Lives of the fellows

Hilda Lewis

b.19 May 1900 d.24 October 1966
MB BS Lond(1924) MD(1927) MRCP(1927) FRCP(1966)

Lady Lewis (née Stoessiger) was the wife of Sir Aubrey Lewis (q.v.). Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at London University. She was bom in London and received her medical training at the London School of Medicine for Women. Her abilities were soon recognized, with the result that she was appointed at the early age of 29 as honorary physician at the Princess Louise Kensington Children’s Hospital. There she remained for the nine years 1929-37.

By this time her interests were turning from paediatrics towards child psychiatry; and it proved to be a happy augury that, during three of these nine years (1932-34) she was able to work concurrently at the Maudsley Hospital. Here it was that she met her husband, whom she married in 1934. By 1940 there were two children for whom Canada was thought a better place than London. She accompanied them to Ontario where, up till 1944, she supported them by a post on the staff of the Ontario Hospital.

After her return to England, the demands made on her by her own children, of whom two more were added, did not prevent her from undertaking new and important work. This mainly focussed on the predicaments of deprived children and on the miscellaneous, important and delicate problems of adoption. About this time, it seems, paediatricians and others concerned with child welfare rather suddenly came to recognize what special gifts she had for dealing with children’s problems. She could see children as individuals. She could also see them in groups. Not only could she discern with characteristic acumen the special needs of individual children who were disturbed and unhappy, she also saw more clearly than most workers in these fields how, during the war years, the stresses imposed by separation on entire families - parents and children alike - could be eased and even circumvented by social initiatives which were within the province of the community. Increasingly her time became partitioned between clinical activities in wards or outpatient departments and work on committees and at conferences.

As the post-war years slipped by, growing demands were made on her as an authority and guide on adoption. From 1950 to her death she was a member of the committee of the important Standing Conference of Societies Registered for Adoption; in 1963 she founded and later became the first chairman of the Medical Group of that Standing Conference; and from 1964 onwards she was a Council Member of the National Bureau for Cooperation in Child Care.

Among publications which have attracted attention have been her Medical Responsibility for Adoption (BMJ, 1960, 1, 1197); her chapter entitled ‘Psychiatric Aspects of Adoption’ in Howell’s Modern Perspectives in Child Psychiatry (Oliver & Boyd, 1965); and her carefully prepared report, published as a book by the Nuffield Foundation and the Oxford University Press, entitled Deprived Children: A Social and Clinical Study (1954). This widely recognised publication is based on an intensive study of 500 children admitted between October 1947 and July 1950 to the Caldecott Community at Mersham in Kent. This ‘Mersham Report’, as it came to be called, reflects both the above-mentioned aspects of her approach to child psychiatry: on the one side her perception of the particular features of each child’s mind - its needs, fears and private miseries and, on the other, her insight as to how the community could corporately take notice of, and help, deprived children as a group.

She had qualities of gentleness and diffidence combined with shrewdness which did not immediately attract attention, but as the aftermaths of the war cleared, these qualities came to be recognized and valued by co-workers. She unconsciously allayed frictions and oiled the wheels in wards and case-conferences. Thus Mr. A. Rampton of the Association of British Adoption Agencies writes that "all who knew her were impressed by the depth of knowledge concealed beneath a most diffident exterior — knowledge that extended widely into the social aspects of that part of medicine with which she was most involved." Dr. Olive Rendel writes: "Hilda was single-minded and devoted to her aim of improving the lot of deprived and unhappy children; she had an enormous capacity for work and never spared herself; and yet, in spite of this, she found time for her home and her family commitments and for her friends. I feel greatly privileged to have had the friendship of this rare and lovable person, whose qualities I appreciated more and more as our association continued. I can only regret that I came to know her so late in both our lives." And Dr. Christine Cooper writes: "She was especially aware of the benefits to the child from a satisfactory adoptive home and she devoted much of her time to ensuring that adoptive homes were as good as they could possibly be. Her thinking on these matters was 30 years ahead of her day." The warm responses which she evoked transcended the frontiers of language and nationality.

For nearly a decade she represented the Eugenics Society on the General Committee of the International Union of Family Organisations. This Union was centered in Paris and held meetings in different capitals. When these meetings were resumed after 1945, there was gradually disclosed a difference of emphasis between the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin countries over birth control: was it necessary? And, if yes, which methods were permissible? And how far were they practicable and effective? Twenty-five years ago the answers were less clear than they are today; and it behoved the Anglo-Saxon representatives, who were in a minority, to express themselves with restraint. At these gatherings, Hilda Lewis, herself a mother of four children, could not have set a better example. A correspondent mentions a plenary meeting of the Union in Paris. It was attended by a large contingent of priests who formed a substantial and valuable part of the Governing Body of the Union. It was an oppressively hot afternoon in summer and the pressure of speakers was becoming an embarrassment to a scrupulously neutral chairman. No moment could have been more fitting for a blond Anglo-Saxon doctor, a mother of four, to address the meeting. A mood of tolerant sympathy began visibly to permeate the conference and to replace a germinating spirit of acrimony, as soon as she began to speak. The change was due to the audience’s reaction to her appearance and gentle manner. She was the sort of person (said an official of the Union after the meeting) whom everyone, whatever their nationality, would listen to. She had spoken, said this man, with restraint, yet from the heart; no person of genuine feeling could fail to respond to the spirit of sincerity and charity which she had emanated; none could doubt her perfect good faith.

Something of what this largely foreign audience had sensed was likewise responsible for two decisions taken in this country. The Medical Group of the Standing Conference of Societies Registered for Adoption (which has now become the Association of British Adoption Agencies) established a Hilda Lewis Memorial Lectureship in her name; and the Governors of the Bethlem-Maudsley Hospital have called their new Unit for the study and treatment of handicapped children the Hilda Lewis Unit.

I have picked out from letters and other sources some of the terms used of her. Each word means something different; yet each contributes to an impression of a consistent and recognizable personality: "clear-sighted, conscientious to a fault, yet practical"; "perceptive, gentle and without sentimentality, yet generous, tolerant and compassionate"; "modest, unselfish and understanding"; "as a worker wholly unsparing of herself".

The lectureships which have been instituted in Hilda Lewis’s honour are fitting memorials which should keep alive the memory of someone who was loved no less for her qualities of heart than she was esteemed for her intellect and achievements, and honoured for her perfect probity.

CP Blacker

[, 1966, 2, 1144 & 1967, 1, 701; Lancet, 1966, 2, 1033; Times, 26 Oct 1966; Daily Telegraph, 4 Oct 1966]

(Volume VI, page 286)

<< Back to List