Obituary: John Pearce
Monday 31 January 1994
JOHN PEARCE was the last all-purpose clinical psychiatrist: for him a single day's work might include psychoanalysing a disturbed child, preparing a Court report on an offender, administering psychological tests to an elderly patient and assessing their significance, working out a treatment plan for a wildly manic woman, counselling a girl who had taken an overdose of aspirin and giving genetic advice to a couple who had a child with severe learning difficulties. During the 1950s and 1960s, while working at St Mary's Hospital, Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, the Royal Masonic Hospital and in his Harley Street practice, he was very probably the only psychiatrist in London with such a wide range of clinical interest and ability.
Jack Pearce was born in Edinburgh in 1904; his father was an English cloth merchant and his mother - her maiden name was Dalziel - a pure Scot. Doubtless, his mother's firmly established Highland roots - she was descended from Robert MacGregor ('Rob Roy', the 18th-century Jacobite outlawed by the English) - nourished Pearce's love of his native country throughout his life.
Pearce was educated in Edinburgh at George Watson's College and at the University Medical School, obtaining his MA at the age of 19 in 1923. He qualified as a doctor in 1927 - one of a group of distinguished students, including his lifelong friend John McMichael, who were to make their names in London. After house appointments at the Royal Infirmary and at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, he left Edinburgh to work in English mental hospitals, first in Kent and then in Leicester, proceeding, in 1933, to his Doctorate of Medicine and Membership of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh; his thesis assessed the significance of personality in the cause of mental illness.
In 1936, Pearce came to London to take up appointments at Stamford House Remand Home, the Tavistock Clinic and the West End Hospital for Nervous Diseases, and to establish a Harley Street practice. When the Second World War started, he volunteered for the RAMC and was commissioned as a major, one of seven command psychiatrists under Brigadier JR Rees. In 1942 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and posted as Officer Commanding Northfield Military Hospital; in 1944 he was sent overseas as Adviser in Psychiatry, Allied Force Headquarters, Central Mediterranean Forces; he was mentioned in despatches.
On demobilisation in September 1945 he returned to his pre-war work in London and, by taking on new commitments and giving up old ones, he concentrated his efforts on St Mary's Hospital and Medical School, Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, the Royal Masonic Hospital (he became a Grand Lodge Officer) and his own practice.
Pearce made a number of important contributions to medical literature, particularly a textbook, Juvenile Delinquency (1952). He pointed out then that there was no scientific evidence that punishment had any beneficial effect on the anti-social behaviour of delinquents. He was much against the judicial birching that was practised when he first became involved with delinquents, and his book mentions the even more barbaric capital punishment inflicted on children as young as eight years of age a century previously. At present, when the importance of punishment is being increasingly debated, Pearce's views seem very relevant.
Jack Pearce was a kind, soft-spoken, understanding man who was more interested in listening to what others had to say than in talking himself; that was one of the reasons he was such a good psychiatrist. But he had many interests outside medicine and sometimes could be persuaded to speak about them. He was a great traveller and the mention of a holiday trip to almost anywhere - perhaps to a remote Pyrenean valley, or a small town in British Columbia or an Italian village near Sorrento - would often elicit a story, usually amusing, about one of his visits there. He was a keen golfer (from the age of four until he was 80), an accomplished water-colour painter and he enjoyed fishing, curling and - particularly when he and his second wife, Elizabeth, holidayed in their croft house on the west coast of Sutherland - baking his own bread.
In 1988, the pull of his birthplace - always strong - became irresistible and he moved back to Edinburgh after an exile of 60 years.
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