Lives of the fellows

Alexander Kennedy

b.16 January 1909 d.11 June 1960
MB BS Lond(1932) MD Lond(1934) MRCS LRCP(1931) MRCP(1934) FRCP(1949) FRCPE(1957)

Alexander Kennedy was born in London to John Kennedy, an engineer, and his wife, Nora Robinson (née Sykes), and brought up in modest surroundings. He was educated at the City of London School and had won the science and classical scholarships before going to St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in 1926. There he won the Mead and Bristowe medals and the Wainwright and Hadden prizes, and was first, casualty officer, and then house physician to J. L. Birley. At the Maudsley Hospital he was one of Mapother’s ‘bright boys’.

In 1936 he spent a year at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, as a Rockefeller travelling fellow in neuropsychiatry, and in 1938 was awarded the Planck prize of the Medico-Psychological Association. Later he was awarded its bronze medal, Gaskell prize, and gold medal. At that time he was an ardent admirer of Freud and Adler, but later tended away from the analytical schools.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 he was evacuated from the Maudsley Hospital to Sutton Emergency Hospital where he administered the medical wards, but soon joined the R.A.M.C. After a time as the first psychiatrist attached to the paratroopers engaged in the long range operations in Crete, Greece and Yugoslavia, he was appointed adviser to the Middle East Command on the psychological aspect of military intelligence and counter-espionage. The experience he gained there was to bring him, in the last year of his life, into public controversy with the Minister of War, who denied his account of the Allies’ technique of questioning special prisoners.

On his return home he was a senior physician at Maudsley Hospital and joined the staff of the Maida Vale Hospital for Nervous Diseases. In 1949 he was appointed to the newly created chair of psychological medicine at Durham University, and at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, soon gathered an able staff. In 1955 he succeeded Sir David Henderson in the chair of psychiatry at Edinburgh, which he insisted must be renamed the chair of psychological medicine. His reorganisation had a marked effect on Jordanburn Hospital, for he brought the departments of psychological medicine and neurology into a close relationship.

Kennedy was one of the best intellects in psychiatry, but more a man of affairs than a research worker. His main contributions were of a practical nature: the convulsion treatment of depression, the better handling of alcoholics and drug addicts, and a sympathetic attitude to manic-depressives. His concept of malignant hysteria was an impetus towards its understanding. What he will be most remembered for is his insistence that psychiatry must be brought to the attention of the medical student. He taught simply that the patient’s fears and hopes, like his disease, were part of his personality, to be treated with understanding and gentleness. He never allowed his increasing suffering from chronic nephritis and attacks of status asthmaticus to interfere with his work or with the happiness of his family.

His character was difficult to analyse. He was a big man, with a zest for living, and flamboyant in talk that sometimes made the listener hard put to distinguish truth from fiction. Yet he was essentially humble and truthful, and always anxious to help a colleague. He was the co-author (under the pseudonym of Kenneth Alexander) of plays with a psychological basis on the radio, and a popular member of the Brains Trust on television.

He was twice married, first to Helen Emily Mary Walter in 1934, and second to Joanna, daughter of Hugh d’Paynesley Birkett, in 1944. He had four sons, three by his first wife; two graduated in medicine.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1960, 1, 1960-61 (p); Lancet, 1960, 1, 1419-20 (p); 2, 53; Scotsman, 18 June 1960 (p); Times, 13 June 1960.]

(Volume V, page 226)

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