Lives of the fellows

John Rawlings Rees

b.25 June 1890 d.11 April 1969
CBE(1946) Chev De l’Ordre de la Couronne de Belg(1915) BA Cantab(1911) MRCS LRCP(1914) BChir(1915) MA MB(1917) MD(1920) DPH(1920) MRCP(1936) FRCP(1944)

Jack Rees was born at Leicester, one of the sons of the Rev. Robert Montgomery Rees, Methodist minister and his wife, Catharine Millar, daughter of Andrew Tait, master tailor, of Chester. His father’s calling meant several moves from manse to manse - and school to school for the son. Rees’s earlier schooling was at Leeds, but his main education was at Bradford Grammar School, whence he went to King’s College, Cambridge to read Medicine and Natural Sciences. He completed his clinical studies at the London Hospital, where he was in the middle of house appointments when the War broke out, but before that he had been a locum at the Victoria Park Chest Hospital, where Rees’s interest in public health was stimulated through the social aspects of tuberculosis, By 1914 he was already overseas, first with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, later in the RAMC as a regimental MO. Already then, Rees’s great capacity for total task commitment and devoted service earned him his Belgian decoration, for work among Belgian civilians. After being invalided home, Rees went to Mesopotamia in charge of a motor ambulance unit, until 1919. He then took the Cambridge DPH, and then an Assistant MOH post. At this stage his meeting with Hugh Crichton-Miller changed the course of Rees’s life.

Despite lack of psychiatric training, Crichton-Miller recruited Jack Rees as deputy director of Bowden House, his new kind of private nursing home for neurotics. Here Crichton-Miller passed on his rich experience and flair in the treatment of war neuroses by the "new psychology" to his apt junior, who also had much postgraduate training at the National Hospital Queen Square and Bethlem Royal Hospital, and underwent a training analysis. In 1920 the dedication to the relief of neurotic suffering of these two men gave birth to the Tavistock Clinic - a foundation that has never departed far from the model they created as a centre for diagnosis and treatment, postgraduate training and research into neurosis, ‘psychosomatic’ illness (then a new concept) and behaviour disorders in adults and children. Soon appointed Deputy Medical Director, J.R. (as everybody called him) assumed the headship of the Tavistock in 1933. This gave full scope for the exercise of his gift for institutional development, public relations and firing the enthusiasm of his collaborators.

Among J.R.’s achievements during this, his first career, must be listed the consolidation of this centre of applied, un-doctrinaire, school for psychotherapy, training large numbers of psychiatrists in its most essential skills; a ten-fold rise in treatment attendances, conducted in an atmosphere of confidentiality, time to listen and respectful attention to the individual, in marked contrast to then prevailing out-patient services to the poor. Of equal importance was Rees’s development of the multi-professional approach as the model for good psychiatric work; psychologists, social workers and general physicians were welded into a ‘holistic’ team and given training for it. J.R.’s genius for ‘roping in’ lay support resulted in a new building, grants for research fellowships, Royal patronage and important progress towards first a national, later an international change in public awareness and support for the causes of mental hygiene and early treatment. His plans for a more academic Institute of Medical Psychology, with beds, were frustrated by the Second War.

It was a fit tribute to him that the Army Council appointed J.R. in 1939 as consulting psychiatrist to the Army with the rank of Brigadier. With this step he entered his second career. It was once again a story of brilliant innovation on a vaster canvas, seeing great opportunities instead of mourning the abandoned Institute. With the help of some junior Tavistock colleagues and of psychiatrists and psychologists from many other places, Rees created a service which became a design for social or community psychiatry, overcoming doubt and resistances in high places. It was in the wartime British Army that psychoanalytically based group psychotherapy became a valid new method; and from it flowed the concepts of the ‘therapeutic community’ and the resettlement centre as ways of shaping psychiatric hospitals and ‘half-way’ hostels. Not unrelated was the invention and implementation of personnel selection for both officer candidates and for other ranks as a contribution to better health and less stress and neurotic failure. Rees’s purview also included studies on the relation between man -management, qualities of authority and training, and morale. From these studies of disaffection and demoralisation under stress, less of combat than of boredom and frustration, emerged the concepts of institutional (e.g. industrial) behaviour that were to be a central field of activity of the post-war ‘child’ of the Tavistock - its Institute of Human Relations, which Rees largely inspired.

