Lives of the fellows

Desmond Arthur Pond

b.2 September 1919 d.29 June 1986
Kt(1981) MA MB Chir Cantab(1945) MRCP(1945) DPM(1947) MD(1951) FRCP(1960) FRCPsych(1972) Hon FRCGP(1982)

It was to psychiatry, and to the alleviation of the form of mental suffering with which it deals, that Desmond Pond devoted the greater part of his many sided gifts and his energies. He had made a lasting imprint upon the subject by the time his life ended. The breadth of his approach, and the imagination and generosity of spirit with which he put it into effect in clinical practice and research was only one expression of the man he was, and of the manner in which he lived.

The view that emerges from his writings encompasses the contributions made by social disadvantage, familial deprivation and the vicissitudes of the formative years of human developments, along with the biological and cerebral factors, as the underlying determinants of mental disorder and the stunting of personality. In some of his writings, and in his efforts to build bridges between psychiatry and religion, most notably in his Riddell lectures, one discerns an attempt to form some conception of, or gain a measure of insight into, the totality of things.

Desmond was born in London in 1919 and educated at St Olave’s School. His parents were Thomas and Ada Della Pond, née Clutten. A strong streak of individuality was manifest from an early age. Of his school years he has written: ‘My chief distinction was to have survived the English educational system without ever playing a proper team game, though physically fit.’ Survival was perhaps an understatement, for he gained a foundation exhibition to Clare College, Cambridge, where he had a distinguished career. There he met John ‘Honest to God’ Robinson who became a lifelong friend and spiritual influence. Another contemporary at Clare has quite recently described a sense of liberation after initiation into life at the University which was probably similar to that experienced by Desmond: ‘To arrive in Cambridge was to discover that the ideal of what had been an intellectual minority was here so widely shared as to carry no stigma of eccentricity.’ Desmond obtained a double first in natural and moral sciences, having taken psychology in Part II, an early sign of his burgeoning interest in mental life.

A Rockefeller studentship took him to Duke University medical school in the USA, where he spent two years, 1942-44. After some house jobs, and a preliminary canter in a psychiatric hospital in Bristol, he arrived at the Maudsley in 1947. His interest in electroencephalography had already been aroused, and with the encouragment of Denis Hill [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.264], later Sir Denis, another lifelong friend, he embarked upon his enquiries into epilepsy and brain damage in early life, an area in which some of his most important contributions to science were made. His subsequent research evolved along lines that clearly expressed the wide sweep of his intellectual and scientific interests. His contributions included the EEG of children with brain damage, temporal lobe epilepsy, an enquiry into narcolepsy (for which he obtained an MD from the University of Cambridge), a study of subjects with criminal psychopathy, and his important pioneering survey of childhood epilepsy in general practice. These studies culminated in his influential Goulstonian lectures in which he collated the evidence that parental attitudes, family disruption and other social factors, could contribute to undermine emotional stability, impair curiosity and disrupt schooling, and so deny brain damaged and epileptic children the chance of achieving their full intellectual potential.

His experiences in the course of these surveys paved the way for studies of the role of psychiatry in general practice, and the place that should be accorded to it in the education of family doctors. He had also become interested in the dynamics of the general practitioner’s interaction with patients, as delineated in the contributions of Balint. His activities at this interface equipped him some years later for the leading role he was to assume on the joint committee of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and General Practitioners, which made some widely influential recommendations regarding the education of family doctors. Desmond’s contributions were recognized by the award of honorary fellowship of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

His interest in the social psychodynamic and biological aspects of personality development, which he considered to be inextricably entwined, found further expression in the mother and child unit he created in the London Hospital. This was more than a multidisciplinary ivory tower. It developed research for investigating the formative years under conditions as natural as could be contrived within a hospital. And it became a community service station for the treatment, social support and guidance of problem children and their mothers in Tower Hamlets in the East End or London.

