Every Friday afternoon, Lois Feinblatt leaves her art-filled apartment in The Warrington and drives across town to the Johns Hopkins Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit (SBCU), where she joins her fellow therapists, psychiatrists and residents to confer about patients.
At 90, Feinblatt is a half-century older than most of her colleagues. She attended the talk given at Hopkins by legendary sex researchers Masters and Johnson that was the inspiration for the SBCU’s creation (the room was so crowded, she had to sit on a piano). She recalls life before The Pill. And she remembers that when she joined the SBCU in 1970, more than a few patients came with the hope of being “cured” of their homosexuality, something believed possible back then.
From her perch in the Hopkins psychiatry department, where she still has an office and sees several patients regularly, Feinblatt has witnessed the major changes in our nation’s collective sexual and psychological life. “In the ’70s and ’80s, women became more aware of their own potential for sexual pleasure, and we started seeing men who were having new troubles because of this shift,” she says. “And, as far as gender patients, in the early days, they were a sort of flamboyant, nightclub-worker type for the most part. Now they’re college students, parents and professionals. We have one or two who come to the clinic every month.”
Feinblatt has seen a lot. But she would never say she’s seen it all.
“She has this kind of very youthful curiosity about people’s lives,” says Chris Kraft, director of clinical services at the SBCU. “She’s always shaking her head, and saying, ‘Isn’t that fascinating?’”
“I’m bored easily,” says Feinblatt, her blue eyes alert and playful. “And this is a forever fascinating profession.”
The fact that she even has a “profession” still seems like a stroke of luck to Feinblatt. She was born in 1921 into Baltimore’s Hoffberger family, known for their onetime ownership of the Orioles and National Beer as well as their ongoing philanthropic efforts. She was raised in the family compound in Forest Park where, except for one cousin, none of the women worked after marrying. Feinblatt never planned to, either. But then in 1957, she and her husband, Irving Blum, decided it would be good for their children (then aged 8, 10 and 14) if she weren’t home all the time.
“What kind of work would you want to do?” Blum asked Feinblatt.
“I’d love to be a psychiatrist,” she told him.
Since attending medical school as a housewife seemed unlikely, she put the idea out of her head and got a job with the city’s Department of Welfare, working with prospective adoptive families. She stayed there nine years and would have stayed longer. But on Feb. 2, 1966, she saw a story in The Sun headlined, “Role offered housewife in psychiatry”— and that, as they say, made all the difference. “It was so lucky that I saw that article,” says Feinblatt. “If I had to choose one thing to have in life, it would be luck.”
As the article reported, Johns Hopkins Hospital was starting a program to train housewives as mental health counselors, thus easing the shortage of mental health workers in the country. “…[W]e hope to tap the great unused reservoir of talent represented by the intelligent married women in their 40s who are becoming experts in family management just as their families are leaving home and putting them out of a job,” Joel Elkes, chief psychiatrist at Hopkins’ Phipps Clinic, said at the time.
Seven months later, in September 1966, Feinblatt, then 45, arrived at Hopkins along with seven other women chosen from an applicant pool of roughly 400 to begin a crash course in psychotherapy. The course began not in the classroom— no lectures or formal studying for these ladies— but in the clinic, where the philosophy was “learn by doing” (with close
supervision). “Right away we were given a patient, which was shocking,” says Feinblatt.
The combination of seeing patients and meeting with supervisors was so consuming that at least one woman had to drop out after her husband threatened to leave the family. But Feinblatt loved it. “It was like, ‘Open sesame,’” she says. “It was a whole new life.”
That new life offered some comfort when, in 1972, Blum passed away after a year-long illness. What also was a comfort to Feinblatt was philanthropy and public service. Along with a colleague she started an organization called Adoption Connection Exchange, which was devoted to supporting adoptive families. “We were noticing that a disproportionate number of adolescent patients we were seeing in the clinic had been adopted,” says Feinblatt. “It was still ‘in the closet’ then, and the group really helped people.”
In 1983, she married lawyer Eugene Feinblatt, and after he died in 1998, she again found comfort in public service, starting a teacher-mentoring project in Baltimore City public schools. “I was enthusiastic about mentoring because it was the way I’d learned,” says Feinblatt.
These days, Feinblatt remains interested in public education but she’s also excited about her newest philanthropic focus, serving on the board of Free State Legal Services, which offers free and reduced legal services to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. Like her work with adoptive families, this venture grew out of a need Feinblatt observed in her role as a therapist.
Between seeing patients, her public service efforts, her painting hobby and spending time with her family (she has the three aforementioned children, two stepchildren and 10 grandchildren, aged 6 to 32), Feinblatt maintains a social life that puts most younger people to shame. “I could be out every night if I wanted,” she says. “I’m addicted to people.”
And addicted to being fascinated.