Lives of the fellows

John Arthur Nicholas Corsellis

b.30 January 1915 d.27 October 1994
MRCS LRCP(1944) MRCPath(1963) MRCP(1970) FRCPsych(1971) FRCPath(1972) FRCP(1973)

Nick Corsellis made an outstanding contribution to the pathological understanding of psychiatric disease, through his own research and the encouragement he gave others. Although for the last part of his official working life he held the chair of neuropathology at the Institute of Psychiatry, he did most of his work at the department he established at Runwell Hospital, near Wickford, Essex. He returned to Runwell in his retirement and it was here he made his most important contributions. His enthusiasm for approaching problems of psychiatric disease through brain morphology inspired his small band of co-workers and collaborators.

Perhaps his most important contribution was as an ambassador, representing neuropathology in academic psychiatry. He was a penetrating commentator on those issues where he felt his discipline could make a contribution. He was always willing to join in discussions across boundaries and into the more psychological and psychiatric fields, areas few fellow pathologists were willing to follow. He was well qualified to do so as he had himself started training as a psychiatrist, but had been forced to abandon this career as a result of a tuberculous infection. He and the specialty were perhaps fortunate that his early psychiatric experience was at Runwell Hospital, where a distinguished group of researchers in all disciplines had been assembled by the physician-superintendent Rolf Strom-Olsen. It was Strom-Olsen's suggestion that Corsellis should consider moving in the direction of pathology. This he was by temperament well able to do. He can be seen as part of a tradition, almost extinct in the middle decades of the century, of an interaction between clinical psychiatry and histopathology and neuro-anatomy. The origins of this cross-fertilization were clearly in Germany at the end of the last and the beginning of this century and included such distinguished proponents as Wernicke, von Gudden, Meynert, Alzheimer, Westphal, Nissl, von Monakow and at a later date Kleist and Leonhard. When the impact of these basic sciences again began to be felt in mainstream psychiatric thought in the second half of the century Nick Corsellis was a worthy member of this tradition.

Corsellis made major contributions in three areas. In 1962 he published his Maudsley monograph on Mental illness and the ageing brain, a systematic and comprehensive survey of the prevalence of Alzheimer-type changes in senile dementia, which up to that time had been a relatively neglected problem. In the course of this work and later he did much to introduce rigorous quantitative approaches to the assessment of neuropathological change. Secondly, he published a seminal paper with C J Bruton and D Freeman-Browne entitled The aftermath of boxing (Psychological medicine 3:270-303) in 1973. This paper drew attention to the frequency and severity of gross brain damage in the brains of those subjected to levels of trauma which previously had been thought innocuous, and fuelled the intense and continuing debate on the medical consequences and ethics of the sport. Finally, working in collaboration with Murray Falconer, the neurosurgeon, he extended knowledge of the aetiology and pathogenesis of epilepsy by his studies of focal dysplasia.

In 1976 he contributed an adventurous and thought-provoking chapter on psychoses of unknown aetiology in the third edition of Greenfield’s Neuropathology including what was known at that time about the schizophrenic psychoses. He later encouraged and stimulated collaborative studies, particularly with the staff of the division of psychiatry at the MRC Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park. This work led in due course to seminal papers which confirmed in post-mortem material the ventricular enlargement which had previously been demonstrated in a CT scan (Johnstone et al The Lancet 1976 ii 924-926) and demonstrated an asymmetrical thinning of the parahippocampal gyrus (Brown et al The archive of general psychiatry 1986 43:36-42) and loss of asymmetry of enlargement of the temporal horn (Crow et al The archive of general psychiatry 1989 46:1145-1150) and reduction in brain weight and length (Bruton et al Psychological medicine 1990 2:285-304), independent of the presence of identifiable histopathological change.

He married in Joyce Partridge in 1947 and they had one son and one daughter. As an individual Nick Corsellis was a critical scientist with a wry and self-deprecating sense of humour and an astute, but basically tolerant, ability to comment on the frailties of human nature. He was an enthusiast for research into the nature of psychotic illness who facilitated progress without concern for credit for himself. In a fitting tribute the staff of his department have, with support from the MRC and the Southend Hospital Trust, ensured that much of the material that was collected in his time at Runwell will be made available to interested researchers as the Corsellis collection.

T J Crow

[The Lancet,1994,344,1426; The Independent, 31 Oct 1994]

(Volume X, page 74)

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