Lives of the fellows

Max Meier Glatt

b.26 January 1912 d.14 May 2002
MD Leipzig(1937) DPM(1950) MRCP(1970) FRCPsych(1971) DSc Open(1978) FRCP(1975) Hon FRCPsych(1985)

Max Glatt was an internationally renowned pioneer of the treatment of alcohol and drug abuse. He was born in Berlin, into a prosperous middle class orthodox Jewish family, and managed to avoid the Holocaust by the narrowest of margins. His parents, as he discovered much later, were less fortunate: they were slaughtered in an Estonian concentration camp, leaving him and a sister, who had been smuggled out of Germany into Holland, the sole survivors of his entire family. His Judaism remained central to his life despite all the difficulties involved in keeping the complex beliefs and practices of orthodoxy, particularly in the Diaspora.

Max's career as an undergraduate in the 1930s was blighted by the rise of Nazism, particularly the malignant persecution of the Jews. Nevertheless, in 1937, he was awarded his MD at the University of Leipzig. By that time, the poison of anti-semitism had seeped into every layer of the German medical establishment so that further academic progress was blocked, practice in any general hospital was forbidden by diktat, and the only work available for Max as a Jew was in a small hospital in Berlin exclusively for Jews. Even so, his innate optimism coupled with, apparently, a degree of political naïveté, caused him to hang on. And hang on he did until the momentous events of Kristallnacht shattered the last vestiges of optimism: the message on the wall was clearly written, not in chalk, but in blood.

Max put his escape plan into effect. The plan in the event was shot through with failures, and it is a near-miracle that he succeeded in finally settling safely in England. And it was in England that, in 1942, Max resumed, or was permitted to resume, medical practice fortunately, as it happened, in mental hospitals controlled by the London County Council mental health department.

But in which direction should his genius and his hunger work for? Probably it was his own personal suffering as a member of a persecuted minority, plus his deep-seated compassion for the under-dog that led him to seek out a neglected and best-forgotten section of the community. And what better example could he find than those he saw around him every day in the back wards in mental hospitals, amongst the frequenters of park benches or pavement-sleepers - namely, those suffering from alcohol or drug abuse. These, he decided, were the people to whom he would devote his professional life, and with missionary zeal he set to work.

His first NHS unit for the treatment of alcoholism was established at Warlingham Park Hospital near Croydon, South London, to be followed by another for alcoholism and drug addiction at St Bernard's Hospital, Ealing, West London, now named the Max Glatt Centre. In theory, both units were based on group and/or community principles and, as his fame spread, so further units were established in the NHS, in the private sector and within the prison service, the best known being that at HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

Max was a prodigious worker. He served as an honorary consultant psychiatrist at four London teaching hospitals, as well as acting as chair or member of innumerable committees. His advice was sought by important bodies such as the BMA, the Home Office, the Royal medical colleges and councils concerned with the problems of alcoholism and drug addiction. To cap it all, he was appointed a part-time lecturer at a variety of universities.

Tangible rewards, prizes and honorary degrees, began to flood from universities and academic bodies at home, and particularly from abroad. In 1970 he became a member of the College, and was elected to the Fellowship in 1975. The Royal College of Psychiatrists elected him to the foundation fellowship in 1971, and, in 1985, he was elected to the honorary fellowship. Prestigious prizes were heaped on him in America and, ironically, in Germany. It is worth commenting that the suffering experienced at the hands of the Nazis failed to quench his love for Berlin, to which he returned whenever the occasion arose.

Max was a prolific writer. He proved as nimble with his pen as he was with a table-tennis bat. This simile is chosen because, surprisingly, he was an excellent and stylish table-tennis player who had represented Berlin as a student and, much later, a senior club in Croydon. Having mastered the English language, Max's contribution to the literature was enormous. By 1982 alone he had contributed 30 papers in the UK and abroad, written nine chapters in important books, and, as a single author, had published four books, all of them now classics. What is more, Max was a skilled editor: he transformed Addiction from a parochial British journal into a publication of worldwide repute.

But Max, albeit a physician of the utmost fame, remained throughout his life, modest, gentle and good-humoured. His love for his family was matched by the devotion to and the strength of his Judaism.

But what drove him relentlessly on was work; work was always the name of the game. He never retired and he died, as he would have chosen to do, with his boots on. The end came as the result of the spread of advanced prostate cancer responsible, in all probability, for the fall he sustained while conducting his weekly group at the Florence Nightingale Hospital.

He leaves behind him his wife, Gisella, herself a Holocaust survivor, his son Julian, two grandchildren and a host of grateful patients.

Henry R Rollin

[Brit.med.J., 2002,324,1399; The Times 7 June 2002; The Guardian 25 May 2002]

(Volume XI, page 223)

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