Lives of the fellows

Eric Douglas West

b.21 March 1919 d.13 November 1992
MB BS Lond(1951) DPM(1956) MRCP(1958) MRCPsych(1971) FRCPsych(1973) FRCP(1976)

Eric West’s route to the top of his chosen profession was unconventional. The son of a manager of a pipe factory in South London, he was the oldest of three brothers, the youngest of whom died on active service in India in 1945.

West was educated at local schools in the Sutton, Surrey, area but before he could complete his studies to university entrance level he enlisted in the Royal Artillery. In 1939, aged 20, by then a staff sergeant, he was a member of the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force and in the well chronicled retreat to Dunkirk he had the misfortune to be captured by the Germans.

Typical of his intellectual prowess and his steely determination, West used his long years of captivity to the best possible advantage. With what available facilities there were he studied German to such good effect that he was able to act as camp interpreter. He made little mention of his POW experiences but it was known among his colleagues at Belmont Hospital that he had had a rough time, and that he had suffered physical maltreatment. It was perhaps his own suffering, and that of his fellow prisoners, that prompted his interest in medicine in general and in psychiatry in particular. He was liberated by the Americans in 1945.

After demobilization, West was faced with the arduous task of gaining additional academic qualifications in order to be admitted to medical school. This done, he entered St Thomas’ Hospital where the prizes he won as an undergraduate presaged his subsequent highly successful career: in 1949 he was awarded the Foord Caiger exhibition in pathology and, in 1950, the Wainwright prize in medicine and the BMA essay prize.

It was at St Thomas’ that West came under the influence of William Sargant [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.434], then head of the department of psychiatry and consultant to the Belmont Hospital, Sutton, Surrey. Sargant was then probably the most charismatic and certainly the most controversial figure in British psychiatry. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that he was instrumental in confirming West’s choice of a specialty. The wisdom of his choice is reflected in two further academic prizes: in 1958 he was awarded the Planck prize in psychiatry at St Thomas’ and, in 1960, the Gaskell gold medal of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association - the precursor of the Royal College of Psychiatrists - the most prestigious prize in British psychiatry.

After qualification West was appointed registrar in neurology at St Thomas’, where he became particularly interested in the EEG - an interest which was later to serve him well. He was subsequently appointed senior registrar in psychiatry at St Thomas’, the point at which his career in psychiatry formally took off.

In 1959 he was appointed consultant in psychiatry (Chiltern Wing) and EEG at Belmont and Sutton General Hospital, a job he was to fill with distinction until he retired, aged 65, in 1984. Inter alia he served as clinical tutor from 1966 until his retirement, a remarkable record by any standards.

One of West’s major achievements in 1972 was to set up, with two other colleagues, a residential course at Surrey University designed for candidates taking the final MRCPsych examination. To celebrate the 20th year of this eminently successful venture, as well as to pay lasting tribute to him, the first ‘Eric West Guest Lecture* was given in 1992 by Peter Fenwick. Sadly, West himself was too ill to attend in person and he had to make do with a tape recording of the proceedings.

West initiated several research projects and made many contributions to the literature. These included a chapter ‘Treatment of Epilepsy' in Introduction to physical methods of treatment in psychiatry, W W Sargant and E T O Slater, London, E & S Livingstone, 1963; also Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins.

Eric West was fortunate in his domestic life. He met his wife, Joy, when they were students. They were married in 1947. Joy studied medicine in Leeds and at the Royal Free Hospital. She too specialized in psychiatry, having acquired the DPM in 1967, and the MRCPsych in 1972. She was appointed consultant to St Helier Hospital, Carshalton, Surrey. She predeceased him in 1979. There were three children of the marriage - two girls and a boy; Hilary, Susan and John. Hilary is a lecturer in veterinary surgery at Liverpool University and John, who is a member of the College, is a senior registrar in cardiology at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham. Susan, prior to her marriage, was a residential social worker with seriously disturbed children at the Cotswold Community, near Swindon.

Eric West’s attributes and accomplishments were not all cerebral. Outside medicine, his interests were in poetry, wildlife, fishing and in particular he obtained great pleasure from his large garden and allotment.

He was diagnosed as suffering from colonic carcinoma in 1990 and although he responded well to surgery and chemotherapy, for a time, he had a relapse. But he never allowed his illness to interfere with his work or his leisure activities until about two months before his death at the Royal Marsden Hospital.

H R Rollin

(Volume IX, page 573)

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