Dr Herbert Benson, who documented and promoted the health benefits of meditation, dies at 86

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His studies more than half a century ago paved the way for meditation to enter the mainstream medical world, where it is now often incorporated into basic health regimens and specific treatments.

He started the Mind/Body Medical Institute, which in 2006 became the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital with financial support from John Henry, the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox.

Dr. Benson, director emeritus of the institute, was “the main founder of this field of medicine, the medicine of the mind and body,” said Dr. Greg Fricchione, the current director.

“Herb Benson was one of the finest men I’ve ever met,” said Henry, also owner of The Boston Globe. “He gave me my first reasons to come to Boston. He was the first physician I know who was able to study and then translate the mind/body connection into specific outcomes that dramatically improved patient outcomes. Eventually, he was able to do this for hospitals and patients around the world.

The first inspirations came in the 1960s. Dr. Benson was a young cardiologist teaching at Harvard Medical School and wondered why many patients’ blood pressure was higher when they visited a doctor than when they took measurements at home.

He theorized that their nervous anticipation of medical appointments could be the cause and, by extension, that stress raised their blood pressure.

Dr. Benson first investigated the link while on a medical school fellowship, an arduous undertaking at the time. Some colleagues called his theory “bizarre,” he told the Globe in 2009. “It was a different world then,” he said, “a time when the phrase ‘It’s all in your head “was pejorative in medicine.”

“It wasn’t the thing to do if you wanted to fast-track your career to become a teacher,” Fricchione said in an interview. “But he wasn’t discouraged because he saw something there. He was quite brave, and believe me, it took courage in those days.

When Dr. Benson next studied the physiological responses of those who practiced Transcendental Meditation, “the facts were indisputable,” he later wrote in one of his books.

“With meditation alone,” he said, “TM practitioners brought about striking physiological changes—a drop in heart rate, metabolic rate, and respiratory rate—which I would hereafter call ‘the relaxation response”.

He titled his first book “The Relaxation Response”, which was a best-seller when it was published in 1975.

This response brought a measure of celebrity. Barbara Walters interviewed Dr. Benson on television and he testified before Congress on the mind/body relationship.

“Because it was such a big hit, he had the opportunity to become a famous author and make a lot of money,” Fricchione said.

“He decided no, that wasn’t all for him,” Fricchione added. “He understood that if you choose to go in this direction, you really avoid being taken seriously as a researcher. That’s what he did. He stayed at Harvard and stuck to hard-won research results.

His main conclusion was that there are documented health benefits of meditating for 10-20 minutes every day:

Sit quietly and comfortably and choose a word, phrase or prayer that matches your belief system. Close your eyes, relax your muscles, and breathe slowly, saying your word or phrase as you exhale. Ignore it if other thoughts creep in – say “oh, well” and start repeating your word, phrase or prayer again.

The benefits, he said, are wide-ranging.

“Provoking the relaxation response can help bring blood pressure under control with less medication,” Dr. Benson said at a psychiatric lecture at McLean Hospital in Belmont in 1980.

“Meditation can also reduce extra heartbeats in cardiac arrhythmias, can relieve circulatory problems, migraines and tension headaches, and is extremely helpful in treating anxiety attacks,” he said. “The only side effects are the same as those of prayer.”

Herbert Benson was born and raised in Yonkers, NY on April 24, 1935, the son of Hannah Schiller Benson, a homemaker, and Charles Benson, who ran seven stores in the wholesale produce business.

His father died young of heart disease, which contributed to Dr. Benson’s decision to pursue studies in medicine and cardiology.

He graduated from Yonkers High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Wesleyan University, and is a graduate of Harvard Medical School.

After his internship and residency, he served in Puerto Rico with the US Public Health Service.

Back in Boston, he worked at what was called the Cardiac Station at Boston City Hospital, now Boston Medical Center, and then took time off to work in the lab where, years earlier, Dr. Walter Cannon had described the classic “fight or flight” response to stress.

When this happens, the body’s metabolism, heart rate, and blood pressure increase. Dr. Benson noted the relaxation response produced by meditation was a means of countering these effects.

Over the years, his research included meetings with the Dalai Lama and trips to India, where Dr. Benson studied the ability of some Tibetan monks to raise their body temperature during deep meditation.

Other books by Dr. Benson include “The Mind/Body Effect” (1979), “The Wellness Book” (1992), and “Timeless Healing: The Power of Biology and Belief” (1996).

In 1962, Dr. Benson married Marilyn Wilcher, whom he had met through friends when she was a student at Wellesley College and he was at Harvard Medical School.

She previously ran a catering business in Lexington, where they had previously lived for many years, and was a co-founder of the Mind/Body Institute.

“He really cared about his family,” she said. “The children and I were extremely important to him. An example of this was that he would always be home for dinner. We had family dinner every night except when he was traveling.

Dr. Benson “was always an optimist,” said their son, Gregory of Maplewood, NJ “He was really driven, was always willing to try things, take risks and try something. And he did. in a joyful way.

“He was a great, unassuming man – a kind scientist loved by those who knew him,” Henry said. “No one has done more to advance the scientific and medical side of the mind/body connection.”

In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Benson leaves behind a daughter, Jennifer of Chicago, and four grandchildren.

The family will hold a funeral service on Wednesday at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and will announce a Zoom gathering later in the week.

“Herb was one of the most optimistic personalities I’ve encountered in medicine,” Fricchione said. “I think that was one of the keys to his ability to heal people.”

Gregory said his father “truly believed in the power of belief and the power of the mind. He believed that belief itself healed.

Although, as Dr. Benson noted in a 1996 Globe interview, “I came to this not by belief, but by science. Honestly, I came to this with my feet dragging.

At first, “they said what I was doing wasn’t science. So I had two careers at the same time for years, one in cardiology and one in mind and body research,” he said. “If I had left rigorous science, my research on mind and body would never have been accepted.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected]

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