From 1941-1945 J.R. had the responsibility of Rudolf Hess’s strange case - Hitler’s deputy who allegedly came to bully Britain into surrender but who proved to be mentally ill. Out of this episode grew a contact with Military Intelligence, enabling the Army psychiatric team to study and advise on the mentality and morale of the enemy through prisoner-of-war studies. For these achievements, which he also communicated to our American allies, Rees was created CBE and received many awards; the Fellowship of our College in 1944, with a seat on the Psychological Medicine committee; the Thomas Salmon Memorial lectureship of the New York Academy of Medicine (1944); the William Withering lectureship at Birmingham (1945); the Clarke Hall lectureship (1947); the first new Lasker Award (USA, in 1945) shared with his friend, Brock Chisholm, then Head of Canada’s Army Medical services and also a psychiatrist. The Army psychiatric service endowed a J.R. Rees prize, with money given by his erstwhile team-mates at a 75th. Birthday celebration.

With the Second War Rees had become a medical statesman. In 1947 younger men replaced him at the Tavistock and J.R. entered his third career, which began with the organisation of the great 1948 International Congress for Mental Health in London, over which he presided. Here was founded the World Federation for Mental Health, of which he was elected first President, and later appointed Director General. Once again he was in Public Health - now with teams composed of leaders in psychiatry, psychology, sociology and related disciplines from many lands. In this post he worked tirelessly and selflessly for better recognition and provisions for mental health through the United Nations agencies, with which he had consultative links, and through national departments of public health from Iceland to Argentina, a constant inspirer and catalyst. Further honours came to Rees at home and abroad in this phase: he was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, and its Maudsley Lecturer (1956). France and Peru decorated him; coundess national Associations for psychiatry and neurology made him honorary fellow, including the American Psychiatric Association, before which he gave the Adolf Meyer Lecture in 1961, and the Academic Lecture in 1958. Many other distinctions, too numerous to mention, were bestowed on him.

In 1962 Rees gave up the strenuous post with the World Federation, but his many friends insisted on his remaining available as a consultant. J.R. retired, with a modest income, to write and resume his long-interrupted private practice, to the flat in central London which had been his home for some 35 years, until age and gathering illhealth gradually dimmed his powers, but not his generous warmth. A vivid and persuasive lecturer with a minimum of notes, J.R. was also a fluent writer with an immense output of papers, presidential addresses etc. on his wide field of interest. Over the years he published the following books: Introduction to Psychological Medicine (with R.G. Gordon and Noel Harris); The Health of the Mind (several editions); The Shaping of Psychiatry by War; Reflections (1966); he also edited The Case of Rudolf Hess (1947) and Modern Practice in Psychological Medicine (1949).

Rees, as is apparent, was a missionary and pioneer rather than an academic; an inspirer and organiser rather than discoverer. He himself attributed his inexhaustible wish to help and to lessen suffering to his Christian faith. Intellectually humble, he was richly endowed by this good background with tolerance and genuine egalitarian values. He spoke without fear or favour to the most eminent or the most junior colleague. He respected persons, not privilege. Having little personal ambition he could delegate and give younger men their heads. Buoyant, rotund and outgoing, he radiated friendliness and encouragement. All his geese were swans - and some rose to it, infected by his sacred fire of service. His wrath was never for opposing him, but only for slackness or breaches of faith.

What of Rees’s other interests? He himself said he had none. Though he was a ‘Varsity level swimmer in his youth, it can be said that his work was his life - but that included his world-wide friendships at every level and his warm hospitality, in which he was greatly supported by his wife. Rees married in 1921 Mary Isobel Hemingway, MB, ChB Edin., daughter of Charles Robert Hemingway, a railway contractor. Molly Rees was a resident medical officer at Bowden House when they met, and was an original staff member of the Tavistock Clinic. They had one daughter, who is not in medicine. Molly Rees predeceased J.R. (1954). Their many friends have endowed a Memorial Lecture (on the theme of ‘Mental Health and Spiritual principles’) in her honour.

J.R. died at his home on 11th. April 1969, and was cremated. Memorial services were held at St. Marylebone Parish Church, London, on 22nd. May 1969, and in New York about the same time, both crowded with his friends and admirers.

HV Dicks

[, 1969, 2, 253; Lancet, 1969, 1, 844; Times, 14 & 19 Apr 1969; Methodist Recorder, 1 May 1969; Newsletter, Nat. Assoc. Mental Health, Summer 1969]

(Volume VI, page 387)

<< Back to List