Lives of the fellows

Alfred Alexander Webster Petrie

b.9 October 1884 d.5 October 1962
CBE(1945) MB ChB Edin(1908) BS Lond(1911) MD Lond(1913) MD Edin(1913) DPM(1921) FRCSE(1910) MRCP(1920) FRCP(1931)

Alexander Petrie was born at Bromley, Kent, the son of Lt-Col. Alfred Ernest Petrie, who had served in the Crimea and became assistant commissary general, and of Edith Eliza Neill. After his father's death when he was eleven, Sir Flinders Petrie, the noted archaeologist, acted as his guardian. Notable among his medical forbears were James Webster, psychiatrist, a Fellow of the College in 1843, and his great-grandfather, George Webster, who was prominent in the founding of the British Medical Association.

Petrie was educated at St. Helen’s Preparatory School, Southsea, and Portsmouth Grammar School, before going to Edinburgh University. After holding posts as house physician and house surgeon at Swansea Hospital, he returned to Edinburgh as demonstrator in surgical anatomy, and took his F.R.C.S.E. He was attracted to pathology, and his M.D. thesis was on a bacteriological subject on which he was ‘commended’. As a result of taking a locum appointment at Bexley Mental Hospital he became interested in psychiatry, and entered the London County Council Mental Health Service and went on the staff of Claybury Mental Hospital. There he came under the influence of Sir Frederick Mott who was in charge of the Central London Laboratory (then at Claybury and transferred to the Maudsley Hospital when this opened) and did much research in that department.

From 1915 to 1919 he served in France as temporary captain in the R.A.M.C, and contributed chapters on the pathology and bacteriology of war wounds to Hull’s Surgery in war (1916). He returned to the London County Council Mental Health Service at Claybury, Essex, and in 1922 became deputy medical superintendent and a lecturer at the Maudsley Hospital at its opening. From 1926 to 1949 he was physician superintendent at Banstead Hospital, Surrey. During the Second World War he was officer commanding Banstead Military Hospital (a large section of the Hospital having been taken over by psychiatric casualties) with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, for which service he was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 1945.

In 1929 he had been appointed physician for psychological medicine to Charing Cross Hospital and lecturer to the Medical School, and for a time he lectured on law and administrative psychiatry to the post-graduate courses of the Maudsley Hospital. He was a prominent member of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, in which he held many offices, notably as chairman of the Education Committee, and finally as president from 1944 to 1946. He was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and president of the psychiatric section.

When the London County Council reorganised its hospital service and put the mental hospitals under the same administration as their general and other special hospitals, Petrie was appointed to act in a part-time capacity as medical adviser in mental hospital affairs. Despite his many duties he nevertheless found time to contribute a chapter on alteration in character and conduct to The Lancet extra number, Early mental disease [1926] and to Recent progress in psychiatry, a special number (No. 378) of the Journal of Mental Science (1944). His distinction in his field was such that he was one of those asked to give evidence as an individual witness to the Royal Commission on Mental Disorders.

An indefatigable worker even after his retirement at the age of sixty-five, he took several temporary appointments, including the herculean taks of reorganising St. Crispin’s Hospital, Northampton, where he spent two and a half years. Petrie was an orthodox psychiatrist with academic leanings and a good diagnostician with commonsense in his approach to treatment. While he did not subscribe to any of the schools of psychodynamics which were proliferating in profusion in his early days, he was not, like so many of his contemporaries, bigoted in opposition. As something of a pioneer in psychiatric education, with erudition in other fields, he did a great deal to dissuade medical and surgical colleagues from regarding all psychiatrists as backwoodsmen.

As a careful and lucid teacher he tried to put all points of view before his students, so that his lectures and demonstrations were always of high quality, while as an administrator he was meticulous, though at times apparently over-careful to prevent a recurrence of unfortunate episodes.

He was a large man, with one shoulder markedly higher than the other in his stance at the rostrum, and with a habit of raising his eyes to the ceiling as if seeking inspiration from on high, but he had a good sense of humour, and delighted in telling stories against himself in after-dinner speeches, as well as in private. He was always very interested in sport; he had been a good boxer in his youth, and very proficient at billiards. In later life he was a prominent Mason.

In 1926 he married Joyce Sarah Williams, daughter of Albert Ernest Williams, an engineer in the Ceylon Civil Service. They had two sons and one daughter. He died at his home in Ewell, Surrey, after an illness of about two years’ duration.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1962, 2, 1066; Lancet, 1962, 2, 789; Times, 9 Oct. 1962.]

(Volume V, page 329)

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