obituaries: Professor Sir William Trethowan

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The Independent Online
Bill Trethowan was a psychiatrist and a man of multitudinous talents, with a generosity of spirit and a personal style well fitted to deploy them. He could have become famous as a musician; alternatively he would have made an outstanding diplomat. If he had wished to amass a fortune he could have done so many times over in Harley Street. Fortunately for medicine he had other ideas.

His ancestors came from Cawsand in Cornwall. At his home in Hampstead his father, an orthopaedic surgeon at Guy's Hospital, had installed an organ and held regular concerts. He died when Bill was 16, whereupon his wife enrolled as a medical student. Bill Trethowan and his mother graduated in the same year.

Trethowan was educated at Oundle School and Clare College, Cambridge. On reaching Cambridge he made straight for the Footlights, and became the music director. People still recall the 1938 May Week revue Pure and Simple, directed by George (Dadie) Rylands and Robert Helpmann, for which Trethowan composed music and conducted the band. At about this time he met his future wife Pam Waters, an actress recently out of Lamda. She sang in cabarets accompanied by a band called the Arimatheans, in which Bill Trethowan was a regular accompanist and conductor. He became renowned as a keyboard player and jazz trumpeter. They married in London, and Trethowan graduated in medicine at Guy's Hospital in 1943.

After army service as a medical specialist he trained in psychiatry at the Maudsley and Massachusetts General Hospital, and spent a year as a teaching fellow at Harvard before joining the staff of the Department of Psychiatry at Manchester, serving under the eccentric and scholarly Professor E.W. Anderson. Five years later, in 1956, he was elected to the Chair of Psychiatry in the University of Sydney. There he made a considerable impact, but before long he was head-hunted by Birmingham University, where he was Professor of Psychiatry from 1962 until retirement in 1982.

In Manchester, Sydney and Birmingham Trethowan did much to advance the standards of psychiatry. He was a first-class clinician and teacher, and had the imagination to see what was required to break new ground, first by extending the teaching in psychiatry provided for medical students (and thus for future general practitioners and clinical specialists), and second by planning comprehensive postgraduate training of psychiatrists. In Britain the Royal College of Psychiatrists acquired its Royal Charter in 1971. Trethowan was one of those who worked both in committee and behind the scenes to ensure the new college would reach the highest standards of professional excellence. He was appointed its first Chief Examiner and worked almost single-handedly to set up the examination for membership, which proved entirely successful.

Meantime other developments were afoot, and Trethowan was again among the leading agents of change. Psychiatry began to move closer to medicine and away from its sequestered location in huge mental hospitals. Psychiatric units in general hospitals were established and community services planned. People could be treated in general hospitals for their serious mental illnesses, and now also for the common neuroses and the emotional dimensions of psychiatric illness. The 1974 reorganisation of the National Health Service brought far-reaching changes in the balance between hospital medicine and care and treatment in the community.

In these evolutionary processes Trethowan possessed a remarkable ability to analyse complex medical and administrative issues, listen closely to what was said, and reconcile conflicting viewpoints. He was both a strategic thinker and a tactician, very articulate, and a believer in plain words. It was hardly surprising that he was given ever wider responsibilities.

He was Dean of Medicine in Birmingham for six years, and became an adviser to central government through membership, and often chairmanship, of important committees in the DHSS. He had other national roles with the General Medical Council and the University Grants Committee. Again the days were hectic. For 10 years he chaired the advisory committee appointed to establish a medical school in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Like Figaro, he was here, there and everywhere. He relished his many missions, but unlike Figaro he was no factotum, and self-interest was not his motive.

He had little time to become personally involved in research, but he wrote several papers on educational topics. He developed an interest in unusual psychiatric syndromes and social anthropological themes, producing the authoritative account of the Couvade Syndrome, in which husbands of pregnant women sometimes develop symptoms characteristic of approaching labour. He wrote on music and mental illness, including an authoritative review of the mental illness of Ivor Gurney, the poet and musician, who developed paranoid schizophrenia. Outside work his interests were not restricted to music - he had an informed interest in natural history (and a marvellous butterfly collection) and for some years was a good gardener. His family life provided an extremely lively background, packed with challenge, debating and debunking, hectic, heart-warming, generous and hospitable.

In 1985 his wife Pam died suddenly after several years of failing health. There followed a period of profound sadness, but in 1988 his marriage to Heather Dalton brought strength and, perhaps for the first time in his life, the hectic days were over: he was happy, contented and at peace with himself.

Robert Cawley

William Henry Trethowan, psychiatrist: born London 3 June 1917; Psychiatric Registrar, Maudsley Hospital 1948-50; Psychiatric Resident, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard 1951; Lecturer and Senior Lecturer, Manchester University 1951-56; Professor of Psychiatry, University of Sydney 1956- 62; Professor of Psychiatry, Birmingham University 1962-82 (Emeritus); Consultant Adviser in Psychiatry, DHSS 1964-78; Chairman, Standing Mental Health Advisory Committee 1968-74; Chief Examiner, Royal College of Psychiatrists 1971-74; CBE 1975; Chairman, Medical Advisory Committee, Chinese University of Hong Kong 1976-86; Kt 1980; married 1941 Pamela Waters (died 1985; one son, two daughters), 1988 Heather Dalton (nee Gardiner); died Birmingham 15 December 1995.