Lives of the fellows

William Linford Llewelyn Rees

b.24 October 1914 d.29 July 2004
CBE(1978) BSc Wales(1935) MB BCh(1938) DPM(1940) MRCP(1942) MD(1943) FRCP(1960) FRCPsych(1971) Hon FACP(1977) DSc(1978)

William Linford Llewelyn Rees, always known as ‘Linford’, was professor of psychological medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School (Bart’s), London, and a former president of the British Medical Association (BMA). He played a leading role in the transformation of psychiatry in the 20th century, raising the status of the profession and leading the movement that led to the closure of the old long stay asylums and the return of patients to the care of their GPs in the community.

Born in Burry Port, near Llanelli in Carmarthenshire, he was the eldest son of Edward Parry Rees, a schoolmaster, and his wife, Mary. The family were Welsh-speakers and several of them were also teachers. Educated at Llanelli Grammar School, he studied medicine at University College, Cardiff and the Welsh National School of Medicine where he won various scholarships and medals. Qualifying in 1938, he chose psychiatry as his speciality, which was regarded as an unusual choice at the time, and spent some time as assistant medical officer at Worcester City and County Mental Hospital, Powick, where he was in charge of 800 chronic patients but also had to prepare medication for the whole hospital when the pharmacist was absent. To continue his training he then moved to the Maudsley Hospital in London.

In 1940 he passed the diploma in psychological medicine and, during the Second World War, he worked under Hans Eysenck and Sir Aubrey Lewis (Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.284) treating servicemen who had developed psychiatric problems. It was at this time that he began to develop the interest in psychosomatic medicine which was to continue throughout his professional career. Alongside his heavy clinical workload he worked with Eysenck on the research that produced the Rees-Eysenck Index. They examined 1100 soldiers for a possible relationship between body build and psychiatric ratings and the results were later published by Eysenck as ‘The Rees-Eysenck body index and Sheldon’s somotype system’ (J Ment Sci, 1959, 105, 1053-8).

After this he spent some time working in a specialist unit for prisoners of war who had been left psychologically damaged and then, in 1946, returned to Wales,becoming regional psychiatrist for Wales and Monmouthshire, based at the Whitchurch Hospital. Eight years later, in 1954, he returned to the Maudsley where Lewis was now running the department. He stayed there for some years, meanwhile holding a lectureship at Barts from 1956, and then left to become foundation professor of psychiatry at Bart’s in 1966. Retiring in 1980 as emeritus professor, he established a successful private practice and developed the psychiatric service at the Charter Clinic.

With his family background, it was not surprising that he was a popular and lucid teacher. He preferred to teach his students in small groups in the open air in the hospital grounds and, when lecturing, it was not unknown for him to grab their wandering attention by inserting politically incorrect photographs of bathing beauties among his slides. He was equally popular with his patients and frequently put them at their ease by asking, in his lilting Welsh accent ‘And how are you in your spirits today?’ His children would accompany him on his Christmas ward rounds, even to the locked wards.

A prolific author, his published papers illustrate the evolution of psychiatry from outdated and invasive methods of therapy to the newer and far more sophisticated forms of pharmacotherapy. An expert on drug treatment in mental illness, he did not believe that it was ever wholly the answer. Joint editor of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, he was continually fascinated by psychosomatic relationships and encouraged his students to investigate further in the field, for example in the effect on mental health of skin conditions, bowel disease, and sexual dysfunction. He himself showed how it was not just infection or allergy that could trigger asthma attacks but also stress. A contributor to many works, he also published A short textbook of psychiatry (London, English Universities Press, 1967, a popular textbook which was to appear in five later editions and was translated into seven languages, and, jointly edited with Chris Ball and Maurice Lipsedge, Textbook of psychiatry (London, Arnold, 1997).

Chairman of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association from 1957 to 1963, he was a founder member, honorary fellow and president from 1975 to 1978 when it became the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 1971. He was also president of the Society for Psychosomatic Research from 1957 to 1958 and of the BMA from 1978 to 1979. On several government committees, some of which he chaired, he worked with the World Health Organization and held honorary memberships of professional bodies in Europe and North and South America. He was awarded the CBE in 1978.

Permanently tanned due to his constant outdoor activities, he owned a speedboat and loved sea fishing and water-skiing. A keen ballroom dancer, he also supported the London Welsh rugby team and enjoyed the Welsh language commentary. In retirement he listed further pastimes as photography and ‘amusing his nine grandchildren’. When his sight was failing he employed a reader three times a week to keep him up to date with the advances in his field.

In 1940 he married Catherine Thomas and they had two sons and two daughters. Catherine died in 1993 and one of their sons, a urologist, also predeceased him. When he died in his sleep, ‘while taking a little nap after a cup of tea and a Welsh cake’, he was survived by a son, two daughters and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His daughter, Angharad, became a well known television actress in the 1970s, starring in the series Poldark. Her eldest son, also called Linford, died aged 26 in a car crash in Essex in 1999 and she died, aged 68, in 2012 of pancreatic cancer.

RCP editor

[BJPsych Bulletin; The Guardian; The Telegraph; The Independent; BMJ 2004 329 744 - all accessed 18 December 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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