Obituary: Professor Derek Russell Davis

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Derek Russell Davis, psychiatrist, born 20 April 1914, Honorary Psychiatrist United Cambridge Hospitals 1948-62, Reader in Clinical Psychology Cambridge University 1950-58, Director of Medical Psychology Laboratory and Reader in Medical Psychology 1958-62, Norah Cooke-Hurle Professor of Mental Health Bristol University and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist United Bristol Hospitals 1962-79, married 1939 Marit Iversen (one son, one daughter), died Bristol 3 February 1993.

THE ONE word which best describes Derek Russell Davis is radical: radical in his desire to go to the root of things, and as a reformer, most particularly of the psychiatric profession.

His personal demeanour was not radical, but that of the formal professional - not for him the open shirt and breezy style of some psychiatrists. He stoically lived with an arthritic spine which gave him a slightly bent stature, not helped by his strong steel NHS specs. But this was all a disguise as he had a most humane touch and was deeply concerned with damaged and disordered lives in his practice and teaching.

His early career after school at Stowe, and a traditional medical education at Cambridge and the Middlesex Hospital, was unusual because he threw in his lot with the Cambridge psychologists as experimentalist and researcher. He thus avoided the often constricting process which many young psychiatrists followed. By the time he was consultant psychiatrist, aged 36, in Cambridge his style of penetrating enquiry and belief in humane scientific approaches had been formed.

His Lectureship and Readership in Cambridge was in psychopathology - understanding the psychological roots of disturbance - and he taught Cambridge psychologist undergraduates and young psychiatrists for 13 years. At that time there was no formal medical-school framework for psychiatry but he fostered a critical mind in the young psychiatric registrars passing through the system - not always to the pleasure of his consultant colleagues.

He wrote a text on psychopathology at this time which went into four editions between 1957 and 1984, but his clinical and scientific ideas were moving away from the laboratory and into family and the community. It was at this time in 1958 that we met when I was a young psychologist researching some of these matters. His opportunity to spread his radical brand of patient- centred psychiatry came with his appointment to the first Chair in Mental Health at Bristol Medical School in 1962. Here he took every opportunity of an expansive time to set up a full service based, not in the distant mental hospital, but in the downtown teaching hospitals.

Together with a group of like-minded medical professors he helped reform the curriculum towards whole-person medical care in which the study of human behaviour played a new role, quite novel in British medical-school teaching. His new department was remarkably open both to ideas and people. The staff was multidisciplinary, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and sociologists, all of whom were equally important. But he also encouraged and arranged mental-health teaching for other students of human care in Bristol. He believed psychiatry was much too important to be practised only by specialist doctors.

During the 1970s he was able to persuade a wider audience of his views in national committees and commissions. Fortunately his very considerable energy allowed him time to pursue his passion for the theatre, further enhanced during his active retirement. As a result he published Scenes of Madness: a psychiatrist at the theatre (1991) which he said had taken him 25 years to write. He came to believe that playwrights (particularly Ibsen) often had greater insights to offer about human behaviour than people like himself.

In his later years he became more radical in his ideas and gave great service to Mind (the mental health campaign) both as council member, adviser and vigorous expert witness for people whom he considered had been damaged by the psychiatric machine.

Derek Russell Davis was a generous man who helped both his colleagues and his patients without fuss and total lack of pomposity. He was an eminently social person who kept an open house presided over by his gracious Norwegian wife, Marit, who supported him so ably and helped him to keep working through his last illness. His radical scholarly spirit will live on in the work of many colleagues and friends.