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Art and Archaeology

Jeremy A. Spiegel ’92


I always knew that some version of science lay in my future. As a freshman, I envisioned concentrating in physics or molecular biology. Then I became fascinated with modern and contemporary art: Professor Robert Lubar’s “History of Modern Art” class exposed me to a new language. I could not ignore the desire to learn this foreign language or, more appropriately, to look at life and art with this foreign eye.

Over the next two years I took all the usual pre-med courses, still thinking I had to be practical and major in science if I wanted to go to medical school. But one sunny summer afternoon, while preparing 5-Molar salt solutions in Professor Shirley Tilghman’s lab, I realized that I needed to do something radical, self-indulgent, and wonderful: to concentrate in art history. This shift in focus ultimately proved to be one of the most valuable decisions in shaping my career because it permitted me to see differently and refined my capacity to see.

Opening my eyes and ears

After Princeton, I attended Dartmouth Medical School. Interestingly, of the 50 students in my class at Dartmouth, six were Tigers, most having concentrated in the humanities. 

Medical school provided me with an opportunity to meld my interests. Once again, I learned to look with a foreign eye—at X-rays, anatomy, physiology, pathology, and, finally, at psychiatry. Not surprisingly, I found psychiatry to be the most fascinating and the least binary of the medical specialties. “Looking”' then became “listening with the third ear.”

Combining my passions

Despite the grueling clinical demands on my time, I made room for the study of the medical humanities. A paper I wrote, “A Sense of Story,” was the cover feature in Dartmouth Medicine magazine. In it I made a case for the relevance of three of Sigmund Freud’s most beloved works—Hamlet, The Brothers Karamazov, and Oedipus Rex—in a contemporary general-psychiatric clinic. I also found ways to incorporate art into my work during my psychiatric residency at the University of New Mexico, such as publishing a paper based on a fascinating psychotherapy case, organizing a retreat for my colleagues at Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch, and even treating artists.

I have been in practice as a psychiatrist based in Portland, Maine, for more than a decade. My first book, The Mindful Medical Student: A Psychiatrist’s Guide to Staying Who You Are While Becoming Who You Want to Be, was published in 2009 by Dartmouth College Press. I have since continued to make use of my Princeton art background as a blogger for Psychology Today, and as a regular presenter at the Santa Fe-based Creativity and Madness conferences, which attract thousands of psychiatrists, psychologists, and master’s-level therapists for week-long retreats concerning psychology, art, and artists. My latest book, Art Healing: Visual Art for Emotional Insight and Well-Being (publication forthcoming), truly narrows the gap between my stated profession and my undergraduate concentration.

Concentrating in a small department at Princeton has enriched my life personally and professionally in a way that I could not have anticipated. I am so thankful I took the chance and followed my passion. If I hadn’t, it could have set an unfortunate precedent for me to stay on the middle path, ever avoiding what may have seemed risky, or potentially disagreeable, or impractical, instead of acknowledging what is dear and true to my heart.

The “indulgent” undergraduate time is the perfect time to start doing such things. It is so easy to get lost in the “shoulds” of having to prepare for the next hurdle: the next test, class, exam, paper deadline, job interview, ad infinitum. Research supports the notion that people make better decisions and think more creatively when they are happy. Being bright and burned out is not a way to get what one wants in life. My Princeton art history years have allowed me to develop another angle in my life: to see differently in my work with patients, to pursue interests that aren’t directly related to medicine, to be able to express myself freely, and to find a way to both maintain and synthesize into something completely novel otherwise wide-ranging interests.