Amy C. Brodkey, groundbreaking psychiatrist and women’s mental health advocate, dies at 72
She and others occupied a Harvard building in 1971 to protest the need for a women's center. Today, the Cambridge Women’s Center is the oldest continuously operating women's center in the country.
Amy C. Brodkey, 72, of Mount Airy, a multifaceted psychiatrist and vociferous advocate for improved women’s mental health services, died Monday, Nov. 22, of heart failure at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood.
An expert on behavioral science and psychiatric education, Dr. Brodkey spent more than 40 years working to improve women’s health services, community psychiatry, and other underfunded initiatives in Philadelphia and across the country.
“She had a zest for life,” said Jean Hunt, a longtime friend and fellow activist for women’s rights. “She showed a deep commitment for women and women’s knowledge everywhere she went, and she did it with compassion and clarity.”
In addition to running a private practice, Dr. Brodkey was director of medical student education and on the faculty in the department of psychiatry at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, now the Drexel University College of Medicine, from 1985 to 1997.
Later, she was an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She helped write original psychiatric curriculum for medical school graduates, lectured on a variety of medical and social topics around the world, and wrote more than 30 journal articles and book chapters about psychiatry and related subjects.
“She was a curious person who wanted to explore the world,” Hunt said.
She retired in 2014 as the medical director of behavioral health at the Family Practice and Counseling Network, a group of centers that provide primary care and mental health services at Philadelphia housing projects and elsewhere.
In a 1997 paper she cowrote with two other professors entitled “Educational Objectives for a Junior Psychiatry Clerkship,” Dr. Brodkey explained the importance of teaching medical school graduates at least the basics of psychiatry.
“Despite modern psychiatry’s rich clinical and scientific database, the perception of the psychiatrist as a physician who ‘knows nothing and does nothing’ is still prevalent,” she wrote, “as is the notion of mental illness as ill-defined, trivial, caused by weak character, or untreatable.”
She was particularly interested in the conflict of interest between pharmaceutical companies and the medical field, and she wrote in 2005 that “the medical profession must reassert control of medical education and draw a firm barrier between commercial and professional pursuits.”
In 1988, she told the Daily News that compulsive shopping could be as damaging to people as drug and alcohol addiction. “We live in a culture that encourages, particularly women but both sexes, to buy, buy, buy,” she said.
Born April 27, 1949, in Omaha, Neb., Dr. Brodkey suffered from Type 1 diabetes when she was a child and spent a week in a coma. She went on to become a high school debate state champion, and got her undergraduate degree from Radcliffe College at Harvard University, and her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1975.
Passionate in her views as a college student, she protested against the Vietnam War and the oppression of women, and her 1971 speech, called “Racism and the Strike,” decried bigotry, American imperialism, and what she saw as the dehumanization of people in Thailand and Vietnam.
In March 1971, on International Women’s Day, she joined 150 other women and occupied a little-used Harvard design school building in Cambridge to protest the need for the city’s first official women’s center.
“She had a very big personality,” said her daughter Emily Gann. “She was caring and empathetic and chose a career that was oriented toward people.”
A family physician at Philadelphia’s Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center for Women early in her career, she went on to serve on many boards and advisory committees and won several awards. She married Peter Gann, also a doctor, in 1977, and they later divorced.
Dr. Brodkey had a hearty laugh friends could hear across the room. She enjoyed good food and travel, and she and her daughter had a special partnership. “We relied on each other,” Gann said.
In addition to her daughter and former husband, Dr. Brodkey is survived by two brothers and other relatives.
Services were private.
Donations in her name may be made to Physicians for a National Health Plan, 29 E. Madison St., Suite 1412, Chicago, Ill. 60602, and the National Women’s Health Network, 1413 K Street NW, 4th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20005.