Lives of the fellows

Henry Victor Dicks

b.27 April 1900 d.12 July 1977
MRCS LRCP(1926) MB BChir Cantab(1927) MRCP(1927) MA MD(1930) FRCP(1947) FRCPsych(1971)

Henry Dicks was my close colleague and friend for over thirty years. In expressing what he meant for me, I know I shall say something of what he was for all of us, for Henry was a remarkably well defined person. He was not the kind of man who tended to be one person in one setting and another man in a different one; he was his whole self wherever he was. And the wholeness stemmed from his most outstanding trait - Henry Dicks was a very happy man to the core of his being.

After the shock of learning of his death, and when the edge of the sorrow and loss blunted, I began, both when I was recalling him and also thinking of Maud and their family, to get a pervasive feeling of this happiness. It was not just the recall of his sense of enjoyment and fun in so much of his living. There was much more. There was the feeling of one whose happiness came from a joyous commitment to life, to what he did whether at work or in leisure, and to those with whom he shared it. This happy involvement, combined with the effective and fruitful way in which he used his talents and his energies throughout his life, gave him a realistic serenity and perspective that was so much valued by so many.

I have heard colleagues, on first or limited acquaintance with Henry, comment on his unfailing charm and courtesy as though these were acquired mannerisms. With further experience, however, they realised that these qualities were deeply-rooted features of the man. Henry Dicks loved life and people to a quite unusual degree; they were of endless interest to him, and almost everything he did was with or for others. It was never truer of anyone that his style was the man.

Henry was born in Pernau, Estonia (then a part of the Russian Empire) being the youngest of six children. His father, Julius Dicks, had left London in the 1870s for this town in which he became a prosperous timber merchant, ship owner and, later, British Vice Consul. His mother, Magda von Plath, came from a cultured Baltic German family, her father having been a university lecturer in Russian philology. Henry’s boyhood was a happy one in this very stimulating family environment. With his mother speaking German at home and his father using English, he was bilingual from an early age. His mother was eager that he should have a wider experience than the small town could provide, so after a few years in a German school in Riga, Henry went to the foremost Russian private school in St Petersburg. Here, in addition to a classical education, he became a devotee of the opera and the ballet, and acquired a love for the Russian people and their culture. In these school years, too, he learned the violin, and his love for music, and for that instrument, was such that he seriously thought of becoming a musician.

When the Russian revolution broke out in 1917, Henry was there to share in the excitement and relief of the February uprising. He heard Lenin and Trotsky speak to the crowd, and later he witnessed the shelling of the Winter Palace which ended the Kerensky Government. Towards the end of the year he was evacuated with other British people to Finland, where they were trapped for some weeks by the civil war before going on to Sweden, then Norway. When he reached Britain at the age of 18 he was promptly enlisted into the army.

Attached at first to the Artists’ Rifles, he was transferred to intelligence because of his knowledge of Russian and German. Later he went off to North Russia as an interpreter with General Denikin’s unsuccessful campaign against the Bolsheviks, and after its withdrawal he was moved to South Russia in a similar capacity with the Allied Expeditionary Force. When this, too, failed, Henry was among those evacuated to Egypt, where he was lucky not to die from a severe attack of typhus at the El-Kantara camp. He was reunited in Egypt with one of his brothers who had been in central Russia, and together they returned to England to be demobbed. The rest of the family went back to Pernau to re-establish the family business, but at this point Henry, with his mother’s encouragement in particular, began to concentrate on a medical career in England.

Unfamiliar with the English educational system at first, he went to crammers and then to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he very quickly distinguished himself academically and as a tennis player (in which game he played for his college and later for Bart’s). He was never to return to live in Estonia, though he several times visited for the summer before the surviving members of his family had to leave the country in 1939.

At Bart’s, Henry maintained his academic brilliance and had as his first post that of house physician in the medical professorial unit under Sir Francis Fraser (as he later became).

With his widely cultured background and his interest in the personal and social behaviour of man he quickly responded to the emerging growth of psychological medicine under the influence of Crichton Miller at the relatively newly established Tavistock Clinic. Henry took the great risk at that time of becoming a clinical assistant at the Tavistock, even when a distinguished career as a physician seemed so certain, especially with his appointment as chief assistant to Lord Horder’s firm at Bart’s. His broad perspective was also the important factor in his decision to train at the Tavistock rather than with the psychoanalysts.

By 1931, his commitment to psychological medicine had become dominant and he was soon fully engaged in it, partly in private practice and partly in the Tavistock Clinic.

The professional uncertainties of those early years were made tolerable by the devoted support and encouragement of his wife. Henry had met Maud before going to Cambridge, when he had attended a party given by an Army friend from the Russian campaign, and they were married in London in 1927, on 19 November, a year after he qualified in medicine. The date is one, too, with a special poignancy; had he lived for a few more months we should all have shared in the joy of their golden wedding.

