By Greg Petty
After coming back home from working in New York City for several years I thought I would be missing out on all of that culture, but the reality is that the Triangle is blessed with three major research universities, RTP, dynamic art museums, libraries and cultural institutions. Any art, drama, music, literature or dance aficionado can find any number of activities to attend. The cultural offerings here are world-class.
We are also fortunate to live in a state that values education and culture. Those activities and institutions come at a cost, however. It is the crucial support of individuals, foundations, corporations and organizations that make these dynamic cultural experiences possible for all of us. One of the individuals who has been a significant, and more importantly, a consistent philanthropic contributor to the arts and humanities in the Triangle is Dr. Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA (Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association). Many of you will recognize the name via the fabulous Meymandi Concert Hall, home of the North Carolina Symphony or the Touring Exhibit Hall at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The concert hall was named to honor his mother, and the touring hall in honor of his father.
Assad Meymandi can trace his family roots in Iran back over 1,000 years to Hassan Meymandi, born in 960AD. Hassan became the Vizier in the court of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi.
The youngest of nine children, Dr. Meymandi grew up in a household with a rich environment of the humanities by parents who valued education and travel to broaden their children’s horizons. Assad was educated at a French Jesuit school in Tehran, and following generations of his family, at the Sorbonne in Paris. A love of language and a brilliant mind was evident at a very early age when he surprised the local newspaper’s editor by presenting him with his translation of one of Honore de Balzac’s works into Farsi for publication.
Dr. Meymandi relates, “My mother was an exceptional woman. She lived to be 101 years old and died in 1994. She loved the arts and to travel. I grew up in a very rich environment of music and art. I don’t really claim any credit—I was given it. I feel very humble about it really. My father was a poet, a calligrapher and an artist… an educated man and philosopher.”
Assad came to America in April, 1955 at the age of 20 to attend Arizona State University for his studies in biochemistry. Although he could already speak multiple languages he knew only ten words of English. How did he rectify that? From April until classes started in September, he memorized and studied all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary!
After his undergraduate work was completed he went to medical school at George Washington University in Washington, DC. While studying to be a surgeon he attended lectures by the Chair of Psychiatry, Dr. Winfred Overholser, and fell in love with his intellect and wide-ranging view of medicine. The dye was cast—Dr. Meymandi would become a neurologist and psychiatrist. He would also go on to obtain PhDs in biochemistry and philosophy. When asked about his love of psychiatry Dr. Meymandi responded, “It is the opportunity to be all you can be—to meet your maximum potential scientifically, humanistically, religiously, theologically, spiritually, emotionally, financially and economically. I wrote an essay on the 75 different potentials, and psychiatry offers you the opportunity to maximize your abilities.”
Dr. Meymandi is currently adjunct professor of psychiatry at UNC and has endowed the Dr. Assad Meymandi Distinguished Chair of Psychiatry at UNC School of Medicine. He also had a thriving private practice until he recently decided to scale back to spend more time with his wife Emily. He continues to write about his broad range of interests—everything from Mozart, St. Paul’s conversion to the behind the scenes developments that led to the Magna Carta. He also provides peer reviews for national medical publications. His love of literature is evidenced by his funding for the Chair of Andre Malraux of French Literature at the Sorbonne. Malraux was his friend and the Minister of Culture in France. He writes for his own publication, Wake County Physician, and is not afraid to share his considered opinion on medical and social issues such as educational declines, the state of mental health services, obesity and the money spent for advertising by big Pharma versus funding for research.
Dr. Meymandi’s current philanthropic passions include establishing a Chair at UNC entitled Ideas and Curiosity. Its aim is to produce Nobel Prize level work in humanities and science. It is meant to encourage creative thinking with open access to all of the scholars in the UNC campus system. As he describes it, “It should become a pulsating edifice of intellectual inquiry and a transcendental temple for all seekers and contributors in the UNC system.” The other passion is his Meymandi Fellowship at the National Humanities Center of which he is also an Emeritus Trustee. The prestigious scholars selected for these fellowships come here to produce ground-breaking new research in all areas of the humanities. The scholars at The National Humanities Center will also connect with the Chair of Ideas and Curiosity at UNC. To find out more about the Fellows and the center’s education programs visit nationalhumanitiescenter.org.
Assad Meymandi is happy to be an American citizen and thankful for the opportunities he has encountered. When asked about his philanthropy, Dr. Meymandi was clearly uncomfortable and hesitant to talk about it but replied, “In the area of giving, I gave an elementary school to the place where we were born, Meymand, Iran, when I was 20. We [his family] had been doing this, it is not something we started yesterday. It is a lifestyle. And I have been most fortunate in this country through private enterprise. I didn’t make my money through practicing medicine. It is private enterprise this country offers to any citizen. I am not going to take it with me… I don’t see things as spending, but I invest money in the arts and it pays back. Making a difference in people’s lives, silent scholarships, students in medical school, conservatory. I am humbled that God has given me the opportunity to do it.”