Lives of the fellows

Donald Woollven Liddell

b.31 December 1917 d.29 January 1996
MB BS Lond(1941) MRCS LRCP(1941) MRCP(1942) DPM(1948) FRCP(1964) FRCPsych(1971)

Note: the first obituary (below) was published in print form in Volume XI; the second was received after publication of the printed edition.

Donald Woollven Liddell was head of the department of psychological medicine at King's College Hospital, London. He was born in London, the son of David Liddell, a company director, and Anne Winifred née Woollven. He was educated at Aldenham School, and then studied medicine at the London Hospital.

Considered unfit for active war service because of an old hip injury, he spent the years 1942 to 1945 as a resident medical officer at the National Hospital, Queen Square. In 1948 he was a senior registrar at the Maudsley Hospital, having received his diploma in psychological medicine in the same year. In 1951 he was appointed as a consultant psychiatrist at Runwell Hospital, a post he held for six years. From 1957 to 1961 he was physician superintendent at St Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath. From May 1961 he was head of the department of psychological medicine at King's and from October of the same year was a physician at the Maudsley and Bethlem Hospitals. He wrote papers on epilepsy and dementia.

He married Emily Margaret née Horsfall, the daughter of a medical practitioner, in 1954. They had a son and a daughter. He listed his hobbies as photography and ornithology.

RCP editor

Donald Liddell was the son of David Liddell, a company director and produce broker in the City of London. His mother, Ann, was a dress designer. Donald was born in London, the eldest of a family of three. One of his sisters became a psychiatrist and worked at Runwell Hospital, Essex, until her retirement. Donald attended St Edward’s Preparatory School in Broadstairs and then Aldenham School. On completing his general education at Aldenham, he read medicine at the London Hospital Medical College, graduating in 1941. He was found unfit for military service because of an old hip injury. His postgraduate training years were dogged by ill health and he lost two years because of pulmonary tuberculosis which required surgery. Despite these health problems, he trained in neurology at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases under Sir Gordon Holmes [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.195] and psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital under Sir Aubrey Lewis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.284].

In 1951 he was appointed as a consultant psychiatrist at Runwell Hospital, near Wickford, Essex. Runwell was a busy psychiatric hospital and had active research departments in neurophysiology and neuropathology. As well as doing his clinical work, Donald contributed to the research activities there. He published important papers on epilepsy and automatism, the prevalence of the ‘new’ syndrome of temporal lobe epilepsy popularised by Herbert Jasper and Wilber Penfold [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.457] in Montreal and Henri Gastaut in Marseilles, and a description of the EEG features of Alzheimer’s disease.

In 1957 he moved to a medical administrative job as physician superintendent at St Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath, where he combined the roles of clinical consultant and medical director.

When Sir Denis Hill moved to the Middlesex Hospital in 1960 as the first professor of psychiatry at an undergraduate London medical school, Donald Liddell was the obvious choice as his successor as head of the department of psychological medicine at King’s College Hospital and physician in charge of the epilepsy unit at the Maudsley Hospital. He took up this post in 1961.

This was a very fruitful period, since he influenced a number of the Maudsley trainees he worked with to make their careers in epileptology and neuropsychiatry and to make significant contributions to knowledge in these fields. He much admired the work of Hughlings Jackson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.161]. He was impressed by the latter’s recognition that epileptic seizures associated with language dysfunction and/or ideational manifestations had their origin in the left hemisphere while those causing affective change started in the non-dominant hemisphere. These seminal ideas, which Donald taught, were taken up by one of his trainees, Pierre Flor-Henry, who was the first to demonstrate the importance of hemisphere laterality in the psychoses.

Donald was an excellent clinical observer and realised more than most physicians that patients’ seizures were influenced by their life situation. He taught that talking either to the parents of children with epilepsy about the formers’ difficulties or discussing patients’ personal problems was often a more powerful anticonvulsant than increasing the patient’s medication.

He pointed out to his trainees that, at times, true epileptic seizures can be generated at will. He quoted the example of one of his patients with severe and frequent seizures. In psychotherapy sessions, when discussing her mother with whom she had a difficult relationship, she would throw herself against the corner of the therapist’s desk so as to damage her face at the same time as inducing a seizure. The skin anaesthesia of the postictal phase protected her against the pain of the trauma. Clearly the treatment of choice was psychotherapy to resolve the relationship problems with her mother rather than further increasing the anti-epileptic medication dosage. Donald’s idea that epileptic patients can generate their own seizures was far in advance of its time. Its importance is only now being recognised.

In 1968, he gave up his Maudsley epilepsy sessions to become a full-time consultant psychiatrist and head of the department of psychological medicine at King’s College Hospital, where he remained until his retirement in 1982.

He will be remembered as a fine clinician with superb communication skills and an unrivalled capacity to establish rapport with his patients. His trainees will recall a larger than life figure, delightful to work with and a stimulating teacher. He was a wise mentor who encouraged them to develop their therapeutic and research skills. His approach to psychiatry was eclectic. His background in neurology and neuropsychiatry, combined with his interest in the individual’s psychological and social needs, gave him an unparalleled ability to understand and explain the complex interplay of organic brain dysfunction and psychosocial factors in the genesis of the disorders encountered in neuropsychiatry and indeed in general psychiatry.

His interests outside medicine were in travel, golf, bridge, photography and ornithology. He was survived by his wife, Emily, and his son and daughter.

G W Fenton
P B C Fenwick

(Volume XI, page web)

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