Psychiatry’s Peter Fabrega ‘was always a student’

Psychiatry Professor Horacio “Peter” Fabrega Jr., whose interest in medical anthropology led him to author or co-author books on culture and psychiatric diagnosis, the evolution of sickness and healing, and disease and social behavior, died Feb. 21, 2022, at 88.

“He was always a student, and an intellectual one,” recalled his long-time colleague, Loren Roth, emeritus distinguished service professor of psychiatry. “He enjoyed analysis of our world, the events of the day and other people. He certainly was a commentator, and that was often with a cross-cultural bent,” thanks to his early upbringing in Panama before coming to the U.S. for boarding school at age 13.

In his office stacked with books on every wall, floor to ceiling, as Roth remembered it, Fabrega could be somewhat reserved. He might listen to a group discussion for many minutes and say nothing, or very little, “and it was very difficult to know what he was thinking. Then he would make an extremely incisive statement. He was a thoughtful listener. And when he talked, people listened.”

A group of forensic psychiatrists from Pitt (including Fabrega, although he was not a forensic psychiatrist) in 1985 spent three weeks touring the then-Soviet Union and China under Roth, and Roth remembers in particular their last moments in Asia: “This was during a time in China when the atmosphere was still, shall we say, restrictive, and our Chinese guides wanted to be perfect,” he said. “When the bus was finally leaving … Peter was uncomfortably late. The Chinese guide we had panicked. She knew that things would probably not be good for her if we missed our plane.”

It turned out that Fabrega was late merely because he could not tear himself away from the country: “He was out talking to people or he got stuck in something that he thought was artistically interesting,” Roth said.

Born Jan. 6, 1934, Fabrega got his initial degree from the University of Pennsylvania and earned his medical degree at Columbia University in 1960, interning at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City and spending his residency at Yale Grace New Haven Hospital. His interest in psychiatry stemmed from his stint with the U.S. Army medical service, where he served as an officer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

His academic career began in 1969 at Michigan State University, after which he joined the Pitt faculty in 1977. He also opened a private practice.

He is survived by his wife Joan, daughters Andrea and Michele; and three grandchildren.

Memorials gifts are suggested to the ALS Association, Western Pennsylvania chapter, 416 Lincoln Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15209.

— Marty Levine