Dennis Gath

Leading Oxford University psychiatrist
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The Independent Online

Dennis Gath was a leading member of Oxford University's psychiatry department, co-authored the Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry, and did a great deal to enhance the status of psychiatry within medicine.

Dennis Hanson Gath, psychiatrist: born York 25 March 1930; Lecturer, then First Assistant in Psychiatry, Oxford University 1969-75, Clinical Reader in Psychiatry 1975-96; Fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford 1973-96 (Emeritus); married 1960 Ann-Mary Lewis (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1978), 1989 Eileen Curl; died Oxford 14 May 2005.

Dennis Gath was a leading member of Oxford University's psychiatry department, co-authored the Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry, and did a great deal to enhance the status of psychiatry within medicine.

He brought to his discipline a well trained mind - he had studied philosophy and classics before studying medicine - and was at the forefront of the movement that changed psychiatry into a science by using defined and measurable parameters and good epidemiological methods. He was, said a colleague, "one of the small generation of academic psychiatrists who was well-trained and applied the same approach as was used in the rest of medicine, broadening its academic base and earning the respect of the physicians".

His early research was on child guidance and what were then called juvenile delinquents. Later, he showed that counselling, by general practitioners or practice nurses, was as good as drug therapy for depression treated in primary care. At the other end of the spectrum, he showed that the homeless mentally ill derived no benefit from having a social worker. Instead, they needed suitable housing.

Gath did ground-breaking work on psychiatric aspects of obstetrics and gynaecology, showing that 50 per cent of women suffered depression after childbirth, that premenstrual syndrome could be helped by counselling, that the menopause made little difference to women's sexuality.

He was a good teacher and a role model of how a psychiatrist should be, which encouraged many undergraduate students to enter the speciality. He served on the Oxford University Board, which runs the whole of the university, and he took an active part in the management of Wolfson College, where he was a Fellow from 1973. He also served on committees for the Medical Research Council and for the US National Institutes of Mental Health, who were impressed by his work on the homeless.

His two co-authors of the textbook, Michael Gelder and Richard Mayou, attribute much of the book's success to the high quality of Gath's writing. He cared about his work and used to go through the text, line by line, recasting any sentences that were unclear. He also helped with theses and papers in the department, using clear, elegant prose.

Dennis Gath was born in York, the son of a gas board executive, and educated at Ilford County Grammar School for Boys. After military service in 1948-50 he had a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he started a Classics degree and switched to Philosophy. By the time he left, he was determined to study Medicine, and spent a year in 1952-53 teaching English at the International School in Geneva to earn the money to finance his course.

His medical studies, at St Catherine's College Oxford, were followed by junior posts in medicine, surgery and neurology at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. In 1964 he went to the Maudsley Hospital in London, a centre of excellence. In 1968 he spent some months in Birmingham as Senior Research Fellow in Psychiatry.

The Oxford medical school, previously small, was undergoing expansion. Sir George Pickering, the Regius Professor of Physic, recruited Gelder to Oxford as the first Professor of Psychiatry, and Gelder brought Gath with him, in early 1969. Gath stayed there for the rest of his career.

He refused professorships from several other universities, preferring to stay on in Oxford, from 1975 as Clinical Reader in Psychiatry. At that time in Oxford, there was only one psychiatry chair - there are now seven - and he missed out on being awarded a personal chair by about a year.

Gath was amiable, clubbable, and reliable, "a good college man" and held in great affection by his colleagues. He rowed for both his Oxford and his Cambridge college when young, liked music and walking, and spoke fluent French. He was also a great raconteur, slightly conspiratorial, and a source of, in the words of a colleague, "high-class gossip" delivered in a whisper.

He had intended retiring at 67, but ill health forced him to retire a year earlier. Alzheimer's robbed him of the retirement he had looked forward to.

Caroline Richmond