Amid father’s fame, Peter Shalit, ’81, ’90, makes his own name in medicine

Though he was thrust into the spotlight after his father, Today Show movie critic Gene Shalit, sparked nationwide controversy with a negative review of the film Brokeback Mountain, Seattle physician Peter Shalit, ’81, ’90, doesn’t need a media flap for attention—his reputation and credentials stand on their own. After earning his Ph.D. and completing his medical residency at the UW, he opened a private clinic where he primarily serves gay patients, half of whom are battling HIV/AIDS. However, his work doesn’t end there. Shalit is an attending physician at the Harborview Madison Clinic, medical director for the HIV Research Program at Swedish Medical Center and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the UW. In 1998, he wrote Living Well: The Gay Man’s Essential Health Guide.

You were in school at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Did that influence the path you took with your clinic?

I started med school the year that the epidemic had just started. I kind of grew up in medicine with HIV unfolding as I went through my training, so I really feel like I’ve seen it from the beginning.

Why does the gay community need specialized care?

That’s tough, because I think there are a number of gay people who are more comfortable going to a place where they don’t have that barrier of feeling like they’re different. There are two main issues. One is the need for more gay-oriented practices, but the other is for all the other practices to give appropriate care to their gay and lesbian patients. Respectful care that focuses on the needs of those people.

You argued for doctor-assisted death in front of the state Supreme Court a few years ago. Why?

At the time, it was right at the worst part of the AIDS epidemic, when we really didn’t have good treatment at all, and patients could pretty much expect to die. My role as a physician was pretty much to make sure the quality of the life they had was the best possible, but a lot of people were miserable, and they didn’t want to experience the last few months of suffering. They just wanted it to be done. And I still feel that should be a person’s right. It’s not the same as somebody being mentally ill or suicidal—it’s a very rational decision. The interesting thing is that now that there is good treatment for HIV, none of my patients has that desire anymore.

I hear you were a botany prodigy as a child.

I’ve always just liked plants and growing things. Originally, when I went to school, that was what I wanted to do. My goal was to do plant breeding or gene splicing in plants. I like plants personally—I have a nice personal relationship with them, but it didn’t seem ultimately like a good career. I really like people better.

Why did people react so strongly to your dad’s Brokeback Mountain review?

It’s a combination of things. I don’t think he got the movie, but I don’t think that means he’s bigoted, and that was the issue. He didn’t see it as a romantic love story, and I did. But my relationship with him for years has been that I don’t take anything he reviews personally. If he doesn’t like a movie, he just doesn’t like the movie. A lot of people saw his review as being homophobic, and I really had to defend him and help him defend himself.

Did growing up with a father whose job is to be opinionated affect you?

The effect it had on me was to not want to be like him. He’s such a strong personality, and I didn’t want to compete. The other thing is that I’m not like him, and I wouldn’t be good doing what he does. I really have sympathy for people who sort of take over for one of their parents in their parent’s career, because I would think that would be a difficult place to be—to step into your parent’s shoes.

What two things do you hope to do in your lifetime?

I’d love to visit the South American rain forests, because a lot of the plants I grow come from there. I’d like to see them in the wild. The second thing I’d like to do before I die is retire. Part of the problem with my job is that you can almost never disconnect from it. That’s probably the one slight regret I have about what I do—it kind of dominates my life.

If you could spend a day with any person, who would it be?

Benjamin Franklin. I’ve been reading his biography, and he just sounds fascinating. He doesn’t sound like a nice man, but he sounds like a really interesting man.

Your dad’s job revolves around films, but what is your favorite movie?

That’s a horrible question, because, I mean, my current favorite movie is actually Brokeback Mountain.