The amazing Dr. Mazer

How one man’s efforts on-Island still resonate today.


I didn’t know Dr. Milton Mazer, but after watching “Dr. Milton Mazer: An Ongoing Influence on Martha’s Vineyard,” I certainly wish I had. The documentary — by Ann Bassett, producer of “The Vineyard View” at MVTV, and sponsored by the West Tisbury library with support from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council — is a compelling portrait of Mazer’s life and legacy. He was a community and clinical psychiatrist and author whose groundbreaking work in rural mental health issues helped found what is one of the most important social agencies on the Island — Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

The film mixes wonderful old footage of Mazer sitting around with a group at Community Services, reminiscing about its evolution, interspersed with interviews of those who worked with him, as well as his son Mark and grandchildren Rafael and Laurie. Mazer and his wife, Virginia, first came here by mistake in the 1950s, when friends asked them to visit Nantucket for the weekend but because of a storm, the ferries were only running to the Vineyard. They came regularly for summers, and then in 1961, a group of four family physicians and two clergymen invited Mazer to work on the Island. Mazer explains that the community began an organizing committee of year-rounders and summer people who raised around $11,000 to start a mental health clinic, with a sliding fee of 50 cents. That clinic eventually evolved into the counseling that Community Services offers today.

What comes through loud and clear is that Mazer immersed himself in the Vineyard from the beginning. Psychiatrist and author Dr. Peter Kramer, who worked with Mazer, says, “If you had to invent someone who would make a difference on the Island, it really would be Milton.” Bassett, who worked with Mazer at Community Services, says, “Milton came here and decided that there were a lot of services missing. He’s the one that started them all.” Some of the initial programs included visiting nurse services, and early childhood — thus helping the very young and the older population. But Mazer also recognized the need to help teenagers, and so early on, he started the Youth Center. The former director of the Youth Center, Tom Bennett, shares, “They opened [it] so that the kids had a safe and healthy place to go where they could congregate and socialize.” Sherm Goldstein, former director of another of Mazer’s initiatives, says, “Milton designed the agency to be a crisis intervention service in the summer, but in the wintertime to develop programs that were crisis prevention.” Services in the Women’s Programs alone included among other things, legal advocacy, shelters for battered women, rape counseling, and social opportunities.

Mazer’s combination of his clinical background, fundraising and administrative abilities, epidemiology research skills, and huge humanitarian heart allowed him to connect deeply with people and develop a sense of the needs of those in the community. Dr. Felton (“Tony”) Earls, who worked with Mazer, reflects, “Milton was really committed to being an active part of the community … and to become integrated into [its] well-being … as a whole.” In fact, Mazer formalized his examination of the Island, saying, “In 1962, I decided that this would be a wonderful place to do an epidemiology study to count how many people [there were] with various disorders,” resulting in his groundbreaking book, “People and Predicaments,” which several of the interviewees stress remains relevant today.

Mazer’s efforts grew as he learned more and more about the Island’s needs. Dr. Charles Silberstein, a psychiatrist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and Community Services, explains that years before starting to work at Community Services, he was aware of how the organization picked up the pieces here where nobody else would. “It’s always been available to people of all social and economic means and classes. It sees … people who need much more than any one practitioner can offer,” Silberstein said.

Mazer’s activism was not confined to Martha’s Vineyard. Along with the documentary, the West Tisbury library has published “David’s Slingshot: Anti-War Letters from an Island Doctor,” which was a combined effort of Mark Mazer and Michael Colaneri (Vietnam vet and longtime nurse at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital), at the behest of Mazer, who wanted to see them published. Interspersed with historical information, It is filled with passionate and moving missives from 1965 to 1971 to political leaders including Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon, criticizing, sometimes in strong outrage, the country’s continued involvement in Vietnam, as you see in a 1966 letter to President Johnson: “I am convinced that the people who are advising you, particularly the Secretary of State [Dean Rusk] and your military advisors, have been wrong time and time again.” And in 1967: “I have been studying our position in Vietnam for some time. It seems to me that every time you speak of peace, you intensify the war … I am dismayed by what you are doing to the image of America in the world … It is certainly un-American to burn human beings, to destroy their food supplies by chemicals, and have American officers stand by and watch our ally torture prisoners.” Accompanying each letter is a reflection Mazer wrote, and taken together, “David’s Slingshot” is a powerful micro-history of a turbulent era in American history that I read in a single sitting.

In the book’s foreword, Earls writes, “Being a doctor and a scientist only served as a point of entry to his quiet, passionate, and intellectual demeanor. Among other endeavors, Mazer was a writer, journalist, sailor, pipe smoker, and town moderator for West Tisbury.” What is evident throughout was his embracing personality, and you can see it in watching Mazer interact with those around him. Silberstein says, “He engaged with everyone with such wisdom and warmth, and willingness to be helpful in any way he could.” And Everett Moitoza says, “In his own brilliantly unassuming way … the part that was so nourishing, so energizing, was to be able to be next to him.”

Walking away from “David’s Slingshot” and “Dr. Milton Mazer: An Ongoing Influence on Martha’s Vineyard” together offer us all an important opportunity to be touched by someone whose influence still resonates on the Island today.

Check out “Dr. Milton Mazer: An Ongoing Influence on Martha’s Vineyard” on Saturday, April 1, at 3 pm at the West Tisbury library. Copies of “David’s Slingshot: Anti-War Letters from an Island Doctor,” are available at the West Tisbury library. Information about community services is available at