Lives of the fellows

Eliot Trevor Oakeshott Slater

b.28 August 1904 d.15 May 1983
CBE(1966) MRCS LRCP(1927) MRCP(1930) MB Cantab(1931) DPM(1934) MA MD(1940) FRCP(1945) FRCPsych(1971)

Eliot Slater’s idealism and compassion originated in part from his family background. His father, Gilbert Slater, was a Fabian, a principal of Ruskin College in Oxford, socialist mayor of Woolwich and at one time professor of economics in Madras. His mother, Violet Oakeshott, was a Quaker. But the originality and intellectual passion with which he pursued his manifold medical, scientific and artistic interests were his own. He was educated at Leighton Park School, Cambridge University, and St George’s Hospital, London. Early in his career modesty and a distaste for any form of display or self glorification were to obscure his talents. There was some truth in the entertaining account he gave in an autobiographical note of his ineptitudes as a young doctor. But independent accounts show this to have been something of a parody. Those who were to attend his clinical rounds and conferences at the National Hospital at the Maudsley in later years were to have the rare experience of observing one of the best endowed and sharpest intellects in psychiatry, drawing freely upon insight and intuition as well as first hand observation in reaching a diagnosis. They were also taught a lesson in how to conduct an interview in the presence of others without encroaching on the dignity or integrity of patients. Even in the peak years of the scientific work which he pursued with a rare intellectual fervour, he put his duties as a doctor first.

In 1931 he joined the staff of the Maudsley Hospital where he was soon to be profoundly influenced by a group of eminent psychiatrists who had fled from Nazi Germany. Alfred Meyer, Willy Mayer-Gross and Eric Guttmann brought with them an empirical scientific approach towards the problems of psychiatry. Reared in the tradition of Meyerian psychobiology which was humane and many-sided, but loosely knit and scientifically sterile, Slater found the approach of Mayer-Gross in particular like ‘a view of a new world’. The influence of RA Fisher and later training in psychiatric genetics in Munich provided a powerful impetus for a man with Slater’s natural mathematical gifts. It was to genetics that he attributed the combination of self-esteem and humility,that placed an unmistakable imprint upon the entire corpus of his scientific contributions. He was the first English psychiatrist to have matured into a clinical scientist in the modern sense of the term.

The Socratic method he would use in testing the soundness and clarity of reasoning of his clinical and research students was not very different from that he employed in dialogues with his children, who were treated from an early age as intellectual adults. One of them tells of discussions they would have on the topic of the weekly essay in the course of Sunday walks. One week it was, ‘Which would you rather be? A jack-of-all-trades or a master of one?’ He would carefully elicit all the arguments in favour of one position, and as soon as he was convinced that it was correct, turn around and view the question from the opposite camp. She would be irritated by his refusal to give a straight answer for he would either straddle two camps or, in the case of a particularly clear-cut alternative, adopt the unconventional view until the very end.

He could have had chairs, including the highest in the land, but he preferred working on his own or with a very few chosen colleagues. The wide sweep of his interests is reflected in the range of subjects in which his investigations have become internationally renowned. They include the neurotic constitution, hysteria, schizophrenia, the inheritance of many forms of mental disorder, the methodology or genetical research in psychiatry, the pathography of musicians of genius, and the judicial process, all of which were to engage his unflagging curiosity. The agility and ruthless self criticism with which he handled the data, and the incisiveness and elegance he displayed in their analysis and interpretation, have probably not been equalled by any other psychiatric investigator of his generation. He was a genuine intellectual, pursuing any problem with a detached interest, arguing it with a cerebral fervour devoid of acrimony. Pedantry and pretence were alien to his nature. Despite his reticence and modesty, he was tremendous fun to be with, a brilliant conversationalist and appreciative listener who retained the gift for irrepressible, loud laughter into old age. His sensitive, compassionate nature led him to detest prejudice and snobbery. The writer once heard him in debate with a colleague of great eminence who reasoned that snobbery was an estimable and under-rated character trait. He was reduced with the aid of a few swift parries to concede that if he had that day been placed at lunch, next to a noble earl who happened to suffer from severe mental subnormality, he would have good reason to take pride in the experience.

