Obituary: Dr David Stafford-Clark

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The Independent Culture
DAVID STAFFORD-CLARK changed the face of psychiatry in Britain during the post-war era. When he began as a psychiatrist, mental patients were still incarcerated in asylums, separated from the physically ill both in their treatment and in the way they were regarded by the public. Psychiatrists were sneered at as "trick cyclists" by other members of the medical profession. By the time he retired in 1973, mental and emotional illness had taken its rightful place in the mainstream of modern medicine. Never again will the mentally ill be treated as either fakes or pariahs.

To achieve this sea-change in attitudes and treatment, Stafford-Clark used his extraordinary gift for communication and the celebrity he gained as one of the first television doctors. At a time when the General Medical Council frowned on television appearances as tantamount to advertising, this sometimes brought him up against the medical establishment. He was undeterred, taking on their outdated views with the same zest he brought to his work as teacher and clinical physician.

He was born in 1916, was educated at Felsted, where he won the Gate Prize for poetry, and studied Medicine at London University and Guy's Hospital, qualifying in 1939. He volunteered for the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War, and was posted to Fighter Command. In 1940, he was one of the last of the British Expeditionary Force to leave France. In February 1941 he suffered the shattering blow of the death of his beloved younger brother John, a pilot instructor with the Royal Navy. The sense of loss stayed with him for the rest of his life, and was the subject of several haunting poems in his two volumes of war poetry, Autumn Shadow (1941) and Sound in the Sky (1944).

By then he had joined Bomber Command, as a squadron leader in charge of the medical facility at Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire. His personal commitment to the young airmen, struggling to fulfil their quota of 30 bombing missions amidst the carnage of their friends and the near certainty of their own death, led him to write several papers which were instrumental in having the diagnosis LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre) removed from the lexicon of the Air Ministry.

His knowledge was not merely clinical. He flew with the aircrew to experience their world at first hand, was twice mentioned in despatches, and trained as a medical parachutist. He also volunteered for research into poison gas, which left him with severe asthma; three decades later, a near-fatal attack forced him into early retirement.

His experience with stress and mental trauma in the war decided him to specialise in psychiatric medicine, rather to the dismay of his mentors at Guy's, who felt he was destined for a glittering career as a general physician. He trained at the Institute of Psychiatry, and at the Maudsley under Sir Aubrey Lewis. He also spent a year in the United States on a Nuffield Fellowship. It gave him a lifelong affection for America and Americans. He loved their generosity and openness, both qualities he valued.

In 1950 he returned to Guy's, and four years later was made head of psychological medicine and Director of the York Clinic. It was here, over the next 20 years, that he was able to put his beliefs into practice. Instead of the gloomy surroundings of the old-style mental institution, the wards at the York Clinic were light and airy, with patients treated with care, compassion, and above all as patients, whose illnesses should carry no more stigma than a case of pneumonia or a broken leg. He firmly believed that good psychiatry was based on good clinical practice. It was a branch of medicine, and needed to remember that.

But for him the purpose of medicine was to relieve suffering, and therefore the needs of the patient were paramount. Ill people are frightened, vulnerable, confused. The doctor's job is to comfort as well as to cure; to explain as well as to treat. And he spread that gospel far beyond the confines of psychiatry, with clinical lectures to the medical students at Guy's that were always packed because of his outstanding flair as a lecturer. Several generations of GPs, surgeons and general physicians who passed through Guy's during his tenure emerged better doctors as a result of his teaching.

His writing career began in 1951, with Psychiatry Today, after he was recommended by Aubrey Lewis to Sir Allen Lane at Penguin, who was looking for someone to write a layman's guide to the subject. His commitment to demystification and his elegant prose proved a winning combination. The book became an instant best-seller and was translated into 12 languages. Other books followed, both specialist and popular. Psychiatry For Students (1964) remained a seminal textbook 25 years after it was first published.

At the same time Macdonald, the publishers, had an idea for a series of books under the general heading "What They Really Said", and Stafford- Clark was asked to do Freud. He seized the opportunity to recapture Freud's ideas from the obfuscations of some of his disciples. The series sank without trace, but What Freud Really Said (1965) was another best-seller that has introduced generations of readers to Freud with clarity and wit.

In the late 1950s, Stafford-Clark was introduced to radio by Huw Whelan, and in the early 1960s was given the opportunity for one of his greatest achievements, the BBC television series Lifeline, which he wrote and presented. As an example of the intelligent popularisation of a complex subject - the human mind - it was a triumph. Lifeline made him a celebrity, albeit an anonymous one, so that people would come up to him in restaurants and be covered in confusion when they realised they knew him only as "A Doctor". Other series followed, including Brain and Behaviour and Mind and Motive, as well as a number of award-winning documentaries.

As his reputation spread he was drawn into other areas. In 1959 he had appeared for the defence in the trial of Guenther Podola, who was accused of killing a police detective, and had claimed amnesia - at that time an unprecedented defence in English law. Stafford-Clark's testimony about the nature of amnesia set a precedent for the admissibility of psychiatric evidence in trials for murder and other serious crimes. He later gave evidence in a number of cases, and was one of the expert witnesses lined up for the defence in the celebrated trial of D.H. Lawrence's banned novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. As a passionate liberal, he also worked hard to advance the cause of civil rights in the 1960s, appearing on platforms with Martin Luther King and the writer James Baldwin.

But the area outside his specialised field that gave him most pleasure was work his work in film. He loved the cinema, and was happy for it to make use of his expertise. Michael Powell consulted him when preparing Peeping Tom (1960). Alfred Hitchcock, whose films often contained a strong element of the psychological case study, had him brought to Los Angeles. And, in 1961, his favourite director John Huston asked him to be the consultant on the film Freud, with Montgomery Clift and Susannah York, and a script by Jean-Paul Sartre that would have run for hours if shot as written. Stafford-Clark's exposure to Hollywood, as he worked with the writers and then with Huston on the film, was, he said, the grounds for a case study in itself.

After his retirement in 1973, he published a novel, Soldier Without a Rifle (1976), and lived in Cyprus and then in Brighton with his wife Dorothy, whom he had married in 1941.

Fashions in medicine change. Books go out of print. Television series fade into the past. But David Stafford-Clark's enduring legacy lies in every patient who is treated as a person rather than a case, and for those who knew him, in the memory of his laughter, his generosity, his lucid intelligence and his passionate commitment to the power of the human spirit.

David Stafford-Clark, psychiatrist: born Bromley, Kent 17 March 1916; Physician in Charge, Department of Psychological Medicine and Director of the York Clinic, Guy's Hospital 1954-71; Consultant Physician, Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospitals and the Institute of Psychiatry 1954-71; married 1941 Dorothy Stewart (nee Oldfield; three sons, one daughter); died Brighton, East Sussex 9 September 1999.