dreiser was a clumsy stylist. These and many other things I heard from his lips when some current literary or intellectual enthusiasm was broached by me.
I say this while recollecting that he once told that were huge gaps in his knowledge. When he was not knowledgeable about something — such as the work of Djuna Barnes, an avant-garde writer of the 1920’s and 30’s I was telling him about — he would readily confess his ignorance. But he often had bits of knowledge to offer that came from wide reading and culture, such as when he provided me with an obscure and extremely useful (for academic work I was doing) reference to the writings of James T. Farrell, the novelist, whom Dr. Colp had treated as a patient during his pre-psychiatry career as a surgeon.
I similarly benefited from his occasional recommendations of books and of films he had seen, but he did not make such recommendations lightly. He only made them when he thought it was something that I in particular would appreciate or benefit from, e.g., a film or a book. (I recall a book on Stalin, for example, and a film set in Paris that he thought I would like because I had traveled or was about to travel there.)
He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, which he said was his “first love.”
As Dr. Colp stated in an interview, he had “two identities: one as a psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapist and another as a Darwin scholar.” This was indeed true. He was totally devoted to his work and his scholarship. Yet, in another interview, I read a comment of his that, like his hero and role model, Charles Darwin, he alternated moments of intense work and concentration with periods of relaxation and enjoyment.
I only observed him in the former state.
Dr. Colp was once affectionately described by my then boss, a dean at Columbia (who did not know I was Dr. Colp’s patient), as “looking something like a stork.” He was tall for his generation. He had a distinctive, somewhat high pitched, reassuring voice that I grew to love. He spoke — probably as a result of his training in psychiatry — about as carefully and deliberately as anyone I ever known, with the result that he hardly ever said anything I could or would find fault with. I listened very carefully to him and treasured what he had to say.
He was in many respects a grave and serious person whose devotion to work and duty was outstanding. Yet he had an amiability about him and a capacity for humor, too. One of the first recollections I have of him is his laughing because the pen handed to him by a secretary to write in an appointment book with would not work. He always seemed to be bedeviled by the vagaries of ballpoint pens. He once described himself as being a Victorian in many respects — this was certainly true of his never having adopted innovations of the computer age; persisting in the use of his beloved manual typewriter; being averse to faxing; and calling Xeroxes “Xerex” copies.
Dr. Colp was careful to keep his personal and family life private from me, but he once said something more or less spontaneously about his younger daughter which I will repeat for what it is worth. He said with evident feeling that “she cares about everything,” proceeding thereupon to list what some of these things were (people, animals, social causes, for example). I think this remark applies equally to Dr. Colp. I have read his two books and many of his articles about Darwin, which bristle with appreciation for the man and curiosity about the minutest details of his life.
Charles Darwin was, obviously, a role model for Dr. Colp, and it is easy to see why, because Dr. Colp embodied so many of the same virtues. (You can see the same sort of understanding and compassion, balanced with a welcome lack of tendentiousness, in articles about Sacco and Vanzetti that Dr. Colp wrote for The Nation in 1958.)
Dr. Colp was an idealist in many respects, in his devotion to his work and to truth, for example, yet he was somewhat of a practical man, a scientist — no, physician is the right term — too. I saw this in the sound, clear-headed judgments he made. He would not, for example, fall for glib self-assessments by me of my own potential and prospects when such self-assessments had no solid foundation.
Dr. Colp would occasionally tell me things about his childhood, such as about his dog Waggy (named after Mayor Wagner), who died when Dr. Colp was a teenager; he said he was devastated by the dog’s death. About dining at the Oyster Bar with his father, who always stressed the importance of leaving a tip of something like 50 cents. (Noblesse oblige is how Dr. Colp termed it with his characteristic gentle irony.)
Seeing the Disney film Dumbo in the 1940’s with his father. Attending with his younger daughter a marathon reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses at Symphony Space in Manhattan, where, according to Dr. Colp, an Irish narrator reading from a chapter in Ulysses “brought the house down.” The relish with which Dr. Colp told the story reflected both his zest for the event and — I am certain also — the pleasure of attending it with his daughter.
Ralph Colp, Jr. was a Victorian, Darwinian figure, with a broad range of interests and sympathies. He was a representative of the old prewar or perhaps immediate postwar New York described by writers like Joseph Mitchell which is now long gone, and he represents a generation and a type of doctor and psychiatrist whom I do not think will be seen again.
He was a wonderful person.
I feel his loss so keenly — the loss of Dr. Colp as a person, that is. He had already accomplished, both by example and by his medical skills, most of what he could for me as a therapist.
A few more facts about Ralph Colp, Jr.
He was born on October 12, 1924 in, and grew up in, New York City. He was the son of a prominent surgeon.
He received his MD from Columbia in 1948 and was an active surgeon for five years before becoming a Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (Psychiatry) in 1965. He became an accomplished intellectual, psychiatrist, psychohistorian, and psychotherapist.
He spent ten years in psychoanalysis with Max Schur, who was Freud’s last physician.
He served as attending psychiatrist at Columbia University Health Services until 1993, was a senior associate in the Program of Human Sexuality and Sex Therapy at the New York University Medical Center, and was a member of the Psychohistory Forum.
He was the author of two books: To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin (1977) and Darwin’s Illness (2008).
He published over 100 articles and book reviews on Darwin, William Halsted, medical history, Russian revolutionaries, and many other subjects.
There is an extremely interesting and revealing interview with Dr. Colp online at
— Roger W. Smith