Lives of the fellows

John Sumner Stead

b.9 July 1918 d.2 June 1998
MRCS LRCP(1941) MB BS Lond(1942) MRCP(1947) MD(1950) DPM(1957) FRCP(1971) FRCPsych(1974)

John Stead was a consultant psychiatrist at the Mid-Sussex group of hospitals. Born in Wimbledon, his father was an inspector of secondary schools. If genetic predisposition, or even tradition, had held sway, John Stead would have followed in the footsteps of his distinguished forebears and elected classical scholarship or teaching as a career. But Stead was his own man and, eschewing genes and tradition, chose to follow the precepts of Osler rather than Ovid and determined to become a doctor.

Stead was educated at King’s College, Wimbledon, and then at Dauntsey’s School before entering Guy’s Hospital, where he graduated in 1942. His postgraduate training was thorough by any standards; as a junior he served as house surgeon at Guy’s, and at Kent and Canterbury Hospitals. He switched to medicine and was appointed house physician and medical registrar at the post-graduate school, Guy’s and the Brompton. Further training was interrupted by war service as a surgeon lieutenant in the RNVR where, in HMS Leamington and HMS Hunter, he took part in the arduous and dangerous North Atlantic convoy duty, and then latterly saw service in the Far East.

Following war service, Stead continued his training in general medicine, cardiology and chest diseases in pursuance of which he went north and served as senior registrar and then resident medical officer at Leeds General Infirmary. So equipped, he passed his membership examination of the College in 1947.

By virtue of his exceptional training in general medicine and his academic distinction, Stead must have been in the happy position of choosing his own job as a consultant physician. But, probably swayed by his then young wife, a psychiatric social worker, he changed tack and decided to specialize in psychiatry. To this end he joined the staff of the Maudsley Hospital, the Mecca of British psychiatry, where he rose rapidly through the ranks from senior house officer, registrar and then senior registrar. Further psychiatric experience was obtained as senior registrar at Cane Hill Hospital, Coulsdon, Surrey. In 1959 he was appointed consultant psychiatrist to the Mid-Sussex group of hospitals which included St Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath and Brighton General Hospital, a position he held with distinction until he retired.

During this long period of service, Stead played many parts. His skill as a general physician was well recognized by his colleagues and his opinion as a diagnostician was widely sought. Similarly, his expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of psychosomatic disorder was much appreciated. But Stead was always broadly eclectic in his approach, and did not exclude by any manner of means the possible psychodynamic component of the clinical problems with which he was faced. It is to be noted that he was instrumental in the formation of a therapeutic community in the Brighton area, evidence, if any be needed, of his eclecticism.

Other than his clinical aptitude, Stead made his mark as a ‘committee man’, and in this context attention must be brought to the satisfactory resolution under his chairmanship of the joint psychiatric committee of the complex state of affairs of the St Francis and Lady Chichester Hospitals.

Furthermore, Stead was appointed as a clinical tutor, examiner for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and regional adviser at various points in his career. Finally, he did honour to his family tradition and proved to be a skilled and persuasive teacher: he will be remembered with affection by those, doctors and nurses alike, who trained under him.

Any fear that he might have had of boredom in his retirement proved unfounded. Stead found more than enough to fill his waking hours from the treasure-trove of his own hobbies. First and foremost, he was able to devote himself to a lifelong passion for the sea and sailing. As a child he had sailed with the crabbing fleet off Gorran Haven, as a teenager he had spent his school holidays as a deck-hand on Thames barges and cargo-carrying schooners and then on the more refined craft of tall ships of the sail training fleet. He was a member of the exclusive Royal Ocean Racing Club and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the rigging of ships was such that he was consulted by the maritime museums and the International Sail Training Association.

He loved making things, as witness his painstaking restoration of a small 1920s fishing boat, and the construction of wheelbarrows for his grandchildren, as well as furniture for the house. As a bonus, at the time of his death, he had nearly completed a 1/12 scale replica of his Sussex home. As further evidence of his versatility, he had recently bought an adjoining field on which he developed a nature reserve with meadows, hedgerows and trees selected to fit the habitat.

Stead was an enthusiastic member of the Society of Apothecaries: he was ‘bound as an apprentice’ to a Wimbledon physician, Ernest William Ainsley-Walker, in 1939, when a Guy’s medical student, and was admitted to membership in 1943 after he qualified. And, as a footnote, it could be added that in the last years of his life he helped to research the Society’s ceremonial barge.

In 1952 John Stead married Evelyn Mary Paul, the daughter of a civil engineer who proved to be a boon-companion. She survives him together with two sons, both doctors, and both Apothecaries, and a daughter, a journalist.

Sadly, towards the end of his life he became frustrated by his increasing deafness. He died of cerebral anoxia following cardiac arrhythmia.

Henry R Rollin

[Brit.med.J., 1998,317,953]

(Volume XI, page 542)

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