Obituary: Professor Joseph Sandler

JOSEPH SANDLER was a leading figure of modern psychoanalysis and one of the most productive and creative psychoanalytic theoreticians of the past 50 years. His extraordinary clarity and scholarship has led to a reformulation of psychoanalytic ideas and was one of the major contributions to the sea change which the profession experienced after the Second World War. There have been barriers between high-quality clinically based psychoanalytic thought and rigorous thinking in university life. Sandler broke them down.

Over 30 years Sandler held professorships in the Netherlands, Israel and Britain. He was appointed to the Chair of Psychoanalysis Applied to Medicine at Leiden University in 1968, where he worked for 11 years before taking up the post of Sigmund Freud Professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1984 he became the first incumbent of the Freud Memorial Chair of Psychoanalysis at University College London, where he remained active as Emeritus Professor following his retirement in 1992.

His brilliance was evident from the start. Born in Cape Town in 1927, he matriculated at 15 and received his first degree in psychology from the University of Cape Town in 1945. After obtaining his Master's the following year, he came to England to pursue his doctoral studies with Sir Cyril Burt at University College and worked as a clinical psychologist at the Maudsley Hospital. His early interest was in statistical psychology and in 1957 he was elected Fellow of both the Institute of Statisticians and the British Psychological Society.

Like many brilliant individuals, he was able to pursue numerous goals more or less simultaneously. He obtained his PhD in 1950 and immediately embarked on medical training at University College Hospital. He was also in psychoanalytic training, becoming a qualified analyst of the British Psycho-Analytical Society in 1952 the age of 25. His talents as a psychologist were recognised and he became the youngest Editor of the British Journal of Medical Psychology, a post he held from 1956 to 1962 and from 1968 to 1974.

Joseph Sandler was one of the greatest Freudian psychoanalysts. His intellectual contribution was immense. He, perhaps more than any other single individual, was responsible for reformulating psychoanalytic theory from its outmoded language of 19th-century biology to a conceptual framework consistent with our current understanding of how the mind works. His scientific research programme stands as a monument to clear thinking, simplicity and creativity. In 44 books and 200 papers spanning 50 years of scientific work, he offered psychoanalysts a new frame of reference bridging their experience of the clinical process with theoretical ideas.

From his position in the unusually diverse psychoanalytical culture within the British Psychoanalysts Society, Sandler was uniquely placed to understand some of the most creative minds in the discipline - Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, Wilfred Bion - and to create ideas that have been embraced by psychoanalysts of very different theoretical orientations. His work is amongst the most often cited in the psychoanalytic literature and even those who do not acknowledge their intellectual indebtedness to him implicitly make use of his ideas. Indeed, he was the first to draw attention to how theories could implicitly impact on psychoanalytic thinking.

Sandler received many important awards and distinctions. He held 24 visiting professorships, occupied many leadership positions including the presidency of the European Psychoanalytic Federation and vice-presidency and presidency of the International Psychoanalytic Association. He was an inspired editor of the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, the foremost journal in the field, and founded and edited its sister journal the International Review of Psycho-Analysis. Over the past three years, he was Internet Editor of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis website.

Wherever Sandler worked major initiatives emerged. At Anna Freud's Hampstead Clinic he directed the Hampstead Psychoanalytic Index Project, a unique initiative which pioneered the classification of clinical material according to simple theoretical concepts. He established and led research teams at the Hampstead Clinic, the Sigmund Freud Centre for Study and Research in Psychoanalysis in Jerusalem, at the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt and at the Psychoanalysis Unit at University College London.

He was an inspired facilitator of the group thinking process. Under his guidance and with the benefit of his synthethising capacities the study groups could move from passive reflection to the cutting edge of theoretical innovation.

Sandler was himself a modest and private figure, intensely uncomfortable with adulation, seeking refuge in self-mockery. Those who got close to him will remember a gentle, quiet person who was quite unable to raise his voice, even on public occasions, a man who had no difficulty in understanding at lightning speed even the most complex ideas and who could summarise elaborate arguments in a few simple sentences.

I recall his presidential address to the Buenos Aires International Psychoanalytic Association Congress in which, having worked through the previous night, he not only summarised the essence of all the contributions in the week but also wrestled them together into a genuinely creative, uncompromising and original contribution of his own. He received a rapturous standing ovation from 4,500 psychoanalysts.

His humour was sometimes teasing, often self-effacing and invariably extraordinarily funny. It was as a family man, however, that Joseph Sandler's warmth and generosity were clearest to all. His wife Anne-Marie was a co-author on many of his most important papers and an internationally known psychoanalyst in her own right.

Joseph John Sandler, psychoanalyst: born Cape Town 10 January 1927; Senior Lecturer in Psychopathology, Middlesex Hospital Medical School 1965-72; Senior Lecturer, Institute of Psychiatry, Maudsley Hospital 1967- 78; Professor of Psychoanalysis applied to Medicine, Leiden University 1968-74; Sigmund Freud Professor of Psychoanalysis, Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1979-85; Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis, University College London 1984-92 (Emeritus); married 1950 Hannah Mayer (died 1955; one daughter), 1957 Anne-Marie Weil (one son, one daughter); died London 6 October 1998.