Lives of the fellows

Heinz Hermann Wolff

b.24 May 1916 d.2 June 1989
BA Cantab(1937) MB BChir(1940) MRCP(1947) MD(1950) FRCP(1966) FRCPsych(1972)

Heinz Wolff was born in Strasbourg, the first child of Herbert Wolff, a general practitioner, and his wife Anna Marie Samson. He was educated in Hamburg before coming to England in 1934, and he stayed for a while with his father’s relatives in Manchester before going to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was undecided whether to study mathematics or medicine and began by taking part one of the tripos both in natural sciences and mathematics. He had a great interest in and enjoyment of pure mathematics, but his first year at Cambridge helped him to decide that he preferred contact with people to more abstract concepts; he gave up mathematics and made medicine his profession.

He completed the clinical part of his training at University College Hospital, London, and graduated in 1940. After finishing his house jobs, including one as house physician to Sir Thomas Lewis [Munk's Roll, Vol. IV, p.531], he joined the RAMC and was sent to India with the 17th British General Hospital where he found himself in charge of some 200 acutely ill British and Indian soldiers in a makeshift hospital at the foothills of the Himalayas. His time in India gave him his first experience of psychiatry; he spent three months training in psychiatry at a European mental hospital in Bengal, which was in fact his only formal psychiatric training. Amazingly, after so brief a period, he then became ‘psychiatrist to Eastern India’, a position he held for a year and a half.

After the war Heinz Wolff resumed his career at UCH, as a medical registrar, and it was here that his interest in psychosomatic medicine developed. He became registrar to the great neurologist, Sir Francis Walshe [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.448], and this laid the foundations for his continuing interest in the relationship between mind and brain.

In the 1950s Wolff became one of the early members of the Society for Psychosomatic Research in Britain and later became its president. In his clinical liaison work, and in teaching psychosomatic approach to students, doctors and psychiatrists, he always emphasized how important it was to understand an individual’s inner world and his relationship to his environment, and how these interact and affect his or her illness.

During this time his interest in psychoanalytic psychotherapy was increasing. He had read some Freud while still at school and, when he was at Cambridge, a psychoanalyst, Karin Stephen, gave weekly lectures on psychoanalytical concepts. Heinz began to read more about psychoanalysis, and when working at UCH decided to have a personal analysis. He claimed this helped him enormously in coming to terms with the sudden loss of his mother who had died when he was an eight-year old boy. Indeed, he went on to write seminal papers on the theme of loss.

By the late 1950s he had decided to embark on psychiatry as a specialty. He joined the department of psychological medicine at UCH and concentrated on psychotherapy and liaison work. Together with Roger Tredgold [Munk s Roll, Vol.VI, p.438] and Dorothea Ball, he began a student psychotherapy scheme at UCH which still exists today, and has also been adopted in Heidelberg following a joint study project. Sir Denis Hill [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII,p.264] then professor of psychiatry at the Middlesex, heard Heinz give a paper about the scheme and shortly afterwards invited him to join the Middlesex department as senior lecturer in psychotherapy. Soon after this invitation he received a handwritten letter from Sir Aubrey Lewis [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.284] asking if he would be interested in a post as consultant in the psychotherapy unit at the Maudsley Hospital. When Heinz met Sir Aubrey and told him that he had no formal training in psychiatry, the reply was ‘You can’t expect to have done everything.’

In his work as a psychoanalytical psychotherapist at the Maudsley and UCH, Heinz always remained open to new ideas and developments. It may well have been this open and non-dogmatic approach which encouraged so many students to take up psychiatry, several ultimately becoming psychoanalysts. At UCH he will be remembered as a rather Socratic figure surrounded by a cluster of attentive, lively students. Generations of physicians and surgeons have been influenced by his teaching, which has been incorporated in their day-to-day relationship with patients. Although Heinz had no formal psychoanalytical training the British Psycho-Analytical Society offered him honorary membership, and this pleased him greatly. He was also interested in psycho-therapeutic group work and became an active member of the Institute of Group Analysis.

Although Heinz Wolff’s expertise was primarily directed towards psychological understanding and psychotherapy, he always retained an interest m other aspects of psychiatry and he was greatly concerned that different groups should respect one another rather more than they did. He also helped psychiatrists to acknowledge that the personal experiences of their patients profoundly affect their illness, and require attention in their own right.

In 1949 he married Ann Hope and they had a son, Nick, and two daughters, Janet and Charlotte. The marriage was dissolved in the mid-1970s.

He became head of the department of neurological medicine at UCH in 1975 and honorary director of the academic department on mental health in 1976, as well as being head of the psychotherapy unit at the Maudsley. He retired in 1981, which meant some adjustment to his work rather than ‘giving it up’; he continued to see patients in psychotherapy, continued with his student psychotherapy group, attended the Maudsley on Wednesday mornings, continued to lecture, to teach, and to publish many papers on a wide variety of topics. He was in fact a very active man.

He spent the last five years writing, with colleagues, the new UCH textbook of psychiatry. It was sad that he did not live to see it published, although he corrected the final page proofs and felt very satisfied with it. What distinguishes it from other textbooks is the integration of the descriptive, biological, social and psychodynamic approaches, and the detailed consideration of psychosomatic medicine and liaison psychiatry. It is very much his book. The dedication is, in his words, ‘To the students who taught us how to teach.’

He had a large and close family and many dear friends, some indeed who were at Cambridge with him. He often used to cook Sunday lunch for his brother Otto - also a Fellow of the College, his son and daughters, and seven grandchildren between the ages of one and thirteen years; this became a focal point for the family. He thoroughly enjoyed being surrounded by his family, and seeing his grandchildren grow and develop was a source of great pleasure to him.

Other activities he really enjoyed were playing the flute, which he returned to over the last 15 years of his life, and cultivating his garden. His front patio was the best in the street - and acknowledged to be so. But the back one was even better.

D Sturgeon

[, 1989,299,255,512;Lancet, 1989,2,287; The Times, 9 June 1989; The Independent, 9 June 1989]

(Volume IX, page 599)

<< Back to List