b.24 April 1884 d.20 April 1965
Kt(1947) MB ChB Edin(1907) MD Edin(1913) Hon MD NUI(1958) Hon DSc McGill(1959)
David Henderson, the most eminent psychiatrist in this country, and probably in Europe, between the two World Wars, was born in Dumfries, Scotland, where his father, John Henderson, was a lawyer. His mother was Agnes, daughter of James Davidson, a merchant. He was educated at Dumfries Academy, the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and Edinburgh University. In preparation for his chosen work he spent eight years in post-graduate study, in succession under Sir Thomas Clouston at Morningside, Alexander Bruce in Edinburgh, Adolf Meyer in New York, Kraepelin and Alzheimer in Munich, Mott in the London County Council Pathological Laboratory, and again with Adolf Meyer, this time at the Phipps Psychological Clinic of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore.
After service in France as a psychiatric specialist with the R.A.M.C, he was appointed in 1918 senior assistant to the Glasgow Royal Asylum, Gartnavel. In 1921 he became physician superintendent to the Glasgow Royal Asylum, Gartnavel, and lecturer in mental diseases at the University; there he remained until 1932 when he was appointed physician superintendent of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Nervous and Mental Disorders and professor of psychiatry at the University. He held both appointments until his retirement in 1954.
By then Henderson had an international reputation. His was the chief contemporary impetus to the study of the pre-senile dementias and psychopathic personalities, and to the acceptance of the importance of psychiatric evidence that would replace hostility and punishment by compassion and help to men and women who were in conflict with the law by reason of their unstable personalities.
He maintained that to this end there must be an established place for the teaching of psychiatry in the medical curriculum; to him psychiatry was not so much a specialty but the other half of medicine, the way to the understanding of the psychiatric aspects of every illness. Only then could medical men fulfil their main function, which was to help people to improve the quality of their lives by feeling, thinking and acting better than previously. In this work they would need the support of psychiatric social workers and occupational therapists.
He was a superb clinician with an uncanny power of arriving with delicacy and tact at the core of an individual problem. In demonstration he formulated his findings in their importance on the development of symptoms, and in teaching, which was never dogmatic, stressed in lucid, non-technical language his belief in the healing power of nature, the need for understanding of the total personality of the patient and the value of inspiring hope. He was impatient of too much theory, and, while he respected scientific experiment, life was the laboratory that most passionately interested him.
Intensely serious, but with a twinkle in his eye and a splendid sense of humour, he was generous in praise of every junior who acted according to his own careful judgment. In administration he was the paternalist; his hospital patients were his extended family. He contributed numerous papers to various medical journals and was the main author of a Textbook of psychiatry for students and practitioners (1927), which went into nine editions in his lifetime. Perhaps the most important of his other writings were a chapter on the affective reaction-types in Psychiatry for practitioners, edited by H. A. Christian (1936), the monograph Psychopathic states (1939) and the Morison lectures on society and criminal conduct (1955).
His many honours never affected his modesty; each seemed to surprise him. He was knighted in 1947 and given honorary degrees by the National Universities of Ireland and the Universities of McGill and Edinburgh. He was president of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, 1946-7, of the section of psychiatry of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1947, and of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 1950-51, and was elected to honorary fellowships of learned societies at home, in Europe and in America.
At Edinburgh he was Morison lecturer in 1931 and 1954, and Norman Kerr memorial lecturer in 1936. In 1938 he gave the Salmon memorial lecture in New York and in 1939 the Maudsley lecture of the Medico-Psychological Association. He was chairman of the College Committee on Psychological Medicine, a member of the Expert Committee on the Work of Psychologists and Psychiatrists in the Services, and was external examiner on psychiatry to the University of Durham and the National University of Ireland.
For many years he played good tennis; he had been awarded a blue by Edinburgh University. Later he enjoyed trout fishing until rheumatoid arthritis crippled his fingers. In 1917 he married Margaret Van Vranken, daughter of William Mabon, a physician. They had three daughters.
Richard R Trail
[Amer. J. Psychiat., 1965, 122, 467-9; Brit.med.J., 1965, 1, 1194 (p), 1384; J, nerv. ment. Dis., 1965,141,263-4; Lancet, 1965, 1, 964-5 (p); Scotsman, 21 Apr. 1965 (p); Times, 23 Apr. 1965 (p).]
(Volume V, page 188)
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