In his professional and public life, he was unworldly, above ambition or desire for material success. This was manifest in his style of life. He was content with his small house, his garden and the birds welcomed in it, his scholarship and his painting.

After retirement, he devoted himself seriously to Shakespearian scholarship, in which he had dabbled early in his career. His doctoral thesis on 'The Problem of "The Reign of King Edward III (1596)": A Statistical Approach' had already exerted considerable influence on the use of vocabulary tests in Shakespearian studies, even prior to the forthcoming publication of the thesis by the Cambridge University Press. Frequent reference is made to his techniques and the findings from the tests he has conducted on the entire Shakespearian canon. It was wholly characteristic of him that he should take up an unusual and perhaps even somewhat discredited line, devise his own rigorous application of it, give the technique a scholarly respectability and make significant influential findings with it. His own method had been developed from one devised by Udney Yule which had received little attention for some decades. Yule was an erstwhile fellow of St John’s, Eliot’s old College in Cambridge, which elected him to an honorary fellowship a few years before he died.

The generosity with which he gave of his time and energy to others, and young investigators in particular, even near the end of his life, was exemplary and little known. His own contributions in a number of important enquiries are to be found in the form of a brief acknowledgement of his help at the end of papers that embodied the findings. He devoted several weeks to the translation of a number of papers from the German for one of his registrars engaged in the investigation of the ‘organic’ schizophrenias.

The eleven years he served as the editor of the British Journal of Psychiatry served to transform it into one of the world’s most influential journals. Letters to authors from his pen in this period served as a kind of sustained master class in psychiatric reasoning and methodology. His correspondence merits a publication to itself. An editorial letter about a genetical paper began as follows: ‘I hope you will not take me amiss if I liken your work to a magnificent ruin; one could not stand on it without risk of breaking an ankle. But it was a splendid enterprise and has many lessons for clinicians, psychologists and geneticists. Its weaknesses are nearly all due to the difficulties of the terrain on which you are building. Let us now come to practicalities. The work clearly must be published; but I should like you to reconsider …’.

At one time he took up weaving, mastered it, and made two very attractive chair seats, one with a fine Douanier Rousseau-esque design of his own of an owl in a leafy setting - and having succeeded so well, gave it up. There was something delightful in the way he uninhibitedly took up in succession artistic pastimes for the sheer unalloyed pleasure they gave him.

It was perhaps in his pathographic writings, as in his studies of the sonnets of Shakespeare and the identity of William of Stratford, that his psychodynamic insights, his compassion and his disciplined clinical imagination were most clearly displayed. In the last few years much of his writing was devoted to medical ethics, euthanasia, and nature conservation. He challenged the arrogant presumption that man was lord and master rather than merely an integral part of nature, and his gentle, compassionate spirit had been deeply stirred by the threat of pollution, over-population and the destruction of mankind which he saw looming ever larger.

His post on the day he died included circulars from the many charities he supported. Most of his estate was made over to ecological charities - the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, and organizations working for the protection of endangered species among them.

Many of his publications and each of his textbooks were widely influential in the improvement of clinical practice and the advancement of scientific knowledge in psychiatry. Physical Methods of Treatment with William Sargant and Clinical Psychiatry with W Mayer-Gross and Martin Roth were, between them, to be translated into ten languages. The Genetics of Mental Disorders with Valerie Cowie (1971) remains the standard book on the subject.

Eliot Slater had four children by his marriage to Lydia Pasternak, sister of the poet and novelist whom he met while working in Rudin’s Institute in Munich. They have inherited and acquired equal, but overlapping, proportions of his manifold gifts. His elder daughter is a clinical psychiatrist and the younger a Shakespearian scholar and author. One son is a well known medical scientist and the other a university lecturer in mathematics. He was survived also by his devoted second wife, Jean, who shared his enthusiasm for art and is a talented painter in her own right.

Sir Martin Roth

[Brit.med.J., 1983, 286, 1906; 287, 67; Lancet, 1983,1, 1231-2; Times, 21 May 1983; Brit. J. Psychiat., 1973, 122, 621-3]

(Volume VII, page 541)

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