By Tamar Lewin (New York Times)
February 25, 2011
Dr. Melvin D. Levine, a nationally known pediatrician who was found dead last week, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a medical examiner said on Friday.
Dr. Levine, 71, was found in the woods near his Rougemont, N.C., home with a gunshot wound to his forehead. His death was reported a day after a class-action sexual abuse and malpractice suit was filed against him in Boston.
A report by the Orange County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina said officers went to Dr. Levine's home the night of Feb. 17 after his wife reported finding a suicide note, but they were not initially able to find his body. The contents of the note have not been released.
The Boston lawsuit charges that Dr. Levine performed unnecessary genital exams on 40 boys while at Children's Hospital Boston from 1966 to 1985.
Although Dr. Levine, a Rhodes scholar, had long been dogged by charges of sexually abusing young male patients, he had maintained that he was innocent. He was never convicted on any abuse charge, and never faced criminal charges.
On Friday The Boston Globe reported that several men who said they had been molested as young boys had described encounters in which they said Dr. Levine groped, fondled or performed oral sex on them. One recalled a trip on which he and Dr. Levine were in the same bed, saying that when the doctor took off his clothes, he put his arm around the boy and fondled him.
Christopher Dean, now a 50-year-old architect in Roslindale, Mass., said Friday that for four years, starting when he was 9, he went twice a year to Dr. Levine's office for a "checkup" that was simply an occasion for molestation.
"It started when he came to my school in Brookline, saw me in the nurse's office, fondled me, and then said he would like to see me as a private patient," said Mr. Dean, a plaintiff in the Boston suit, which will proceed against Mr. Levine's estate. "I came out in tears and in shock, but didn't tell anyone."
Several plaintiffs said that Dr. Levine's abuse had clouded their lives, and that they hoped for resolution in the lawsuit.
"It left me feeling very awkward; I never forgot it, and I always kept track of Dr. Levine," said Donald Roy, now 46, who said he was abused by Dr. Levine at age 10, when he was having surgery at Children's Hospital. "My mother knew what was going on because Dr. Levine invited me to visit his house, and I said I just wasn't going to go, and I explained why. But she didn't know what to do with it."
Carmen Durso, a Boston lawyer for the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, filed his first suit against Dr. Levine in 2005, and followed with four more complaints before holding a news conference in 2008 at which he announced the charges. Those charges were resolved, but last week Mr. Durso held a news conference announcing the new complaints.
Until the sexual abuse charges, Dr. Levine was a leading advocate for children with learning disabilities whose fame spread through his books, including "A Mind at a Time," as well as through a PBS documentary, "Misunderstood Minds," and a nationwide schedule of lectures.
With Charles Schwab, Dr. Levine founded a nonprofit group, All Kinds of Minds, that has trained thousands of teachers. Dr. Levine's approach stressed that whatever their learning disabilities — learning differences, he called them — all children also had strengths to build on.
In 2004, the New York City Department of Education gave All Kinds of Minds a $12.5 million contract to train 20,000 teachers, without the normal competitive bidding process, because, it said, there were no comparable programs.
In 2005, Scholastic Press named Dr. Levine the most admired person in education.
While some experts criticized Dr. Levine's work as depending on observation and anecdote instead of replicable scientific investigation, teachers and parents flocked to his entertaining, multihour lectures.
"He brought optimism into the world of families by helping to demystify learning, helping kids put borders around their learning issues, so they no longer felt pervasively damaged," said Claire Wurtzel, who worked with Dr. Levine and is now director of professional development at Churchill School and Center in New York.
Dr. Levine contributed to a paradigm shift, she said, getting teachers to explore what stopped children from learning, rather than just dismissing them.
"Before Mel, it used to be, for most teachers, 'Why is this lazy kid in my room? He's not learning and he doesn't belong here,' " she said.
A basic tenet of Dr. Levine's was that no child should ever be humiliated.
"From the moment a child gets out of bed until she is tucked in at night, she has one central mission: avoiding humiliation at all costs," Dr. Levine often said in his lectures.
Some former colleagues, including Dr. William B. Carey of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said they could not reconcile that Mel Levine, their "brilliant, honest, kind, caring" friend, with the doctor charged with humiliating so many boys.
After Dr. Levine moved to North Carolina, sexual abuse complaints arose there, too. In March 2009, as the North Carolina medical board was investigating such charges, Dr. Levine agreed that he would never again practice medicine. At the time, the state medical board said it was prepared to show that Dr. Levine had conducted examinations that were not medically indicated or properly documented.
Mr. Dean said that when Dr. Levine moved to North Carolina, his mother told him that Dr. Levine had molested two young sons of a friend of hers, who believed he had left Massachusetts to flee complaints.
"My mother asked if he'd ever done anything to me," Mr. Dean said. "I was 25, but I was still so humiliated that I said, no, he never touched me. The shame was so great that I didn't tell my mother about it until last week, and I still haven't told my father."