Lives of the fellows

Kurt Schapira

b.2 December 1928 d.20 November 2016
MB BS Durh(1952) MD(1961) DPM(1963) MRCPsych(1971) MRCP(1973) FRCPsych(1975) FRCP(1979)

Kurt Schapira was a consultant psychiatrist for Newcastle Health Authority and an honorary lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Newcastle. He was an extremely well-rounded man, both in stature and personality. Warm, intuitive, intelligent, empathetic, humorous and kind, he had all the attributes required for his challenging and rewarding career.

Born in Vienna to orthodox Jewish parents, Kurt’s childhood was disrupted by the death of his mother when he was just seven years old. This was followed by the incarceration of his father Isaac by the Nazis in Dachau and then Buchenwald concentration camps. Kurt lived in Berlin with a maternal aunt until the age of 10, when he obtained a place on a kindertransport train to England. Having successfully negotiated a path through the British education system, Kurt was accepted into medical school in Newcastle – then part of the University of Durham – and qualified as a doctor in 1952.

Shortly after completing his house officer posts and National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps, he was appointed as a research fellow to the eminent neurologist Henry Miller [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.396] at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle. They formed a close bond and Henry was delighted to take on the role of both Kurt’s friend and mentor. This is clearly illustrated by a story that involved a late-night visit to one of Henry’s patients. On dropping Kurt at home after the appointment, he turned to him and said: ‘This is fun Kurt isn’t it? And you know what else…they pay us for it too!’

More than 1,150 patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) resident in Northumberland and Durham were reviewed by Schapira. Using this material, he jointly wrote 16 scientific articles on various aspects of MS, many of which are still cited today. This study made a major contribution to our knowledge of this condition.

Subsequently, fascinated by the emotional effects of MS on patients, Schapira decided to specialise in psychiatry. He participated in Martin Roth’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] landmark studies on anxiety and depression, and undertook his own research into suicide and attempted suicide, as well as on the treatment of anorexia nervosa. His longitudinal studies relating to suicide rates to social factors and the availability of lethal methods were instrumental in demonstrating the importance of a public health preventative approach to suicide. He published several articles on these and other topics, including – with others – a much quoted paper on the influence of tablet colour on the treatment of anxiety and depressive states (‘Study on the effects of tablet colour in the treatment of anxiety states.’ Br Med J. 1970 May 23;1[5707]:446-9).

He trained in psychiatry at the department of psychiatry, Newcastle University, which was headed at that time by Martin Roth and James Gibbons [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web]. Within the department, he was promoted to first assistant and then senior lecturer. In 1974, he became a consultant psychiatrist for the Newcastle Health Authority while retaining his university connection as an honorary lecturer. He continued in this position until his retirement from the NHS in 1989.

He lectured widely, both in the UK and abroad, as far afield as Brisbane, Minnesota, Montreal and Jerusalem. During his retirement, he remained active in research, especially into factors influencing the incidents of suicide in Newcastle over three decades. His last article on the subject – in collaboration with others, including his son Martin – was published in June 2016 (‘Changes in risk factors for young male suicide in Newcastle upon Tyne, 1961-2009’ BJPsych Bull. 2016 Jun;40[3]:136-41).

Kurt undertook many responsibilities both in NHS and university administration and was a member of several university committees. Within the Royal College of Psychiatrists, he was a member of the council (1979 to 1982), the education committee (1979 to 1982) and the board of assessors of the British Journal of Psychiatry (1970 to 1975), as well as an examiner for the membership and various other psychiatry related degrees at home and abroad. He was also elected president of the section of psychiatry of the Royal Society of Medicine (1980) and president of the North of England Medico-Legal Society (1982).

Kurt enjoyed teaching and regularly topped the students’ ratings for the quality of his lectures, which were notable for their combination of wit and erudition. These attributes rendered him a popular speaker to non-medical audiences, especially on the art of Chagall, Salvador Dali and Van Gogh, and the artistic portrayal of doctors and lawyers. He was a connoisseur of opera and classical music, particularly Verdi and Mozart.

He was generous with his time in acceding to invitations to speak about his childhood experiences to a variety of audiences, from school children to prisoners and was proud to meet Prince Charles at a reception for kindertransport survivors. A genial extrovert and renowned raconteur, whose personality raised the spirits of his friends and colleagues, he had a fund of humorous anecdotes, enhanced in the telling by a trace of a Viennese accent. One of these anecdotes features in his book, which is awaiting publication. After successfully treating a young woman suffering from anorexia nervosa, he tells of a letter he received some years later; the letter read ‘Dear Dr Schapira, Just wanted to drop you a line to let you know I am going extremely well and have just given birth to a beautiful baby boy and I owe it all to you!’ Dr Schapira’s response was so typical of the man: ‘As my wife opened the post this morning, I had more than a little explaining to do!’ He often expressed his indebtedness to England for accepting him as a refugee. Considering his many contributions to the sum of human health and happiness, any debt has been more than repaid.

Fondly regarded as the ‘doctor’s psychiatrist’, Kurt will be sadly missed by his family, friends, peers and everyone who came in to contact with this unique and delightful man.

He was survived by Eva (née Buxton), his wife of 51 years, their two sons, daughter, five grandchildren, four great grandchildren and his older sister.

Martin Schapira
Eva Schapira
Kenneth Davison
Hamish McClelland

[BMJ 2017 356 499 – accessed 14 August 2017; BJPsych Bull 2017 – accessed 14 August 2017; The Jewish Chronicle 10 March 2017 – accessed 14 August 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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