Richard D. Wetzel, Ph.D., first came to St. Louis to attend Concordia Seminary. But when he arrived at the seminary, he wasn’t dreaming of a small country church. He wanted to become a college professor.
He comes from an extended family that includes nine college professors, and almost all of them taught at Lutheran colleges. His relatives advised him that if he was going to be a college professor at a Lutheran college, he should become a minister. So, that’s what he did, completing a master’s degree in divinity in 1963.
But while he studied theology, he also took counseling courses. That started back in 1957 when he was at Concordia College in Fort Wayne, Ind. Now he’s a professor of psychiatry and of neurology and neurological surgery, but during his college days, Wetzel also tutored students in Greek. He was the swimming coach, too. With interests in physical education, counseling and the classics, he did a lot of thinking about how he could contribute most.
“There had been too many bright people in the classics for me to make much of a contribution there, and I didn’t think I would add much to the world teaching P.E., so I decided psychology was the way to go,” he says.
The road to his psychology degree was not a straight one. Not only did he attend the seminary first, but after graduation he also took a job teaching at Concordia Teachers College in River Forest, Ill. It turned out to be a brief detour on the way from the seminary to his doctorate, but it had a major impact on the rest of his life.
“I met my wife, Mickey, there,” he says. “She was an assistant professor, and I was an instructor. So she outranked me then, and she still does.”
Later, when Mickey was offered a position as dean of women at a college in New York, he decided it was time to make things more official, and the couple got married.
“I wouldn’t say I proposed because there’s a running joke in our family that the women ask the men,” Wetzel chuckles. “If you write that I proposed because she was going to leave and go to New York, it would make her so happy she wouldn’t be able to stand it, but I’ll deny it.”
The couple married in 1966 while he was working and studying in the Community Mental Health Research Training Program at Washington University. That program later lost its funding, and when one of the professors moved across town to Saint Louis University, Wetzel followed him and finished his doctorate. He later returned to do postdoctoral work at Washington University, and he’s never left.
For a time, he was the only psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry.
“For years I did all of the psychological testing and assessments because I was the only one who could do it,” he says.
Beginning in 1992, with his wife working as his technician, Wetzel conducted all of the Wada assessments on epilepsy patients.
That test, named for the scientist who invented it, involves injecting a drug to cause one side of the brain to go to sleep, helping neuropsychologists like Wetzel determine where language and memory centers reside in the brain.
If those centers are not on the side involved with epileptic seizures, it’s often possible to eliminate the seizures with surgery.
“The Wada tests take forever,” Wetzel says. “They are very important but also very involved, and they normally would take three or four hours. When something didn’t go right, we would have to fix it and add another hour.”
Saving the suicidal
From his earliest days studying psychology, Wetzel also was interested in learning about and preventing suicide. His first peer-reviewed publication appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry and involved a study of 55 people who called a suicide prevention hotline. The first author on that paper was George E. Murphy, M.D., professor emeritus of psychiatry and one of the pioneers in the study of suicide.
“It was clear from the start that Dick had an exceptional intellect,” Murphy recalls. “He also has a marvelous sense of humor that he often turns upon himself. He’s provided me with many ideas over the years, and he’s been a delightful collaborator in following up those ides.”
Wetzel was the first person to manage the hotline at Suicide Prevention Inc. of St. Louis, assuming the position in 1967. He also helped launch “Call for Help” across the river in Illinois. He interviewed callers to learn about who took advantage of hotline services — work that sometimes exacts an emotional toll.
“If you want to help people, sometimes you have to pay a price,” Wetzel says, referring to some of the sleepless nights and the anxiety he’s endured as a result of working with people at high risk for suicide.
Richard D. Wetzel
Hometown: Oak Park, Ill.
Education: B.A., Concordia Senior College, 1959; M.Div., Concordia Seminary, 1963; Ph.D., Saint Louis University, 1974
University position: Professor of psychiatry, of neurology and neurological surgery
Family: Wife, Mickey; children, Jim and Rob; granddaughter, Anna Ruth; twin brother, Robert; sisters, Ann and Pat; and dog, Moxie
“To save people from suicide, you sometimes have to experience somebody’s suicide,” he says. “I certainly don’t like it when people kill themselves, but when you work to save people who are high risk, you have to understand some are going to die. The good news is you can help others live.”
In almost 40 years of working with and studying people at risk for suicide, Wetzel has learned many things. For instance, some depressed people don’t take their lives because they’re worried about what would happen to their children. Others who are at risk may be saved by the holidays.
Wetzel says the facts involving suicide during the holidays contradict conventional wisdom.
“A lot of people think suicides go up at Christmastime when, in fact, they go down,” he says. “The lowest day of the year for suicides is Dec. 23, and in both December and January there tend to be about 10 percent fewer suicides than in other months.”
These days, a large chunk of Wetzel’s time involves evaluating people involved in civil and criminal litigation, including accused criminals in death penalty cases. He has conducted evaluations and been an expert witness both for the prosecution and the defense, but he doesn’t support the death penalty.
“I think the process is flawed by politics and financial matters,” he says. “But whatever one thinks of the death penalty, the people forced to make the choice between life and death, the jurors or judge, deserve the benefit of the best possible, most thorough and objective clinical evaluation and explanation of that examination.
“Their responsibility is awesome, and they need all the help they can get. Then they can make their decision as well as it can be made.”
Because different parts of the country have different standards for when to seek the death penalty, Wetzel says it often metes out unevenly. Of the 18,000-20,000 people arrested for murder each year, only 60-80 are executed. He believes the advantage of the death penalty is that it occasionally helps prosecutors get guilty pleas from some defendants, but the disadvantage is that some people may be innocent.
You might think a seminary graduate with a psychology degree, an interest in the death penalty and an expertise in neuropsychology and suicide risk is one of a kind.
But that wouldn’t exactly be true. Wetzel has an identical twin brother.
He and his brother, Bob, were adopted when they were 2 weeks old. Richard and Robert Wetzel’s real parents — as opposed to their biological parents — also have two daughters.
The family lived in Chicago. Not long ago, the boys met their biological mother in Iowa on her 86th birthday.
Wetzel and his wife have two sons. Jim is a lawyer in Florida who earned a law degree at the Washington University School of Law. He’s married to Laura Reiser-Wetzel, who holds a doctorate in earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences from the University.
But according to Wetzel, the couple’s greatest accomplishment so far is their 3-year-old granddaughter, Anna Ruth.
“She’s the first grandbaby,” he says. “Like most grandparents, we think she’s particularly bright and particularly cute compared to other children.”
His son Rob’s wife, Carrie Gilgun-Wetzel, has a master’s degree from WUSTL’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work.
He jokes that with all of the former University students and employees in his family, it might be appropriate to call the whole family “Washington People.”