Dr Peter Dally
Psychiatrist specialising in eating disorders
Tuesday 12 July 2005
Peter Dally made major contributions in the study of anorexia nervosa and eating disorders. He was the author of a textbook, Anorexia Nervosa, published in 1969, and co-author with Joan Gomez of Anorexia Nervosa (1979) and Obesity and Anorexia: a question of shape (1980). He was interested that anorexia was such a middle-class phenomenon, that it predominantly occurred in girls, usually of high intelligence, in their early teens. (Bulimia nervosa, by contrast, had a later onset, and a wider incidence.) He looked for the cause in the family, rather than the individual, and noted that it was a syndrome that might reappear in middle and old age.
Dally came from a family with a strong naval tradition; his father was a senior dentist in the Royal Navy. After Ipswich School Peter went on to Dartmouth Naval College and was a midshipman at the outbreak of the Second World War, in which he reached the rank of lieutenant, seeing active service in the Mediterranean and the Far East, but was invalided out. In 1947 he took up a place at St Thomas' Medical School, graduating in 1953. At medical school he had been bright academically and obtained prizes in surgery and psychiatry - and met his future wife, Ann, who was in the same year. After house jobs at St Thomas' Hospital he began his training in psychiatry at St Ebba's Hospital in Epsom, where he contracted poliomyelitis.
At that time Dr William Sargant at St Thomas' was a leading figure in the psychiatric world. Peter Dally was offered a post as research registrar to Sargant, to whom he acted as assistant on Sargant's 1963 revision of his An Introduction to Physical Methods of Treatment in Psychiatry, and it was at this stage that Dally began his study of eating disorders. His 1969 book Anorexia Nervosa, dedicated to Sargant, was based on his MD thesis.
In 1961 he was appointed as a consultant psychiatrist at Westminster Hospital, a post which he held until his retirement in 1988. I worked alongside Peter Dally as his junior colleague from 1972. That year we opened the psychiatric unit at Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton, in addition to having beds at All Saints' Hospital. He was a stimulating colleague and I remember him as being a man who could be difficult on occasions, irritated by the vagaries of administration, but always supportive at times of stress. A charismatic man, he attracted a loyal group of both patients and junior staff. Essentially he was shy, reserved, a very private person. He was a superb clinician, whose clinical opinions and insights were sharp and incisive. He made a considerable contribution academically to the literature on eating disorders. He was also the author of successive editions of Psychology and Psychiatry for Nurses (from 1964, with Susan Farnham and Mary Watkins) and Chemotherapy of Psychiatric Disorders (1969) as well as, for the general reader, a book on the use of sexual fantasy, The Fantasy Factor (1975).
He and Dr Ann Dally had continued to work together at 13 Devonshire Place, following their divorce in 1969. They had six children, his family were very important to him and he took great joy in its development and their grandchildren. The deaths of two of his sons, Simon in 1989 and John in 1994, were a source of great sorrow.
Peter Dally was a second son, the first having died of scarlet fever when a baby, writes Anne Norwich. From an early age, Peter felt he could never live up to his parents' expectations, as the memory of "golden" Jim's angelic looks and nature haunted his mother. Matters were not improved when Peter contracted a virulent case of ringworm from his younger sister. He was in strict quarantine for over a year, from the age of five. He always felt that this isolation, just at the point when most children are starting to interact and make friends, made him ungregarious, though it did turn him into an avid reader and the family intellectual. He read everything, including volumes of Shakespeare, Gibbon and Macaulay that had lain around unread for years.
Captain Dally wanted his son to be a doctor, though Peter wanted to see action in the war that was looming. His parents agreed to send him to Dartmouth, which coincided with a time of social and sexual awakening for Peter. Women found him attractive, while his genuine interest in women's feelings was to become one of the cornerstones of his success as a psychiatrist, particularly of anorexic patients.
From his mother, Peter had inherited duodenal ulcers. He would never have passed the medical exam necessary to get into the Navy if, at the beginning of the war, they had not been so short of officer material. Gin and limes didn't help but he managed to hide the debilitating attacks of this condition. He took part in the Allied landings in Italy. Just after the atom bomb on Nagasaki, he was on one of two British ships to visit the area. He never forgot the black shadows of former buildings created by the blast.
He was working as a psychiatric registrar in St Ebba's, a big mental hospital for acute cases at Epsom in 1955, when Britain was hit by what proved to be the last epidemic of polio. All the doctors were offered the new Salk polio vaccine. Half of them declined, including Peter, who was by nature a sceptic. He was stricken with the disease, which permanently affected the right side of his body.
William Sargant was a charismatic and authoritative psychiatrist who believed that the future of psychiatry lay in not in analysts and analysis, but in making psychiatry part of general medicine. He told Peter, "You can turn your face to the wall or take up your bed and walk." Peter took the first part of the diploma in psychiatric medicine while still in a wheelchair. He had been given an electric wheelchair for use in the street, but was so enraged at being overtaken by a steamroller that he managed to get a car adapted so he could drive again.
When he retired from the NHS in 1988 he continued his private practice, until 1993; but he now had the leisure to study the mental lives of those authors who, in the course of a lifetime's reading, particularly interested him. The results were Elizabeth Barrett Browning: a psychological portrait (1989) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: manic depression in the life of Virginia Woolf (1999). He was working on a life of Coventry Patmore when he died.
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