Lives of the fellows

John Deryk Pollitt

b.24 August 1926 d.9 February 2005
MB BS Lond(1950) MRCP(1954) DPM(1955) MD(1959) FRCP(1969) FRCPsych(1971)

John Pollitt was the epitome of the London teaching hospital psychiatrist. He was born in Plumstead, south east London, the son of a master builder, Charles Edwin Pollitt, and Sarah Jane Pollitt (nee Fisher). From preparatory school at Fox Hill, Pollitt moved on to the City of London School, where he was a scholar. In 1944 he entered St Thomas's Hospital to study medicine. His undergraduate career was soon disrupted by pulmonary tuberculosis. This, and a recurrence 18 months later in pre-antibiotic days, led to two years of rest, and the advice to relinquish his career. Having been strongly guided, at the age of 17, by the Lance Ware, co-founder of Mensa, he used this time to study formal logic, social psychology, physiognomy, and craniometry, which laid the foundations of a broad approach to medicine. Ignoring negative advice, he returned to St Thomas's, gaining the Peacock scholarship and graduating in 1950.

His early training posts were in London and Surrey, and he gained invaluable experience in psychiatry and neurology. Although still aiming for a career in neurology, he was steered in 1953 into a junior psychiatric post at St Thomas's Hospital, with William Sargant, whose enthusiasm brought him into psychiatry, and to scrutinise closely the existing theoretical basis of all aspects of current treatments. A further year as registrar at St George's Hospital with Desmond Curran and Sir Paul Mallinson [Munk's Roll, Vol.IX, p.352], from 1953 to 1954, confirmed his views on physical approaches to treatment, and enabled him to start his research into obsessional states. His higher professional training continued as senior registrar at St Thomas's Hospital in 1954 and at St Andrew's Hospital, Northampton, in 1957, before his return to St Thomas's as chief assistant in the psychological medicine department in 1958. He did seminal work on the hitherto relatively uncharted area of the natural history of mental disorder, particularly in his paper, 'Natural history of obsessional states', published in 1957.

At St Thomas's Hospital, his research brought him under the influence of Eliot Slater [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.541], Sir Aubrey Lewis [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.284], Erwin Stengel [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.415], Thomas Tennant and Fraser Roberts. In 1959 he was awarded the MD and both the Gaskell gold and bronze medals of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association in the same year - the only person to gain this unique distinction. Later in that year, 1959, he was awarded a Rockefeller travelling fellowship in medicine to study the natural history of depression at the Massachusetts Mental Health Centre, and at Harvard. Whilst there, he formulated the concept of the 'functional shift' in depression, drawing attention to the physiological effects of the illness not seen in unhappiness. His pioneering paper on this concept, 'Depression and the functional shift' appeared in 1960.

Shortly after his return from the USA, in 1961, when he was appointed to the consultant staff at St Thomas's Hospital, he progressed to take charge of the EEG department after tutelage from Sir Denis Hill.

Pollitt was elected as a Fellow of the College in 1969, and became a foundation fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He was recruited as an examiner for the College, and served on the Boards of Conjoint Medicine, PLAB, and DPM (London and Newcastle upon Tyne), MRCPsych and MD (Cambridge).

The full clinics at St Thomas's Hospital and a busy West End practice provided many patients from all social groups, and many parts of the world, for his clinical research, and he strongly encouraged his junior staff to follow suit in studying hypothalamic control of mood states, lithium therapy, craniometry in anorexia, and the place of unilateral ECT. Expansion of the department enabled him to arrange that each of the four senior registrars worked in the main out-patient clinics, including the lithium clinic.

Taking off from his research in the USA, he remained interested in Bumke's observations on recurrent depression and in life rhythms generally. He drew attention to the wide variety of precipitants for depressive illness and the wide range of clinical presentations of the illness, which, he maintained, were not a product of the precipitant, but a product of the individual patient's basic personality. On Eliot Slater's advice, he studied the differences in hereditary loading among patients whose depressive disorders seemed precipitated by physical or chemical factors, and those seemingly following emotional loss.

At about the same period, he was much in demand for literary work, and acted as assessor for papers submitted to the British Journal of Psychiatry for 30 years. He was commissioned to write one of the first monographs on depression by Heinemann (Depression and its treatment, London, 1965), and later Psychological medicine for students, (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1973). He wrote several specialised chapters in general medical and psychiatric textbooks and many articles on depressive illness, anorexia nervosa and dementia in The Practitioner and Hospital Medicine. He was also in demand by publishers to assess submitted textbooks and plays with psychiatric themes. He gave several short talks on BBC radio and appeared on television in The hurt mind and Your life in their hands. He lectured on the changing patterns of symptoms in depressive illness, modulated by age and/or personality, at many British centres, and in the USA, Portugal, and Iran, receiving a British Council fellowship.

John Pollitt concentrated his later research on the therapeutic problems encountered in his busy practice, especially on the search for all possible predisposing and precipitating factors in depressive illness and the reasons for failure of some patients to respond to anti-depressants. He investigated the effects of psychotropic drugs on driving skills, and explored the modulating effects of hormonal changes on symptoms in women. He reported several aspects of his work at the Royal Society of Medicine, where he was initially member of council and then honorary secretary. He selected the sex differences in psychiatric epidemiology for his presidential address to the section of psychiatry in 1977. He designed the accommodation for academic psychiatry for the new building of St Thomas's Hospital, which opened in 1966, but his hopes for a full academic establishment were not achieved. He then assisted in the design of new facilities at the South Western Hospital prior to the transfer of responsibility for the West Lambeth District psychiatric services to St Thomas's Hospital.

Later, he was appointed regional post-graduate dean for South East Thames and assistant director of the British Postgraduate Medical Federation, where he represented the committee of post-graduate deans on the Royal College of Psychiatrists education committee, submitting a comprehensive report on the future requirements for manpower and training in psychotherapy for the country as a whole. He was the first psychiatrist to be appointed as a post-graduate dean, and he also acted as adviser in psychiatry to the chief medical officer of the Metropolitan Police and, later, Imperial Chemical Industries.

In 1983, he was appointed medical director to a newly built private psychiatric hospital in west Kent, showing a meticulous insistence on high clinical standards, building up the educational opportunities for junior staff. He also worked at the Chaucer Hospital, Ticehurst House Hospital, and Godden Green Clinic. His last clinical years before retiring at 70 were spent in medico-legal reporting on accidents and other litigation.

John spared little time for his lifelong hobbies until his retirement in 1996. Having taken up sketching during the long periods of rest with tuberculosis, he spent much time in later life in watercolour painting. He was an active member of the Dover Art Group. He also studied antiquarian horology and repaired his own collection of antique clocks, and those of several friends and colleagues. His other absorbing interest for the last 25 years of his life was letterpress printing, for which he owned four presses; he was soon making his own blocks from his drawings and printing cards. He was a member of the Antiquarian Horological Society for 25 years and a member of the Gaskell Dining Club, and the John Carpenter Club, the old boys' association of the City of London School.

In contrast to the busy life he led in medicine, John was a home loving family man, a serious minded private person, with a pawky sense of humour. He interpreted broadly throughout his professional and family life, the motto from his escutcheon, 'let everyone learn, let everyone teach'. He died suddenly and unexpectedly at his home in Dover. He leaves his wife Erica (nee Ratzowsky), a solicitor's daughter, whom he married in 1953, and who supported him so admirably, and who also worked as his private secretary, their two daughters and three grandchildren.

Alan Poole
Howard James

(Volume XII, page web)

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