Lives of the fellows

Christopher Ounsted

b.8 August 1921 d.7 October 1992
BM BCh Oxon(1945) MA(1950) DM(1951) DPM(1956) MRCP(1966) FRCPsych(1971) FRCP(1972)

Christopher (Kit) Ounsted was born in London, the second son of Laurence John Ounsted who, after retiring from the City, trained for the Clergy at the age of 73. Father and son were Freemen of the City of London and Liverymen of the Mercer’s Company. Kit was educated at Christ's Hospital School and University College Oxford, where he was a War Memorial scholar. His medical training was at the Radcliffe Infirmary where he won the Theodore Williams Prize in pathology. After house jobs in paediatrics in Sheffield and London, he spent two years in the RAF. Later he returned to paediatrics and the Radcliffe Infirmary as registrar to Victoria Smallpeice (q.v.). He became research assistant in paediatric neurology with support from the regional hospital board for seven years, from 1948-55, and subsequently trained in psychiatry with Ian Skottowe [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.467] at the Warneford Hospital, while also holding the Ernest Hart scholarship of the BMA for research in paediatric neurology. By 1957 he was appointed consultant physician and medical director of the Park Hospital, formerly a neurosis unit, which he launched as the Park Hospital for Children and which he was to make internationally renowned.

The hospital served as the base for child and adolescent psychiatry for much of the Oxford region and the sole inpatient facility. It attracted the more severe and arcane conditions in patients, who became the subjects of a wide variety of research endeavours across the range of developmental neuropsychiatry. ‘Developmental medicine’ was Kit’s favoured description of his work if he was obliged to expand beyond ‘physician’. This clever euphemism for areas of medicine subject to fashionable changes in nomenclature was also, for him, the best way of referring to the study of individual biographies as subjects for science.

Kit Ounsted’s professional colleagues, in all disciplines that worked at the Park Hospital, benefited from the enthusiasm and novel thinking of a consultant physician who recognized and valued their work and their worth. He helped realize the potential in teachers, paediatricians, occupational therapists and psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, nurses and technicians. Equally, he valued and facilitated his patients’ development which he would nurture over many years.

It was the unfolding of the biographies in his patients with temporal lobe epilepsy which was the key element in his two, jointly authored, monographs on that topic. His studies of epilepsy, founded in his years with Victoria Smallpeice, also informed his other collaborative work on sex differences in diseases and infantle autism. His collaborators benefited from Ounsted’s attachment to the descriptive work of Darwin and that of the ethologists Lorenz and Tindenberg. Naturalistic descriptions of children’s behaviour was, to his mind, a proper science. His paper on ‘The hyperkinetic syndrome in epileptic children’ was a brilliant vindication of this approach.

From the moment of establishing the Park Hospital for Children, collaborative work became his major concern and he placed his ideas in the hands and minds of his many colleagues. He thus came to realize the evident fact of the deliberate abuse of children and it was he who bore the burden of the management of these children and their families which enabled the important research of his colleagues. The burden of the hurts and duplicity, and the administrative work involved, were painful to him yet from these collaborative studies fundamental observations about ‘gaze aversion’ and ‘frozen watchfulness’ came into being.

Ounsted’s successful clinical work at the Park Hospital for Children led to the setting up of a separate adolescent unit and his work with epileptic children and their families was recognized when it became the National Centre for Children with Epilepsy. He was also able to help his wife Margaret become prominent in her own right in the field of foetal growth and early infant development.

To understand Kit Ounsted it is necessary to appreciate the prodigious scale of his intelligence, the speed of his reading and his extraordinary capacity for problem analysis. His interests outside medicine lay in nature and in words. He favoured zoos such as that in Jersey, and books such as Jeremy Taylor’s Holy living (extracts) London, Marcus Ward & Co, 1884. He read poetry extensively, and the works of Jane Austin throughout each year. His family relations led back to Nelson yet his reading of history confirmed him as a devotee of Wellington. He taught that some doctors at least must be available to pause and work reflectively with people who had problems and what he gave unstintingly to patients and colleagues alike was his time.

Margaret, also a physician, died in 1988 and Kit lost not only his devoted companion and mother of his four children but also an attentive and supportive professional colleague. Two of their children are physicians.

J M M Lindsay

[Brit.med.J., 1993,306,512; The Times, 27 Oct 1992;The Independent, 13 Oct 1992,Brit.med.J., 1989,296,45]

(Volume IX, page 402)

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