Lives of the fellows

James Leo Gibbons

b.8 June 1925 d.17 June 2015
MB BS Durh(1948) DPM(1952) MRCP(1954) MD Newcastle(1967) FRCP(1968) FRCPsych(1972)

James Gibbons was foundation professor of psychiatry at the University of Southampton and an authority on the neuroendocrinology of mood disorder. He was born in Felling, County Durham, the only child of John Herman Gibbons and Mary Ann Gibbons née McShane, both of whom were schoolteachers. Gibbons first attended St John’s School, Felling, where his father was headmaster, and then went on to Ushaw College, a Roman Catholic boarding school, where he received an excellent classical education.

He went on to study medicine at Durham University, qualifying MB BS in 1948. He was a house physician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary and then (from 1949 to 1950) he carried out his National Service in the medical branch of the RAF, where he held the rank of flying officer.

From 1950 to 1951 he was a house physician and then senior house officer in the department of psychological medicine, University of Durham. A year as a research assistant in neurology with Henry Miller [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.396] at Newcastle resulted in papers on encephalitis, including a definitive review of the neurology of the childhood fevers (‘Para-infectious encephalomyelitis and related syndromes; a critical review of the neurological complications of certain specific fevers.’ Q J Med. 1956 Oct;25[100]:427-505).

In 1953 Gibbons moved to the department of medicine, Hammersmith Hospital, London. After a year as a medical registrar at the Cumberland Infirmary, Carlisle, he worked at the Maudsley Hospital as a registrar, senior registrar, first assistant and then as a consultant senior lecturer (from 1961 to 1963).

The Maudsley was the specialist NHS hospital from which, in partnership with the Institute of Psychiatry, postgraduate training was provided and research on mental disorders carried out. In the Maudsley’s metabolic unit, which Sir Aubrey Lewis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.284] had established to investigate the physiology and biochemistry of mental disorder, Gibbons focused first on electrolyte and hormonal changes in depressive illness. His initial paper, based on the dilution of the radioactive isotopes 24Na and 42K, showed sodium retention in depressive illness (‘Total body sodium and potassium in depressive illness.’ Clin Sci. 1960 Feb;19:133-8). The development of reliable methods for measuring steroid hormones resulted in studies of pituitary-adrenal activity in depression, showing increased output of cortisol, apparently in response to the illness. Subsequently Gibbons’ scholarship produced an authoritative 60-page review, containing 350 references, of the inter-relationship between the endocrine system and mental disorder (‘Interrelationships between the endocrine system and neuropsychiatry’ Int Rev Neurobiol. 1963;5:243-302).

To broaden his research experience, he spent four months in 1962 as a William Waldorf Astor fellow in the department of neuroendocrinology, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Washington DC.

At the Maudsley, Gibbons attracted, guided and encouraged several junior psychiatrists. Two, Paul McHugh and Thomas Fahy, ultimately directed academic departments, McHugh at Johns Hopkins and Fahy at Galway. They remember James Gibbons for inspiring their careers with his imagination, scientific rigor and generosity.

In 1963 Gibbons returned to Newcastle as a senior lecturer and then, in 1966, to a personal readership in the department of psychological medicine. He continued research into corticosteroid secretion in depression with Medical Research Council support.

In 1970 Gibbons became foundation professor of psychiatry at Southampton University. The new medical school’s curriculum included an enhanced place for teaching psychiatry. Gibbons was well placed to implement this because of his Newcastle experience as a clinical sub dean and his three months in the USA in 1964 on a Commonwealth Travelling Fellowship when he investigated how medical students spend their elective time.

He took responsibility for the Wessex Regional School of Psychiatry, sited at Knowle Hospital. The Wessex Regional Health Authority started the school in 1964 for the postgraduate training of its junior psychiatrists and those of the adjoining part of the South West Regional Health Authority.

Gibbon’s research interest now turned to assessing service provision, with a comparison between the traditional service at Knowle Hospital at Fareham, which served east Southampton, and a new service to be based in Southampton General Hospital serving west Southampton. To assist the evaluation the DHSS financed the Southampton psychiatric case register. However, a DHSS financial crisis brought an end to this plan.

His department's research during his tenure produced, among other things, publications on life events and breast cancer relapse, the value of laboratory and radiological examination for mental illness admissions, day hospital versus outpatient treatment for neurosis, the community care of patients with schizophrenia and an experimental evaluation of social work intervention after admission for self-poisoning.

His consultant colleague in Southampton, Chris Nunn, describes him as ‘…an unusually kind as well as conscientious man, not least towards his many patients. He had a surprisingly heavy NHS case load, both out-patient and in-patient, throughout his career. Even towards the end of it he was acting as a principal, hands-on contributor to the clinical team that served one of the most deprived areas of Southampton, much missed when he retired for his acumen, good sense and simple humanity.’

Gibbons played a part in the academic life of both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. For the Royal College of Physicians he examined for the MRCP (from 1968 to 1973). At the Royal College of Psychiatrists he was their second chief examiner (from 1976 to 1981), succeeding W H Trethowan [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.498]. The founding of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 1971 was in part justified by a determination to raise standards of clinical practice. The role of the chief examiner was critical to achieving this aim by improving the training of psychiatrists through the membership examination. Gibbons was a punctilious and fair chief examiner, and his work left a mark on the Royal College of Psychiatrist’s educational system.

Gibbons retired on health grounds in 1986 and divided his time between London and Saxmundham. He enjoyed his retirement, attending concerts and the opera, with some cooking. He liked good food and favoured the Gault Millau restaurant guides.

In 1956 Gibbons married Joan Farrall, the daughter of William Hubert Farrall. They had a son, Timothy. Joan died in 1971 and in 1974 he married Jane Bunch, then a lecturer in social work at the University of Southampton. He was survived by Jane and Timothy.

Brian Barraclough

[BMJ 2015 351 3914 – accessed 27 August 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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