Lives of the fellows

Portia Grenfell Holman

b.20 November 1903 d.16 May 1983
MB BChir Cantab(1941) DPM(1941) MRCP(1944) FRCP(1961) FRCPsych(1971)

Portia Holman was born in Sydney, Australia. Her father, William Arthur Holman KC, was the first Labour premier of New South Wales, 1914-1918. Her maternal grandfather was a journalist. The late Lord Platt (PRCP 1957 — 1961) was her third cousin. She was educated at Shirley School, Sydney, and took a degree in English at a Sydney college. Her father’s work as an international lawyer often took him to Europe and Portia accompanied him. She came to Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1923, and took a good degree in economics in 1926. During the next two years she attended the Sorbonne, Paris, studying at the Institut de Psychologie Appliqué and later at the London School of Economics; followed by nearly three years as a lecturer in the moral sciences department of St Andrews University, Scotland. An increasing interest in psychology led to a decision to study medicine, and to help pay for this she lectured at adult education centres.

In 1933 she returned to Newnham to study medicine and did her clinical training at the Royal Free Hospital. After qualifying in 1939 she made up her mind to study psychiatry and after house appointments at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, at Great Ormond Street and the Mill Hill emergency hospitals, she took the DPM. She was appointed director of the first child guidance clinics at Twickenham and Ealing in 1944; psychiatrist to the West Middlesex Hospital in 1945, and consultant psychiatrist to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in 1946. She then relinquished her posts at Twickenham and the West Middlesex, but continued in Ealing where she worked for a further twenty-five years. She remained an adviser to Ealing Borough until 1977. After retiring from the Ealing child guidance clinic in 1970 she worked at St Bernard’s Hospital, Ealing, and was closely associated with the Cavendish School for maladjusted children and the special withdrawal unit at the Faraday School, Alton.

Portia wrote several papers on her specialty and her contribution to psychiatric literature included: ‘Family vicissitudes in relation to personality development’, Chap 2, Foundations of Child Psychiatry (1968); A hospital school experiment in therapeutic recreation (1971) with Anne Sycamore Sebastians; and Children who wet their beds (1957), a London Family Health publication. She gained her Cambridge MD with a thesis on ‘Some factors in the aetiology of maladjustment in children’ and this was subsequently published in the Journal of Mental Science (1933), and won her the Burlingame prize of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association. At a later date she chaired the section of child psychiatry of the Association, and she became a founder fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

In the late 1940s Portia helped to establish the Mulberry Residential School for maladjusted children, near Oxford. In 1953 she became a founder member of the Association of Workers for Maladjusted Children. Her professional distinction was recognized by election to the fellowship of the College, an honorary membership of her former medical school, and her election as president of the London Association of the Medical Women’s Federation. In 1965 she served on the Church of England board of social responsibility committee on abortion.

She was a loyal and vigorously involved member of the Labour party; no doubt this was fostered by her father in her early years. At Cambridge, she knew Maynard Keynes and later, during the happiest years of her life, when she lived in Bloomsbury, she was part of a circle of left-wing intellectuals. She was a trade union member (ASTMS) and canvassed for the Labour party in elections. She strongly supported the introduction of the National Health Service, and had many friends among members of Parliament and Labour peers.

When Portia was convinced of the justice of a cause she took action in a positive way, without aggression. She interrupted her medical studies and went to Spain as a medical auxiliary during the Spanish civil war to help the Republican side. Among many other causes, she championed the struggle to prevent the closure of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital and, at the age of 73, joined other demonstrators in a ‘sit down’ protest in Euston Road. She was an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and joined the demonstrations at the Greenham Common base a few weeks before her death. Throughout her life she had a keen nose for injustice and a deep sympathy for the underdog. Her innate sensitivity enabled her to distinguish between the good and the truly excellent both in people, the arts, and everyday affairs. Her vast range of interests, her gift for friendship and her understanding, brought out the best in her wide circle of friends from all walks of life. She remained unmarried and lived alone.

She wrote fluently and lucidly, with an attractive handwriting, and was much valued as an editor of papers, especially memoranda. She was proud of her fellowship of the College and when she lived in Prince Albert Road, Regent’s Park, she enjoyed being near enough to attend lectures and classes. Just previous to her death she was enjoying French classes run by the College.

Portia made herself readily available to help colleagues and patients night and day, but in spite of a busy professional life, and so many other activities, she had the time and energy to enjoy cultured recreations. She loved theatre and opera, enjoyed good food and wine, and was an accomplished hostess. She had a beautiful home, took pride in her garden, and collected modern pictures and fine glass. She had a distinctive stylish manner and certain eccentricities; the latter were endearing to her friends but deterred others from appreciating her worth. As a motorist she was notorious for her alarmingly dangerous driving.

In 1982 she left London to live in Oxford to be near special friends. She was preparing to go for her annual, and much valued holiday in France and to attend the College French course in Paris, when she died suddenly following a cerebral haemorrhage while visiting the Cavendish School in Ealing. It was comforting to many of her friends to know that she did not endure a long illness, and it was fitting that she — who had succoured so many so selflessly — was among close friends when she died.

Jean Lawrie

[Brit.med.J., 1983, 286, 2066; Lancet, 1983, 1, 1342]

(Volume VII, page 272)

<< Back to List