King's College London
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Mind Matters: neuroscience and psychiatry

A representative psychiatrist

Cover of the Bethlem-Maudsley Hospital gazette, autumn 1966 [College Archives IOP PP3/10/2]Cover of the Bethlem-Maudsley Hospital gazette, autumn 1966 [College Archives IOP PP3/10/2]Sir Aubrey Julian Lewis (1900-75) succeeded Edward Mapother as professor of psychiatry at London University in 1946, ten years after he had been appointed clinical director at the Maudsley.

Lewis was born in Adelaide, South Australia, and was educated at the local Christian Brothers’ College and at the University of Adelaide, where he studied medicine. His subsequent medical training included work with Adolph Meyer, the Swiss-born professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Meyer’s approach departed from orthodox psychiatric practice in a number of ways. He believed that many patients could be cared for outside institutions, that mental disorders were not necessarily exclusively hereditary and that patients could be helped to lead productive lives through accumulating a detailed case history and assembling a team of social workers and psychiatrists to help them overcome their disorder. From Meyer Lewis also derived a wariness of Freudian approaches, but he did not necessarily share Meyer’s enthusiasm for pharmacological and surgical ‘cures’ for mental illness.

Photograph of Aubrey Lewis giving a speech by his portrait by Ruskin Spear [College Archives IOP PP3/11/2]Photograph of Aubrey Lewis giving a speech by his portrait by Ruskin Spear [College Archives IOP PP3/11/2]Therefore, from his appointment to a position at the Maudsley in 1929 until his retirement in 1966, he sought to realise the aspiration, first mooted by John Conolly in his Indications of insanity (1830), that asylums should not be divorced from research; this had also been the ambition of both Maudsley and Mott. All three believed that the isolated asylum could be the enemy not just of the patient but also of psychiatry itself. Lewis, with his keen and profound interest in the history of his discipline, was doubtless aware of this.

Both Mapother and Lewis gave to the Maudsley a spirit of empiricism and distrust of theory. Lewis’s work in social and industrial psychiatry exemplified this. In 1948 he assumed the honorary directorship of a Medical Research Council unit (the first psychiatrist to be appointed to such a position) which would aim not only to evaluate the circumstances in which mentally ill people might undertake useful work but also to examine certain general psychological characteristics in modern industry.

Watercolour sketch of Aubrey Lewis by Hilda North Lewis [College Archives IOP PP3/11/7]Watercolour sketch of Aubrey Lewis by Hilda North Lewis [College Archives IOP PP3/11/7]This work was interdisciplinary and it helped to establish psychiatry as an active contributor to the life of society rather than as a suspect branch of medicine locked away in asylums. Lewis and his investigators (along with their rival, the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations) were pioneers in this field. Michael Shepherd, in his article on Lewis, describes him as a ‘representative psychiatrist’, but Lewis was far more than that; the value of his work was recognised by his membership of such bodies as the Committee for Medical Research of the World Health Organisation.

The visual portrayals of Lewis displayed in this case indicate the combination of respect and awe with which he was viewed by his contemporaries. The portrait by Ruskin Spear (1911-90), who depicted so many prominent figures in British life in the twentieth century, shows him as imposing and austere. The more intimate watercolour by Hilda North Lewis was painted while he was recuperating from an illness which he contracted during a tour of European psychiatric hospitals in 1937.

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