Lives of the fellows

Isaac Michael Shepherd

b.30 July 1923 d.21 August 1995
CBE(1988) BM BCh Oxon(1946) DPM(1949) DM(1954) MRCP(1964) FRCP(1970) FRCPsych(1971)

Michael Shepherd was the outstanding psychiatrist of his generation. He was born in Swansea into a Jewish family whose origins had been in Eastern Europe. After school years in Wales he went up to Oxford in 1941 to read medicine. Two aspects of Oxford impressed him greatly; the tutorial system, where he learnt to question established knowledge, and the teaching of John Ryle [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p. 595], then the recently appointed professor of social medicine. Ryle stressed the importance of scrupulous clinical observation and of understanding the impact of disease on patient’s lives. Both these ideas formed the foundation of Michael Shepherd’s own practice. By the time Michael qualified the war was over and he was able to defer his military service. He decided to train in psychiatry and was accepted at the Maudsley Hospital where he worked with Sir Aubrey Lewis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.284], the teacher who influenced him more than any other. After obtaining the diploma in psychological medicine Michael was called up for the RAF and was posted to an airbase near Aylesbury where he served as a neuropsychiatry specialist. The duties were light but he was not content to be idle and with characteristic enterprise he contacted the nearby St John's Hospital and persuaded staff to let him use medical records to study the course of psychiatric illness, before and after the introduction of recently developed treatments.

The research so impressed Sir Aubrey Lewis that soon after Shepherd returned to the Maudsley as a senior registrar in 1952 he was invited to join the Institute of Psychiatry. He widened his knowledge of epidemiological methods with a travelling fellowship to the School of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Medical School. An unplanned consequence of the visit was his increasing interest in medical history. The Institute of Medical History was close to his room at Johns Hopkins and he joined some of the lectures and seminars of the distinguished historian Owvei Temkin and his staff.

On his return to the Institute of Psychiatry as a senior lecturer in psychiatry Shepherd decided to introduce students to the Oxford tutorial system. He set out to foster an enquiring approach and healthy scepticism for accepted ideas. His clinical teaching combined a formidable ability to pursue logical argument with wide reading and exceptional skills as an interviewer. The students’ weaknesses were exposed, but always corrected by helpful advice and suggestions for reading. In the next four years Shepherd built a reputation for research and scholarship and in 1960 was promoted to reader. The breadth and depth of his interests were remarkable, extending from epidemiology and social psychiatry on the one hand, to psychopharmacology on the other. He also began his seminal research which showed most psychiatric disorders are treated by general practitioners without help from specialists. The study pointed to the need for better training in psychiatry for generalists. At the same time he was the secretary of the MRC committee on clinical trials in psychiatry during its most productive period and he established an effective collaboration with the psychopharmacology group at University College, London. This collaboration led to one of the first scientifically based textbooks of psychopharmacology. He also took a leading part in the Anglo-American project on psychiatric diagnosis which led eventually to the modern systems of diagnosis in psychiatry.

As well as publishing prolifically himself, Shepherd also sought to raise standards in psychiatry more generally as the founding editor of Psychological Medicine, a journal which took its place among leading international journals. Under his editorship Psychological Medicine was notable not only for its high scientific standards, but also for the breadth of its approach to the scientific basis of psychiatry and the historical and philosophical contributions to the subject. The book reviews were of two kinds; either lengthy signed reviews of major works or brief anonymous accounts of less significant books. Many of the latter were written by the editor himself and it was an enjoyable pastime for readers to identify his writing style with its extensive vocabulary and choice of pithy phrases.

His research findings now appear even more significant than was apparent at the time they were published. When he retired members of his research group had published thirty books and two hundred papers and he had trained thirty research workers who later became professors. These and many other achievements were recognized by the award of the Donald Reid medal for epidemiology in 1982, the Lapousse award of the American Public Health Association in 1983 and the CBE in the year of his retirement.

Michael was a private man, often formal in his relationships with others, not only with those he did not know well, but also with some of his colleagues. To his friends he was kind, thoughtful and amusing. His conversation reflected his burning curiosity, intellectual brilliance and wide reading. He was a witty raconteur and enjoyed gossip. Those who listened were greatly entertained, though they knew they were likely to be the subject of his wit on another occasion. This lighter side, known to his friends but less evident in public, was demonstrated in his book Sherlock Holmes and the case of Dr Freud (London, Tavistock Publications, 1985). In the book he argued the two figures shared a method of investigation which was at once compelling but unscientific. Although this disdain for loose thinking made him a fierce critic of psychoanalysis, he was no narrow organicist. He recognized the psychological dimensions of his patients problems and the contribution that psychological treatment could make to their care.

Michael Shepherd married Margaret Rock in 1947 and they had four children. The death of his wife in 1992 was a painful loss, but he continued to work and at the time of his death was preparing an invited lecture to be given in Dublin on the 250th anniversary of Swift. The occasion was ideally suited for his commanding knowledge of literature, history, science and psychiatry.

M G Gelder

[, 1995,311,868; The Lancet, 1995,346,694; The Times, 13 Sept 1995; The Independent, 30 Aug 1995; The Daily Telegraph, 12 Sept 1995]

(Volume X, page 446)

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