Lives of the fellows

Archibald Denis Leigh

b.11 October 1915 d.20 April 1998
MB ChB Manch(1939) BSc(1939) MRCP(1941) MD(1947) FRCP(1955) FRCPsych(1971)

Denis Leigh was a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley and Bethlem Hospitals and one of the leading psychiatrists and teachers of post-graduate students of his generation.

There was, however, a more controversial side to his career since, when secretary-general of the World Psychiatric Association, he rigorously opposed the expulsion of the Soviet Union from that body. This was at a time when the Moscow authorities thought nothing of using psychiatric treatment as an instrument of penal policy - and Leigh's attitude, perhaps predictably, came in for some outspoken newspaper criticism. A great champion of the need for dialogue, he never, however, doubted that he had been correct in the line he took - and saw recent history as having to some extent vindicated him against his critics.

Archibald Denis Leigh was the son of a Lancashire cotton mill manager. The mill closed in the Depression of the 1930s, but his father then turned to journalism, becoming assistant editor of Picture Post. The young Leigh was educated at Hulme Grammar School and graduated in medicine from Manchester University with first class honours a few months before the start of the Second World War. After medical school he became house surgeon to Geoffrey Jefferson [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.213], the leading neurosurgeon of that time.

Leigh spent the Second World War in the Army. Initially he served as a regimental medical officer but he was soon posted to the Oxford head injury centre. At the centre he made the first detailed study of loss of smell after head injuries, and his work on this is still quoted. He served in India and in a mobile neurosurgical unit close to the front line during the Burma campaign. By the end of the war he was a lieutenant-colonel and adviser in neurology to the Eastern Army, India.

After demobilization he became assistant to the neurological department of the London Hospital, working with Lord Brain [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.160] and George Riddoch [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.600]. However, his ambitions lay in psychiatry, not neurology, and he moved to the Maudsley Hospital, training with Erich Guttman and C P Blacker [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.49] and spending a year at the Harvard Medical School.

Returning to London in 1949, he was appointed consultant at the Maudsley and Bethlem Hospitals. He developed a strong reputation as a clinical psychiatrist who would spare no effort on his patients' behalf. As a young consultant, he also spent part of his time in the neuropathology department, working with Alfred Meyer. During this period, he described an unusual condition in the brain of a six month-old child. This disease (which at the time was invariably fatal) became known as 'Leigh's disease'. It has now been recognised as one of the mitochondrial disorders, a subject of intense research world-wide.

Denis Leigh was a consultant psychiatrist to the British Army and the first psychiatrist to serve on the parole board. In 1959 the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment recommended that an independent psychiatrist be appointed to give an opinion available to both prosecution and defence in murder trials. It fell to Leigh in this capacity to examine many of the more notorious murderers of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

He appeared as an expert witness in a number of leading criminal trials. One of these was the 1959 Podola case. Guenther Podola was accused of murdering a policeman. In his defence, as well as accusing the police of having beaten him up, he claimed that he was affected by loss of memory. Leigh gave evidence that his claimed amnesia was feigned. Podola was convicted and, despite having stoutly maintained his innocence throughout his trial, admitted his guilt before he was hanged.

Leigh was also an expert witness for the Crown in the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity case, effectively lost by the manifest sexism and snobbery of the prosecuting counsel, Mervyn Griffith-Jones. To balance that, however, in the 1970s Leigh found himself on the liberal side of the argument in giving evidence against the British Government before the European Court of Human Rights in the case of the alleged mistreatment of IRA prisoners by special investigators in Northern Ireland.

Fundamentally, however, Leigh's loyalties were to the Establishment. For many years he was involved in the selection of candidates for MI5 and MI6. He treated several important double agents who defected from the Soviet Union and even advised on the treatment of a Red Army general in a Russian Hospital.

In 1966 Leigh was appointed secretary-general of the World Psychiatric Association. In this post, despite the opposition provoked by his views on keeping a dialogue going with the Soviet Union, it was entirely typical of his forthright style to pursue what he thought was right, however unpopular.

He wrote a great deal, contributing to numerous books and articles and founding and editing the Journal of psychosomatic research. Psychosomatic disorders remained one of his main interests throughout his career.

He wrote The historical development of British psychiatry (Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1961) and Bronchial asthma; a genetic, population, and psychiatric study (Oxford, Pergamon Press,1967) with E Marley, and translated Psychosomatic methods in painless childbirth; history, theory and practice (London, Pergamon Press, 1959) from the French. He was elected to a substantial number of overseas medical societies and was president of the section of psychiatry at the Royal Society of Medicine.

After retirement, he continued teaching at the request of his former colleagues and resumed his neuropathological interests. He will probably be best remembered for this work as a teacher, particularly by his many overseas post-graduate students. He had a distinctive teaching style, delivered with his Mancunian accent and humour, and drawing heavily on his extensive experience of clinical psychiatry. He also continued to give expert advice in personal injury claims before the civil courts.

Apart from his professional life he was an intensely private person who valued the seclusion of his home in the country and the company of his wife and family. In his last years he was able to devote more time to his many hobbies, including fly fishing, shooting, gardening and collecting old books. He died at home after a long illness.

Raymond Hierons

[The Times 6 May 1998]

(Volume XI, page 330)

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