Obituary: Professor Stuart Sutherland

STUART SUTHERLAND started life as a journalist, and spent much of the last 20 years as a writer, reviewer, columnist and novelist. But in between, he lived the blameless (well, fairly blameless) life of a successful academic psychologist, initially at Oxford and then as first Professor of Experimental Psychology at Sussex University. Still less than 40 years old when he left Oxford, he was already a commanding figure in British psychology.

All this changed in the early 1970s, when he suffered, according to him with no apparent warning, a sudden and severe depressive breakdown. The depression lasted for months, and then, again according to his own account, stopped almost as suddenly as it had begun. In fact, the absence of depression soon gave way to manic episodes, and for several years, until he eventually agreed to try lithium treatment, he cycled between deep depression every summer and hypomania every winter. But he put his experience to good use, writing a book, Breakdown: a personal crisis and a medical dilemma (1976), that described in frank and frightening detail what it is like to suffer from manic depression.

Although psychiatric illness may not seem the most enthralling of topics, Breakdown is a compellingly readable book. And even if the autobiographical chapters did not always please all his friends and relatives, the book surely succeeded in one of its stated aims: to remove some of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Never afraid to bare his soul, or make public admission of actions and feelings that the more reticent of us would seek anxiously to conceal, Sutherland was the ideal person to tell what it is like to be mentally ill, and to describe the impact his illness had both on himself and on others.

As an academic psychologist, he could also bring a more professional perspective to bear, and Breakdown provides not only an entertaining and delightfully rude account of his experience at the hands of an unfortunate psychoanalyst, but also an informed and readable account of the state of psychological and psychiatric knowledge of the causes, consequences and treatment of mental illness. The story of his breakdown provided the inspiration for Simon Gray's play Melon.

After his illness, Sutherland abandoned the laboratory and took up writing, reviewing and journalism. His reviews, at first mostly of psychological books in journals such as Nature, were opinionated but never dull, and always notable for their remarkable breadth of knowledge. From there, he branched out into reviews of books on any subject under the sun, in the weekly press and in several national newspapers.

He continued to write on psychology, producing single-handedly a Dictionary of Psychology (1989) for Macmillan and, most recently a book, Irrationality: the enemy within (1992), in which he drew on research in social psychology to illustrate the ways in which people, including generals, civil servants, doctors and scientists, many of whom have been expensively trained to know better, not only behave irrationally in their own lives, but also make irrational decisions with momentous consequences for others.

Although sometimes in later life affecting to despise academic psychology, Sutherland remained a psychologist to the end. His earlier career had been one of exceptional promise and equally exceptional achievement. Born in Birmingham in 1927 and educated at King Edward's School, he read Classics at Oxford and went on to do National Service. He then returned to Oxford to read Psychology and Philosophy, gained a prize fellowship at Magdalen and started a research programme on perception and discrimination learning in animals that, among other things, took him every summer to the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, where he worked on octopuses alongside J.Z. Young.

Two spells as a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology strengthened his belief that artificial intelligence and computational modelling provided new and powerful ways to tackle the problems of cognitive psychology, and in 1964 he moved to Sussex University (Balliol by the sea, as it was know in those days) to set up a new department of experimental psychology. Sussex remained his academic base for the rest of his life.

Within a few years, the department he established was recognised as among the best two or three in the country, and brought to England a steady stream of distinguished visiting psychologists from North America and elsewhere. The people he appointed to teaching posts, and the research students they attracted, have since become professors at half a dozen British universities as well as several abroad - Princeton, Toronto and Sydney. In part, this was because he was a good judge of potential, in part because of the breadth of his interests in psychology.

But it was the force of his personality that moulded the department. Love him or hate him, you had to strive harder - either to live up to his expectations, or to avoid his wrath. He was a formidably clever man, quick to follow an argument, even quicker to spot its flaws. As a teacher, he was both extraordinarily stimulating and quite terrifying. His own grasp of the subject, depth of understanding and enthusiasm provided an unrivalled education, and could excite a matching enthusiasm in anyone prepared to withstand the critical onslaught of a man who sometimes seemed determined to live up to cliches about not suffering fools gladly.

He was equally unwilling to suffer the constraints imposed by convention and, even when not in manic mode, took delight in outrageous behaviour. Easily bored by polite conversation, he had no compunction in leaving a dinner party in mid-meal, even one given in his own house, for a quick drink in the pub. It was easy to mistake this desire to shock for cruelty or unkindness. But Stuart Sutherland was, as many friends can testify, a kind and generous man. And his friendship was valuable for much more than that. Endlessly fascinated by the world around him, always with something new and thought-provoking to say on any subject, whether he knew anything about it or not, his conversation and companionship enriched many lives.

Norman Stuart Sutherland, experimental psychologist and writer: born Birmingham 26 March 1927, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford 1954-58; Lecturer in Experimental Psychology, Oxford University 1960-64; Fellow of Merton College, Oxford 1963-64; Professor of Experimental Psychology, Sussex University 1964-92; married 1956 Jose Fogden (two daughters); died Brighton, East Sussex 8 November 1998.

Comments