In 1971 he was invited to deliver the Riddell lectures at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His theme was ‘Counselling in religion and psychiatry’. His treatment of the subject matter evolved into an original exploration of the common ground and the divergences between psychiatry, religion, sociology and the Law, in their attitudes to and management of individuals whose, conduct brought them into conflict with society and its mores. Desmond saw religion both as an expression and a fulfilment of psychological needs deeply engrained in human personality. These were needs that he believed secular societies to be increasingly unable to satisfy through the weakening of social bonds and the blurring of common ideals, activities and purposes they were liable to engender. Some of these ideas had been previously expressed. But others were fresh, and all were explored here along original lines and with an erudition which drew upon social anthropology, theology, linguistics, psychodynamics and psychiatry. In 1964 he became a founder member of the Institute of Religion and Medicine, and he served as a member of committees and ecclesiastical commissions which explored problems that arose within marriage and from escalating rates of divorce.

His considerable achievements as a scientific member of the Medical Research Council, 1968-72, stemmed from the wide range of his scientific interests, his openness to new ideas and dispassionate guidance. He was to serve again in virtue of his appointment as chief scientist at the DHSS. He found himself somewhat unexpectedly stimulated by policy making and the cut and thrust of medical politics, and he played his part with unobtrusive skill. He succeeded in strengthening some bonds between the DHSS, the Medical Research Council and the Royal Colleges, and in creating some new ones.

His presidency of the Royal College of Psychiatrists between 1978-81 was a memorable success. Desmond’s sensibility and tolerance enabled him to encompass the character of the members of various committees, and he was good at anticipating their patterns of interaction. The Council of the College is a larger, more talkative, argumentative, and turbulent body of men than the corresponding committees of comparable organizations. Desmond was a quiet chairman, and he had rare gifts of tact and discretion. He advanced with the aid of a distinctive form of positive non-intervention through a mountainous agenda and towards the resolution of knotty problems. His qualities of leadership were acknowledged when he was elected to chair the Committee of Presidents of Royal Colleges.

Montesquieu has said that knowledge makes men gentle, and Desmond was a gentle man. In retirement he settled in his home and the garden in Devon which he had created over a number of years in close partnership with Helen, his wife, a consultant physician. He loved the countryside around which for him had a luminous quality. It was a place of green and gold enchantment that emerged from their joint labours. There were some months of tranquil happiness, surrounded by his family, in the period immediately after his retirement. His marriage with Helen had been close, and a mutual source of growing emotional fulfilment over 40 years in which they had shared successes and some sorrows. During the year before the end, when an illness of obscure origin was manifest, Helen’s exemplary fortitude and forbearance sustained his hope and spirit.

Desmond was a fine musician, deriving deep satisfaction from his piano and from singing in choirs, an activity which he and Helen engaged in together. He was able to see more of his three daughters, who visited as often as they could. Two have proved to have outstanding musical talent, and a third is a gifted zoologist. Plainly the genes of both parents were at work. But Desmond, sceptical of rigid biological determinism, would have been reluctant to invoke heredity as an explanation, and modesty would have inclined him to minimise the contribution made by the rich, intellectual and musical environment he and Helen had created.

There was a brief surge of improvement in the Spring, when his natural vitality, humour, and infectious laughter returned for a while, but relapse soon followed. He endured the painful weeks at the end with legendary courage, and unfailing and unremitting concern for Helen and the family.

He was, perhaps, sustained by an integrity and a faith eloquently expressed by another kind of man from Cambridge. Looking back on his long life, Bertram Russell has written: ‘I have lived in pursuit of a mission both personal and social. Personal: to care for that which is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle, to allow moments of insight, to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created where individuals grow freely, and where hate, greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe, and the world for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.’

Sir Martin Roth

[, 1986,293,272; Lancet, 1986,2,171; Bethlem Maudsley Hosp.Gaz.,Sept 1966,8 (3);,Apr 1966; Lancet, 2 Apr 1966; Univ. Coll.Hosp.Magazine, 1952/3,37 (4), 153]

(Volume VIII, page 385)

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