Lives of the fellows

John Denis Nelson (Sir) Hill

b.5 October 1913 d.5 May 1982
Kt(1966) MRCS LRCP(1936) MB BS Lond(1936) MRCP(1940) DPM(1940) FRCP(1949) FRCPsych(1971)

Denis Hill, emeritus professor of psychiatry, University of London, and one of our country’s most distinguished psychiatrists, died suddenly in his sixty-eighth year. Born and brought up in the Manor House at Orleton, Herefordshire, his father was Lieutenant-Colonel J A Hill. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and thereafter at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. A childhood interest in the new ‘wireless’ developed into a lifelong interest in the clinical applications of electronic amplification, which was then to provide such great impetus to the development of psychiatry.

In 1936, whilst house physician to Russell Brain at Maida Vale Hospital, he saw Grey Walter’s homemade EEG, the first in this country, and soon realized its potential for psychiatry and for the field of epilepsy. During the war, by which time he was working in psychiatry, he set up one of the first EEG laboratories, developed a close relationship with the medical services to the armed forces, and was largely responsible for electroencephalography becoming recognized as an important technique of neuropsychiatric investigation.

At this stage he wrote and published extensively in the medical literature, making fundamental contributions to our understanding of temporal lobe epilepsy and psychopathy in particular. He was inevitably drawn into the forensic field and throughout the 1960s and 1970s was widely consulted by the profession and by Government on such matters. In particular, he was an influential member of the Aarvold Committee in 1972, and of the Butler Committee on Mentally Abnormal Offenders, 1972—1975. The current therapeutic approach to such offenders owes a great deal to him, and also reflects his parallel interest in the social mainsprings of disordered behaviour. At a time when it was unfashionable to support psychotherapy, he championed it.

He also played a fundamental role in medical education in this country. Appointed to one of the first chairs in psychiatry located at an undergraduate school (the Middlesex) in London University, he led the fight to get the subject of psychiatry properly established in the undergraduate curriculum of that university.

In 1966 he moved to the postgraduate chair at the Institute of Psychiatry, where he stayed until his retirement in 1979. In the early stages of this last appointment there was considerable conflict because of his determination and success in establishing psychotherapy as an academic and clinical discipline, alongside the many other developments at the Institute of Psychiatry which now stand as such great tributes to his foresight.

He had a marvellous capacity for synthesis, and always strove to keep his subject firmly within medicine. He was a very active College man, a council member, and chairman of the committee on psychological medicine prior to the formation of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. A member of the General Medical Council from 1961 until his death, he rapidly became one of its elder statesmen, and was largely responsible for the development of the present health procedures in relation to fitness to practice.

Denis Hill shunned the highest offices which others tried to persuade him to pursue. He preferred instead to work tirelessly and constructively behind the scenes. He was shy, and intolerant only of humbug and mediocrity. He was at one and the same time a great all-rounder and a scholar in academic medicine. Never gratuitously forthcoming, he would nevertheless generously share his ideas with anyone showing serious interest.

He first married Phoebe Elizabeth Wade, with whom he had a son and a daughter. His second marriage was to Lorna Whellan, consultant child psychiatrist at King’s College Hospital, and they also had a son and a daughter.

ACC Hughes

[Brit.med.J., 1982, 284, 1481; Lancet, 182, 1, 1136; Times, 14 & 18 May 1982; Middx. Hosp. J., Oct 1966, 66 (5), 174-5; Bethlem Maudsley Hospital Gazette, Dec 1966, 8 (4), 16-19; World Medicine, July 1966; Brit.med.J., 1960, 2, 1681; Lancet, 1960, 2, 1259; Univ. Lond. Gazette, Dec 1960, 289; GMC Annual Report for 1982, Sept 1983, 7]

(Volume VII, page 264)

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