Lives of the fellows

Silvio Benaim

b.11 April 1925 d.10 January 2008
MRCS LRCP(1948) MB BS Lond(1948) MRCP(1952) DPM(1956) FRCP(1971) FRCPsych(1971)

Silvio Benaim was a senior consultant psychiatrist at the Royal Free Hospital, London. He was born in Florence, Italy, the son of Angelo Benaim, a solicitor, and his wife Elena née D’Ancona. She was the daughter of Paolo D’Ancona, professor of the history of art at the University of Milan. When Silvio was in his early teens, the family left Italy after the introduction of anti-Jewish legislation. He quickly assimilated and learnt to speak English without a trace of an accent. Educated at Leighton Park School in Reading and University College School, he proceeded to study medicine at London University and the Westminster Hospital.

He qualified in medicine in 1948, and began various house jobs in different aspects of medicine, including chest disorders at the London Chest Hospital in 1951 and neurology at the West End Hospital for Nervous Diseases from 1951 to 1952. The following year he joined the staff of the Maudsley Hospital and began six years of training in psychiatry. He was appointed consultant psychiatrist and medical adviser to the Halliwick Hospital in 1959. This was a newly constructed (1958) part of Friern Hospital and he gradually assumed duties there as well, which he did not find very satisfactory as his specialist interest was in curable psychiatric conditions. In 1969 he became consultant physician in psychological medicine to the Royal Free Hospital and he found this more congenial as he enjoyed direct contact with his patients. He also built up a thriving private practice, which he continued to run until ill health forced him to give it up in his late 70s.

Many of his scientific papers were of interesting case studies. One, which attracted much attention, was a vivid description of an incidence of hysterical falling in a London comprehensive school when, initially, eight of the pupils and a teacher collapsed in class. The instigator of the outbreak, when hospitalised for tests, managed to cause a ‘pseudo-pregnancy’ epidemic on her ward. This was written up, jointly with J Horder and J Anderson, as ‘Hysterical epidemic in a classroom’ (Psych med, 1973, 3, 366-73).

As might be expected from someone with his approach to psychiatric problems, much of his research was into antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs. He was involved in the early work on the use of lithium in bipolar disorder and published the results of his 17 year study jointly with C Page and F Lappin as ‘A long-term retrospective follow-up study of patients treated with prophylactic lithium carbonate’ (Brit j psych, 1987, 150, 175-9). The outcome was impressive; nearly 50% of patients had a full response and 40% of the rest had some beneficial effects.

He did not forget his Italian origins and maintained a holiday home near Siena. In the 1960s, when he first visited the old style Italian mental hospitals, patients were still tied to their beds, the superintendant taking the view that ‘physical restraint was less harmful than chemical restraint’. Standards of care for psychiatric patients varied enormously throughout the country and were not enhanced by an initiative which ran down the old mental hospitals and put patients on general wards. He discussed this in his paper ‘The Italian experiment’ (Psychiatr bull, 1983, 7, 7-10).

A supporter of the arts and an artist himself, he was appointed a member of the general advisory council to the Independent Television Authority in 1968.

In 1974, he married Agnes née Kirkland, her father, William Reid, was the manager of a rubber plantation in Malaysia. They had three sons, of whom the second was called Michael, and, when he died, he was survived by his wife, children and four granddaughters.

RCP editor

[Psychiatr bull 2008 32 318-9]

(Volume XII, page web)

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