Lives of the fellows

Derek Richter

b.14 January 1907 d.16 December 1995
MA Oxon(1929) PhD Munich(1932) MRCS LRCP(1945) MRCP(1965) FRCPsych(1971) Hon FRCPsych(1980) FRCP(1991)

The practice of main-stream psychiatry without the aid of psychopharmacological drugs is today unthinkable, yet they appeared on the psychiatric scene only a matter of fifty years or so ago. Central to this therapeutic revolution was the development of neurochemistry as a discipline in its own right. A leading actor on this particular stage was Derek Richter. He was the son of Charles Augustus Richter, a successful designer and manufacturer of fine furniture in Bath, and Frances (née Mann), a pianist and singer.

Richter’s academic achievements read like the battle honours of the Brigade of Guards. In 1926 he won an open scholarship from Oundle to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a first in chemistry. He went on to complete a PhD at Munich University, which in pre-Hitler days enjoyed a reputation second to none for research in organic chemistry. It was there, as the result of his trail-blazing work in the field of chain reaction as an explanation of chemical processes, that his reputation as an organic chemist of the first rank was established. This fact was recognized by Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins [Munk’s Roll, Vol. IV, p.535], who invited Richter to work in his laboratory at Cambridge. It was here that he laid the foundations for what was to be his major contribution to psychopharmacology - the identification of the enzyme monoamine oxidase which was to prove vital in the development of a family of antidepressant drugs, the monoamine oxidase inhibitors.

The direction of his life’s work now seemed fixed. He concentrated more and more on brain-chemistry and, as an extension, he became absorbed in the aetiological problems of mental illness, an interest he exploited in his work as a research fellow at the Maudsley Hospital, London, under the direction of F L Golla [Munk's Roll Vol.VI, p.202], one of a galaxy of academic stars on the staff of the hospital at that time.

Richter had for some time nursed, as he himself put it, "secret leanings towards getting medically qualified". To this end, at the age of 35, a married man with children, with very limited means and in the teeth of the worst of the onslaught of the Luftwaffe on London, he entered Bart’s as a medical student. At the same time he continued his research at Mill Hill School where the Maudsley laboratories had been evacuated. He qualified in 1945.

In 1947 he was appointed director of research at Whitchurch Hospital, Cardiff. His long association with the Medical Research Council began when, in 1957, it took over his Cardiff unit and, in 1960, moved it to more commodious premises in Carshalton, Surrey. At its peak his unit boasted a complement of thirty three drawn from every corner of the earth - a veritable United Nations of dedicated researchers.

As a result of his pre-eminence, Richter filled a variety of prestigious national and international posts in the fast-developing field of neurochemistry, including that of adviser to the World Health Organization. He was a prolific writer with over fifty publications in English and German to his credit, in addition to which he was one of the prime movers in the establishment of The Journal of Neurochemistry, first published in May 1956. He played a seminal role in the formation of other bodies, including the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO), the group for biological psychiatry of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Association for Prevention of Addiction.

He was in constant demand as a lecturer and in his time addressed scientific societies or chaired symposia in centres all over Europe, in China, Russia, Japan and in the USA, where he was offered a permanent post at the Meninger Clinic which, despite most attractive inducements, he declined. His star reached its zenith when at the Third International Society for Neurochemistry in Budapest he was not only elected its chairman, but was awarded the Semmelweis medal of the Hungarian Academy of Science. He was elected a foundation fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 1971 and awarded the honorary fellowship in 1980.

But the finest memorial to the life and work of Derek Richter lies in the Mental Health Foundation, a charity which today raises £2 million each year for research into mental illness. It was Richter who on his own initiative in July 1949 was personally responsible for the foundation of a Mental Health Research Fund which from small beginnings mushroomed and developed into today’s Mental Health Foundation.

This account of the monumental achievements of a world-class scientist is in stark contrast to the persona of the man himself. He was a very private self-effacing person, quietly spoken, innately gentle, generous to a fault and one who at all times lent his unwavering support to the underdog. One example suffices: in his short autobiography (Life in research, Kingswood, Surrey, Stuart Phillips Publications, 1989) he devotes barely a page to South Lodge, an after-care hostel for patients discharged from local mental hospitals in Epsom. No inkling is given of the many years of hard work and devotion which he and his constant helpmate and wife, Molly, put in in order to transform a large, ugly, Victorian house into a glowing example of what community care at its best can do.

Richter’s first marriage, in 1937, to Beryl Griffiths was dissolved. They had two daughters and a son. In 1949 he married Winifred Molly Hoskin, as blissful a marriage as anyone could wish for. He died from carcinoma of the prostate.

Henry R Rollin

[Brit.med.J., 1996,312,505]

(Volume X, page 418)

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