His talents for his new field of study were quickly manifested, and within a few years he was assistant medical director under JR Rees, with responsibility for the clinical training programme. From further experience he published his Clinical Studies in Psychopathology in 1939, which for ten years was a highly popular textbook. It is of interest today to note how articulately alive he was then to the constrictive materialistic philosophy in medicine, especially in neurology.

Within his more comprehensive philosophy of the nature of man, he offered as a sheet anchor to those confronting the complexities of psychological conflict the view that: ‘every patient with mental illness was more afraid then he could tolerate when he was a baby, and the faults in his psychic structure represent the gallant attempts to allay this intolerable feeling by the inadequate means at his disposal’. The prescience of this generalisation is an excellent indicator of the extent to which all of his work evolved from a wisdom that contrasts notably with the limitations of more doctrinaire attitudes.

When World War II broke out, Henry went with some of his colleagues to the EMS Neurosis Centre at Stanborough, whence in 1941 he joined the Army as a psychiatrist specialist, being command psychiatrist, London District, for a time. The landing of Rudolf Hess in this country, however, soon started him on a new line of work. With his unusual facility in German, he was placed in medical charge of this highly important prisoner, an experience he subsequently described in three of the chapters of The Case of Rudolf Hess. During the next four years, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, he was adviser to the Army on German morale, to SHAEF on psychological warfare, and the Control Commission on German personnel.

After the war Henry Dick’s professional activities followed three main streams. The central one was, of course, his clinical work. His status was such that in 1946 he was invited to be, and became, the first Nuffield Professor of Psychiatry at Leeds University. Two years later, however, his cultural interests and his involvements in a variety of research studies drew him to return to London and back to the Tavistock Clinic. Here for the next twenty years he played a major part in stimulating fresh viewpoints in clinical work, and in providing a broad vision for the consideration of the implications of clinical work for social measures. It was characteristic of his ever lively mind that he took up therapeutic work with marital problems long before this work achieved its current popularity, and from this experience he wrote in 1967 Marital Tensions, one of the most valued books on this subject.

For the many members of the staff who joined the Tavistock after the last war, it was a special pleasure to have Henry Dicks as a senior colleague. He shared to the full all the new ideas that were then emerging, and so was a splendid bridge between the old and the new. As a member of the council of the original Clinic for thirty years, a body which his foresight preserved, he was particularly gratified when through its continued existence it was able to claim a substantial legacy from a grateful patient. His long and intimate knowledge of the Tavistock made him the obvious choice when this Council invited him to write for its jubilee in 1970, Fifty Years at the Tavistock Clinic.

In parallel with his clinical work were the two other streams. One was the expression of his lifelong interest in the study of man as a social being. It led after the war to his collaboration with many distinguished anthropologists in Europe and the United States in projects on culture and personality carried out for UNESCO. This interest was also expressed in his work for the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, on whose council he served most of his last decade. In more recent years he was a senior research officer at the Columbus Centre in Sussex University for research in collective psychopathology, from which post he produced Licensed Mass Murder, a study of some of the SS killers.

The third stream of work reflected Henry’s active concern for the development of his profession. The urbane, humorous joie de vivre he radiated, along with his wisdom, tolerance and far-sighted vision, made him very much sought after as a contributor to the resolution of conflict situations, and he responded by giving a great deal of his time and energy to many professional and scientific bodies. He was chairman of the medical section of the British Psychological Society and a member of its council. He was also a member of the council of the National Association for Mental Health and the World Federation of Mental Health; and he was chairman of the training committee on marital dynamics of the Family Planning Association.

For twenty years he served in various capacities in the Royal Medico-Psychological Association before he was elected president, an office he held shortly before that body became the Royal College of Psychiatry. His many contacts with universities and learned bodies in the United States led to his election as a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

Another aspect of his professional and humanistic concern was his activity in the now widely publicized issue of Soviet maltreatment of dissidents, and abuse of psychiatric hospitals for this purpose, and this must surely have represented a full circle for Henry, bringing him back to close involvement in Russian affairs. It gave him scope for approaching Soviet officials in their own language, which few Western psychiatrists of his stature could have done, or were willing to do. He was one of the first, and most energetic, supporters of this cause in Britain, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that much had been achieved towards the aims of publicizing the abuses.

It will have become clear that Henry Dicks was a remarkably gifted, productive and rounded person. His outstanding natural abilities had been given a fortunate background for the development of all of them - intellectual, artistic, cultural and athletic. He found an almost inifite range of things in this world enormously enjoyable, and amongst his leisure activities playing his violin probably gave him most pleasure. He had innumerable musical friends and partners in duets, orchestras and - what he enjoyed most of all, like many musicians -a string quartet, in which he played less than a fortnight before his death.

It was characteristic of Henry Dicks that his gifts and personal qualitities were equally prominent in the devoted enjoyment of the life he had with his wife, his four children and his five grandchildren.

JD Sutherland

[Brit.med.J., 1977, 2, 322; Times, 18 July 1977]

(Volume VII, page 151)

<< Back to List