Lives of the fellows

Donald Woods Winnicott

b.7 April 1896 d.25 January 1971
MA Cantab MRCS LRCP(1920) MRCP(1922) FRCP(1944)

Donald Winnicott was born at Plymouth, the son of Sir Frederick Winnicott, a Plymouth merchant. He was educated at The Leys School, Jesus College, Cambridge, and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, qualifying in 1920. Before qualifying he served at the end of the first world war as a surgeon-probationer in a destroyer. There was no other doctor on board, but he managed well thanks to the medical orderly who knew a great deal more about surgery and medicine than he did. He took his MRCP in 1922 and was elected FRCP in 1944.

Finding that his special interest lay in the field of paediatrics he spent ten years as assistant physician and then full physician at the Queen’s Hospital for Children, Hackney, and Paddington Green Hospital in London. He resigned from the Queen’s Hospital in 1934 but continued to run the rheumatism clinic there. He remained on the staff of Paddington Green for forty years, and it is especially with Paddington Green that his name is associated.

An increasing conviction of the importance of the emotional life in health and disease led Winnicott to undertake training in psychoanalysis and he qualified in this discipline in 1934. He combined his psychoanalytical practice with that of a hospital paediatrician and from this unusual combination of training and experience, and with his own innate genius, he developed a unique approach to consultative work with children with whom he had the most astonishing powers of communication. He tried to assimilate his clinical experience as a paediatrician to his insights into psychic functioning that accrued from psychoanalytical work. A clear account of his researches and theoretical innovations can be found in his published works, particularly Collected Papers: Through paediatrics to psychoanalysis (1958), and The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (1965). His famous identification of ‘transitional objects’ is elaborated in his paper The observations of infants in a set situation (1941).

Winnicott was as brilliant a public speaker as he was a conversationalist. He was much sought after as a lecturer on both sides of the Atlantic and was a popular, if unconventional broadcaster. He held a number of honorary posts of distinction: he became president of the Institute of Psychoanalysis, president of the Association of Child Psychiatry, chairman of the Medical Section of the British Psychological Society, and president of the Paediatric Section of the Royal Society of Medicine. In 1968 he was awarded the James Spence medal of the British Paediatric Association.

It would not be quite true to say that his ideas were rejected by his medical contemporaries, for a few discerning paediatricians, such as Sir James Spence, appreciated them, but the remainder made little attempt to understand or evaluate them. Some regarded him with hostility, and still do to this day, but gradually over the decades the impact of his researches has permeated all the neighbouring disciplines; from paediatrics and psychoanalysis to social work and education. He was a true revolutionary in his clinical outlook and thinking, but a revolutionary without a dogmatic evangelical programme. Sir Peter Tizard, President of the Section of Paediatrics of the Royal Society of Medicine, quotes a well known child psychiatrist who told him that Winnicott was ‘a menace to British child psychiatry’ and when asked to amplify that statement said - without apparently appreciating the outrageously funny paradox -that Winnicott had not trained anyone to carry on his work. A second cause for complaint was that Winnicott had not attempted to verify his hypotheses by strictly scientific methods. To insist on a man of ideas putting his theories to scientific proof would, as Sir Peter remarks, put paid to all philosophers - including logical positivists. And Donald Winnicott was not only a paediatrician and a child psychiatrist but also a philosopher in the classical mould: philosophers who have always realized that their systems, if valid, ought to have a bearing on the way life is lived. It is, however, interesting to note that Winnicott’s theory that newborn babies could identify their mothers by smell — thought to be nonsense at the time — was proved to be correct by Dr Aidan Macfarlane in Oxford in 1975, using irreproachable scientific methods.

In private life Donald Winnicott was equally interesting. A most lovable man with a very delicate sensitivity in personal relations, delightfully witty, and an extremely interesting companion thanks to his great and finely cultivated intelligence, he was incapable of pomposity, brutality, or sentimentality. His view of life had a Shakespearean comprehensiveness and depth. Winnicott married as his second wife, Clare Britton, in 1951, and she did much to make his last years happy and creative.

Winnicott’s scientific contribution to psychoanalysis was unique in kind. If its true value cannot yet be assessed definitively, not a few believe that it will long remain in the first rank. But perhaps he will be remembered best not for his admirable personal qualities, nor for his high intelligence and delicious wit, nor for his skill and effectiveness as a paediatrician and child psychiatrist, but because - in the words of his friend, Sir Peter Tizard - Tie was a philosopher who altered the way in which we think about children in relation to the adults they are to become, and whose philosophy had a significant practical importance on how we lead our lives.’

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
V Luniewska

[Brit.med.J., 1971,1, 351, 464; Lancet, 1971,1, 402, 656, 1080; Times, 27 Jan 1971; J. roy. Soc. Med., 74, 267-274]

(Volume VI, page 471)

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