Lives of the fellows

Frederick Alexander Jenner

b.15 March 1927 d.1 July 2014
MB ChB Sheffield(1954) PhD(1958) DPM(1960) MRCP(1969) FRCPsych(1972) FRCP(1980)

Alec Jenner, professor of psychiatry at the University of Sheffield and visiting professor at the University of Concepción, Chile, was in practice for 50 years. He devoted his life to making psychiatry as humane and evidence-based as possible. He was elected a fellow of both the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Physicians.

After qualifying in medicine, Alec Jenner was recruited to psychiatry for his expertise in research biochemistry. He ran the UK’s first double-blind trials of librium and valium, and was made honorary director of the Medical Research Council’s units for chemical pathology of mental disorders and for metabolic studies in psychiatry. In 1967 he was appointed as a professor at Sheffield University, and found himself in charge of the psychiatric services for the entire Trent region – a population of six million. During his tenure, Alec ensured that the department of psychiatry was a haven for nurturing the next generation of liberal-minded practising and academic psychiatrists. He was instrumental in various institutional reforms. In particular, he initiated the Phoenix House drug addiction rehabilitation unit at Sheffield (the second biggest in the country) and, responding to the appalling provisions for the elderly at the time, set-up the city’s psychogeriatric service. He was the first Western psychiatrist to call attention to the political use of psychiatry in the Soviet Union.

Like most of his peers, Alec initially believed implicitly in the so-called medical model of mental illness. Throughout his career very few psychiatric studies did not look to confirm a medical model hypothesis or increase the options for medication. But evidence for the medical model failed to emerge, and it became increasingly clear that drugging was often harmful and not the panacea everyone had hoped for. In the light of this accumulating evidence, and of arguments for a developmental social-psychological perspective which recognised the roles of emotional trauma and overwhelming stress in the genesis of mental disorder, Alec came to advocate social psychiatry.

In 1985, his vision, organisational skills and financial help were vital for establishing Asylum – the magazine for democratic psychiatry, and to keeping it going. When asked, he also contributed articles. Asylum magazine was set up as a collective of volunteers ranging from ‘service-users’ or ‘survivors’ to mental health professionals, carers, academics and anyone with a passionate interest. Contributions were always drawn from the same wide base and consequently the magazine reflected significant developments in the field, but rarely the view from the ivory tower or the drugs companies. Asylum is a lasting legacy: it is now in its 30th year.

Research reports and theoretical comments by Alec were published in various journals. In retirement, concerned with the topic which had always intrigued him the most, he at last found time to review the research literature and publish his own conclusions. The product of that work was Schizophrenia: a disease or some ways of being human? (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press,1993), which is highly recommended as a calmly reasoned rebuttal of the unevidenced assertions of the medical model. Alec soon also collaborated with the two other founders of Asylum magazine to produce a comprehensive survey of psychiatry and its prospects, incorporating a critique based on logic, science, social psychology and sociology. However, by this time Alec had less energy, and since his eyes had also begun to trouble him, he was not able to write new material. But his contributions, both material and intellectual, were crucial. The revised edition of this book should be available early in 2016, as Psychiatry – the alternative textbook by Phil Virden, Alec Jenner and Lin Bigwood (Portishead: Tiger Papers/Asylum Books).

Alec was among the most influential psychiatrists of his generation. Initially trained in chemistry, he understood better than most the biochemistry and genetics of mental disorder – and recognised the lack of evidence for either kind of cause. He carried out and supervised key drug trials, but also did much to promote the idea of social psychiatry, both in changing the focus of services to include the voice of the patient and by inspiring a fair number of students who passed through his department and went on to make their own careers based on scepticism of the so-called medical model.

Alec was modest, warm-hearted, open and unflappable. Always ready to engage with theoretical or practical issues, his energy was combined with an entirely unpretentious, affable, accessible and diplomatic manner. He advocated an approach to patients which was pragmatic but always as solicitous, reassuring and inclusive as possible. He once confided that he owed much of his demeanour, drive and moral sense to his father, a self-made man who by hard graft and canniness had worked himself up from his trade into a successful house-builder. As a boy, Alec was much impressed when his father simply gave one of his new-builds to an employee who couldn’t raise the cash to house his family.

To give him choices his father had not had, Alec was sent to a public school. Although this gave him a good education and separated him from the regional accent of his childhood (still important in those days), Alec had none of the snooty condescension so often adopted by those with social advantages. On the contrary, he was sometimes almost embarrassingly conscious of his good fortune, his power and privilege, and of his duty to ‘give something back’.

Alec used his position to carry out quiet acts of generosity. For instance, few of his friends and acquaintances seem aware that after officially retiring he was offered a lot of consultancy and mental health tribunal work. He decided to take the work but pay everything into a trust to benefit projects and causes he would like to support but which were never going to get funding. So for at least 10 years this is what he did – to the tune of many thousands of pounds.

Phil Virden

[Asylum – accessed 18 October 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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