Lives of the fellows

George Wallace Fenton

b.30 July 1931 d.27 July 2000
MB BCh BAO Belfast(1954) DPM(1957) MRCP Edin(1960) MRCP(1963) MRCPsych(1971) FRCP Edin(1974) FRCPsych(1976) FRCP(1992)

George Fenton was an academic, a caring clinician and an Irishman, and all three strands were of equal importance in his life and career. He was born and brought up in Londonderry and County Antrim, was educated at the Ballymena Academy, and went on to study medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast.

He qualified in 1954, and showed an early interest in neurology and psychiatry, studying in Belfast and London. He obtained his DPM in 1957, his MRCP from Edinburgh in 1960, with neurology as his special subject, and his MRCP from London in 1963. He continued his academic training at the Institute of Psychiatry and the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, where he came under the influence of Sir Dennis Hill [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.264], and developed an interest in the then young science of electro-encephalography. In 1967 he was appointed consultant psychiatrist to Dennis Hill’s professorial unit at the Maudsley Hospital, and senior lecturer in the department of psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry.

The following year he was appointed a consultant clinical neurophysiologist in the Maudsley Hospital, and honorary consultant neurophysiologist in research in the EEG department at Broadmoor Special Hospital. He remained a clinician in this department for more than 30 years, until his death. It was this contact that awakened George’s interest in forensic psychiatry, and stimulated him to write a number of key papers looking at the relationship between violence, mental illness and neurophysiology.

The words ‘laid back’ might have been coined for George, but you could not be with him for long without realizing that his air of total relaxation and his slow gentle Northern Irish brogue were deceptive. He was clever, cool and thought clearly. As George’s academic stature continued to grow, it was no surprise when in 1975 he was offered the chair of mental health at Queen’s University Belfast and he was able to return to his beloved Northern Ireland. George’s early experience of the religious conflict in the province had made him reject all organized religion (he described himself as a Presbyterian agnostic) and it saddened him that he could see no easy answer to the sectarian violence and division.

After a few years he realized he was not entirely happy in Northern Ireland, at least partly because friends and colleagues were often reluctant to come and take part in courses because of the dangers they perceived, and professionally he was becoming increasingly isolated. He now looked towards the mainland for a chair and in 1983 accepted the chair of psychiatry at the University of Dundee, and the post of consultant psychiatrist at the Tayside Health Board.

A colleague at Dundee described George’s impact on the hospital, “When George came to Dundee he didn’t appear to own a tie, and his hair was often longer than mine. His kindness and charm made an immense impression, in combination with his remarkable intellectual prowess and capacity for hard graft and perseverance in relation to both his clinical work and research. I was also impressed by his ability to ask you to do things in such a way you couldn’t refuse, though if anyone else had asked you to do the same things you would have refused with alacrity.”

In Dundee George again built up a strong academic psychiatric unit with excellent teaching and research programmes, and obtained well over one million pounds in research grants. His interests included dementia, learning disability in epilepsy, schizophrenia, addiction, primary care and psychopharmacology. During his life he published over 300 major academic papers. In 1992 he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

George was deeply involved in undergraduate and postgraduate education. His programme for medical students was particularly innovative and far-sighted and incorporated one of his main concerns, that medical students should be taught to understand and deal with their patients’ emotional distress so that they could became humane doctors.

His interests were wide, and as in all areas of his life, where his interest was aroused, his involvement was total. He acquired a history A level in his 50s and would, had he lived, have gone on to gain a university degree. He was a devotee of cricket, loved sailing, and was an excellent navigator using traditional methods, which he preferred to more modern equipment. His annual cruise with four friends was always one of the high spots of the year. It was George who, at the end of each day’s sailing, called for, and poured, the celebratory dram. It was George, too, who, after the meal, was often the instigator of deep discussions on the Northern Ireland situation, or on politics or on history. He had, one of his friends observed, the ability to ask leading questions in an open and non-threatening way. On one memorable evening he asked the theologian of the crew about the essential difference between Presbyterianism and Roman Catholicism. This led to a debate on attitudes in transubstantiation so lengthy that the ebbing of the tide passed unnoticed until the crew realized they were aground and listing noticeably.

In gale conditions George was unflappable, quite happy to fall asleep in a sheltered part of the cockpit and trust someone else to steer. In fact his unflappability extended to all areas of his life; it was seldom that one saw George angry, even under extreme provocation. He and I once spent a fortnight at Rampton Special Hospital, recording EEGs from some of the long term inmates with rare and interesting conditions. For the journey back to London I strapped all the EEG records in bags to the roof of my car. It was a fast trip back to town, but when we arrived we found our entire roof load had somehow been shed and was now strewn somewhere along the M1. Grovelling apologies from me, but not a word of reproach from George, just “Ah well, perhaps we’ll be able to do the study again some time.”

Despite his academic success, George remained at heart a clinician. His main characteristics were his humanity, his warmth, and his care for the students, patients and staff with whom he came in contact. He was always kind, courteous and gentle, and it was these qualities that endeared him to all who met him. He leaves a widow, Nini, and a son, Mark, by his first marriage to Sylvia Hepton.

Peter Fenwick

[Proc.R.Coll.Physicians.Edinb. 2000,30,362-363]

(Volume XI, page 186)

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