Lives of the fellows

Derek Russell Davis

b.20 April 1914 d.3 February 1993
MRCS LRCP(1938) MA MB Chir Cantab(1939) MRCP(1939) MD(1946) FRCP(1963) FRCPsych(1971)

Derek Russell Davis was born in Hendon, Middlesex, the son of Edward David Darelan Davis, a surgeon. From Stowe School he entered Clare College, Cambridge, in 1933 as a foundation scholar. He took a first in the Tripos Part I examinations before proceeding to clinical studies at the Middlesex Hospital. In 1940 he became a temporary wartime member of the scientific staff of the MRC at the University of Cambridge psychological laboratory. Thereafter his career was as distinguished in clinical psychiatry as in psychology itself, each theme informing and enriching the other throughout his professional career.

From 1948 he was honorary consultant psychiatrist to the United Cambridge Hospitals and to the East Anglian regional hospital board. His research at that time reflected his dual experience in clinical psychiatry and psychology: his work in human error in accidents -which he often referred to as trying to explain why drivers crossed the traffic lights at red - represented major contributions to the field of stress and its effect on perception and human behaviour. He became university reader in clinical psychology in 1950 and director of the medical psychology laboratory in 1958. In 1961 he was elected a Fellow of Clare College.

In 1962 Derek Russell Davis became the first Norah Cooke Hurle Professor of mental health at the University of Bristol. From the beginning he set out to develop a clinical service in the city centre, closely related to Bristol Royal Infirmary. In spite of being moved from pillar to post in order to comply with incessant extraneous administrative demands, the clinical units which he developed offered a type of care to some of the most damaged and psychologically disadvantaged individuals in Bristol which was characterized by its warmth and tolerance.

The philosophy was a radical one, wary of traditional psychiatric ideas and concerned primarily with family processes as well as psychological causes of major psychiatric illness. The multidisciplinary approach was egalitarian, one in which medical and non-medical staff felt equally valued as health care professionals. He was a vigorous clinical innovator, tirelessly travelling the length of a very extended south west region to develop clinical services and to act as trouble-shooter whenever necessary.

In spite of chronic disability imposed by ankylosing spondylitis, his physical energy was quite extraordinary and many young colleagues found it difficult to keep up with his pace as he moved from one ward round to another, particularly when travelling at speed up the steep St Michael’s Hill.

In his approach Derek Russell Davis took an academic stance and refused to close debate on complex issues in the search for comforting certainty. He had the intellectual strength to formulate clinical management in terms of hypotheses which could be tested and, if necessary, discarded successively in the search for that which might best apply to an individual person’s clinical needs. He was aware of the enormous value of simple interventions; for example, noting the psychotherapeutic value of a ward cleaner who might sit and listen to persons in distress.

He married Marit Iversen in 1939 and they had two children, a son and a daughter. Following his retirement in 1979, he and Marit were able to pursue a love of the theatre with increasing vigour. He was well known as an expert on Ibsen. In his later book Scenes of madness: a psychiatrist at the theatre, London, New York, Tavistock/Routledge, 1992, he set out his ideas about the way in which great playwrights can provide deep insights into the complexities of human behaviour.

His clinical stance became more challenging towards the assumptions inherent in mainstream clinical psychiatry. He was closely associated with MIND as a council member and expert witness in regard to clinical problems, particularly in matters winch involved mental health legislation. Towards the end of his life he lost his central vision but refused to allow it to limit his ability to travel long distances in order to carry out clinical assessments. He remained at all times available as a friend and support to those who turned to him, even in his final distressing illness.

He retained an attitude of acceptance and a wry sense of humour in the face of so many of the ironies inherent in the human situation. Derek Russell Davis reached out to a great number of disadvantaged people who suffered mental illness and effectively helped them with a rare degree of sensitive understanding.

H G Morgan

[The Times, 17 Feb 1993;The Independent, 10 Feb 1993,26 May 1992;The Daily Telegraph, 16 Feb 1993]

(Volume IX, page 122)

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