Lives of the fellows

Robert Evan Kendell

b.28 March 1935 d.19 December 2002
CBE LMSSA(1959) MB BChir Cantab(1960) MRCP(1962) DPM(1965) MD(1967) MRCPsych(1971) FRCP(1974) FRCP Edin(1977) FRCPsych(1979) Hon FRCS Edin(1995) Hon FRCPS Glasg(1995)

Robert Kendell followed 17 years as professor of psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh with five years as chief medical officer for Scotland and completed his career in 1999 with a three year term as president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

The son of teachers, he was born in Yorkshire and spent some of his childhood in Wales. He attended Mill Hill School in London and won an open scholarship to Cambridge, where he was awarded a double first in the natural sciences tripos and proceeded to King's College Hospital Medical School. In 1962 he began training in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital.

He once told me that he was fascinated by the idea of studying psychiatry because although it was so obviously important, so very little was known about it. Certainly that was an accurate assessment in the 1960s. Psychiatric literature was dominated by description and anecdote, and diagnosis and practice were often idiosyncratic. Indeed, at that time, the anti-psychiatry movement was in vogue and the view that to place a diagnostic label upon a patient was in some way to diminish him was widely expressed. Robert Kendell was instrumental in putting an end to all that. From the outset of his psychiatric career he had a major interest in diagnosis and classification. His doctorate, obtained in 1967, was on the classification of depressive illness and in 1966 he joined the US-UK study of psychiatric diagnosis. This demonstrated that the diagnostic practices then current in the US and in Britain were unstandardised and differed widely, but that by the disciplined application of scientific methods they could be made systematic and reliable. International acceptance of the need for standardized diagnostic methods followed publication of this work, which has thus been the cornerstone of the major classificatory advances that there have been since that time.

Robert Kendell continued to work on diagnosis and classification in this country and on an international collaborative basis following his year as a visiting professor at the University of Vermont from 1969 to 1970. His lucid exposition of the purpose and value of diagnosis, The role of diagnosis in psychiatry (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1974), remains clear and compelling today. He continued to develop these ideas over the years, notably in his contributions to successive editions of The companion to psychiatric studies (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone), three of which he edited. His manuscript for the diagnosis chapter in the forthcoming edition was handed in, characteristically neat and on time, ten days before his death.

Diagnosis and classification in psychiatry may sound a dry subject but, as expounded by Robert Kendell, it fascinated generations of undergraduate and postgraduate students and the advances in this area that he made have provided a sure foundation for the exciting imaging, genetic and other biological advances which are bringing so much optimism to psychiatry now. Kendell's lecturing skills meant that he was much in demand as a speaker throughout the world and his lectures to undergraduates received exceptionally favourable reports.

He was elected dean of the Edinburgh Medical Faculty in 1986, serving for four years. After one further year in the chair of psychiatry he took up his post as chief medical officer and, at that time, he told me that he wanted to try to contribute to improving the poor health record of Scottish people. He was much aware that in Scotland there is more, and more expensive, health care than elsewhere in the UK and yet on almost all criteria the health of the population is less good. He wanted to see public health measures that might make some difference brought into practice. Such measures are not easy to achieve and habits of lifetimes are hard to change but it was a very worthy aim.

He was a man of great integrity and prepared to express his well-informed views even when he knew this might not be to his advantage. Although initially reserved in manner, he was a good friend, good company and a generous host. He was a keen swimmer and an expert mountaineer. He married Ann Whitfield in 1961 and affectionate references to her and to their four children were invariable features of his conversation.

Eve C Johnstone

[The Independent 3 February 2003; The Guardian 18 January 2003]

(Volume XI, page 313)

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