Eli Sagan Chesen

May 18, 1944 - October 25, 2023

Dr. Eli Chesen, MD DFAPA was a psychiatrist, artist, author, inventor, audiophile, and genuine phenom, whose imagination and energy was boundless.

To quote his Wikipedia page, he “lived his life criss-crossing vocational and avocational boundaries” and in doing so touched the lives of many.

Eli was born in Sioux City, IA to Louie and Edy Chesen. He graduated from Sioux City Central High School in 1962 followed by his premedical studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was a member of Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity, and it was on campus that he met the love of his life, Peggy. They were married in 1967. He graduated with his MD from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in 1969, a member of Phi Rho Sigma Fraternity, after which he completed his psychiatry residency in Phoenix, AZ at Good Samaritan Hospital. During his residency, he published two books for which he received significant notoriety (including appearances on Regis Philbin, the Phil Donahue Show, the CBS Evening News, ABC’s Good Morning America as well as write-ups in Parade Magazine, Newsweek, Esquire, Le Monde, and even getting a mention in Playboy). Religion May Be Hazardous to Your Health  (1972) was serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and President Nixon’s Psychiatric Profile (1973) was ahead of its time, receiving attention from the movers and shakers of the Nixon Watergate scandal including John Reston, Jr. and John Dean (former White House Counsel to President Nixon).

Following psychiatry residency, Eli served in the United States Air Force as Chief of Psychiatry at Nellis Air Force Base (Las Vegas, NV) until his Honorable Discharge in October 1974. Eli and his young family then moved to Lincoln, Nebraska where he started practicing psychiatry, initially as part of a rural outreach program.  This was followed by years of private practice, where he specialized in working with patients who required challenging psychopharmacological treatment. He also spent years in forensic psychiatry, including performing expert witness work in the nationally recognized and tragic case of the “Beatrice Six.” He was proud to be a Board Certified psychiatrist and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association (DFAPA), and also served as the President of the Nebraska Psychiatric Society.

During his years in practice, Eli wrote an additional book, The Fitness Compulsion (1988). He pursued his love for all things creative, automotive and electronic. He wired two houses from the ground up as an amateur electrician, and played a major role in the design of both homes. His love for science, architectural design and do-it-yourself projects combined in amazing ways in his artwork, including the occasional inclusion of hardware in his oils and sculptures. One example was his piece “Duchamp Meets Home Depot” (2009). He is also well- known for his works involving deconstructed 1950’s Buick and Chevrolet automobile hoods. He won the first of two juried art competitions for his favorite work in oil, “Hi-Fi 1964”. His work as an inventor was also award-winning, having produced a prototype (followed by many improvements over the years) of a pool heater that transfers waste air conditioner heat into swimming pool water. This invention received a grant from the United States Department of Energy and was featured in Popular Science Magazine (1978). He created numerous low-voltage halogen light fixtures, as well as many mixed media pieces. His work was featured in a solo show entitled “Art in the Post Big-Bang Period” in 2011. While not a musician himself, his love of serious music, especially chamber music, fueled his creative endeavors.

Eli is survived by his wife, Peggy Blue Chesen, daughters Chelsea (husband Michael Hollman) and A. Berkley Chesen, granddaughters Scout and Saylor Hanelt (Ben Hanelt), sister Susan Chesen Hawkins (husband Gary), brother Jerry Chesen, brother Edward Chesen (wife Debbie), mother-in-law Janet Ebers Blue, sister-in-law Rhonda Polzkill Blue, sister-in-law Connie Blue Milliken, six nieces, two nephews, and hundreds of much-loved patients. Eli’s wish for his ashes was for them to be spread around the Benedict Music Tent of the Aspen Music Festival in Aspen. CO. In lieu of a memorial service, Eli will be honored with a chamber music (string quartet) concert during the Lincoln Friends of Chamber Music 2024-25 Season, the details of which are TBA.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to:
Lincoln Friends of Chamber Music
P.O. Box 82882
Lincoln, NE  68501

The University of Nebraska Foundation
1010 Lincoln Mall
Suite 300
Lincoln, NE  68508
**Please specify that funds be designated for the Glenn Korff School of Music (for Faculty Development/Programming) AND/OR the Department of Biology (for Faculty Development/Research)**

Share a Memory or Condolence

May 18, 2024

A poem in memory of an influential fraternity brother Eli Sagan Chesen: The Scholarly Soul Brilliant mind, a beacon bright, Eli shone with wisdom’s light. A mentor true, with patience blessed, He guided us toward knowledge’s quest. Curiosity his constant guide, No stone unturned, no truth denied. Ingenious thoughts took rapid flight, Illuminating what was night. Good company was his kind way, With humble heart and words that swayed. The smartest one, yet never boastful, His iconic presence, truly toastful. That rumbling Mustang, source of pride, Those dexterous hands o’er piano keys that glided. A scholar’s soul has slipped this plane, But memories of Eli remain. In Sigma halls, his legacy burns bright, A guiding star to minds taking flight. Though parted ways, his gifts persevere, In all he touched, Eli dwells here.

– Jim Abrams
October 31, 2023

I had only met Dr Chesen once, but my daughter was a patient of his for many years. I am so grateful she was able to have Dr Chesen as her psychiatrist because he helped her so much and she still misses him. She now sees Dr Chesen’s daughter who practices in Omaha. Thank you Dr Chesen for all the people you helped over the years, and I’m sure, many lives were saved because of you.

– Vicki Powell
October 31, 2023

Dr. Chesen literally saved my life in 1996. Five years under his care and I was back to the “normal” me. I’m still on several of the meds he introduced me to 27 years ago. I will remember Eli forever. What a wonderful and interesting man. My thoughts and prayers go out Eli’s family.

– Terry Bemis – Lincoln Nebraska
October 30, 2023

Our family was greatly saddened to hear of Eli’s passing. With deep gratitude for Dr. Chesen’s sincere kindness and incredible genius in the field of psychiatry we cherish the intersection of our life’s paths. Rest in peace, dear friend.

– The Mark Coyle Family
October 30, 2023

It was a privilege to be a patient of his for 15+ years until he retired. I owe so much to Eli for saving my life and helping me become self-aware and in control of my depression. He was a huge influence in my life, and I could not be more grateful!

– Emily Peterson
October 30, 2023

So many memories as pledge brothers of the Sammy house! Eli was an outstanding, yet singular person. He will be missed by family and friends.

– Dave Arffa
October 30, 2023

Dr. Chesen was someone who made a tremendous difference in my life. I will never forget him.

– Patrick J. Simons, Frisco Texas
October 29, 2023

Eli was in my wedding. in 1972. A long time ago but I have wonderful memories of him. Blessings to his family.

– Linda Neuswanger Novak
October 28, 2023

So grateful for his expertise in helping heal our son!

– Bernie and Del Ann Divis

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