Lives of the fellows

Michael Graham Gelder

b.2 July 1929 d.30 March 2018
BA Oxon(1950) BM BCh(1953) DObst(1955) MRCP(1958) DPM(1961) DM(1965) FRCP(1970) FRCPsych(1972)

Michael Gelder was an outstanding psychiatrist of high intelligence and formidable determination and effectiveness who died of carcinoma of the prostate at the age of 88. His research transformed clinical practice and he was also central to the development of the academic discipline of psychiatry, founder of the now internationally distinguished Oxford University department of psychiatry and a key person in the extraordinary growth of a small clinical school into Oxford University’s medical sciences division. Whilst sociable and warm in private life, his modest and sometimes daunting manner in public meant he never received the public recognition and honours he deserved.

He was born in Ilkey, Yorkshire, the only child of Philip Graham Gelder and Alice Margaret Gelder (née Graham), and was educated at Bradford Grammar School. Determined on a medical career, he resisted persuasion to join the family firm and was elected to a scholarship at the Queen’s College, Oxford to read physiology, in which he obtained first class honours in 1950. After clinical training at University College Hospital and National Service, he trained in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital from 1958 to 1961, at all stages winning prizes and awards. He then became a Medical Research Council (MRC) fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry and in 1965 a senior lecturer and vice dean and also honorary consultant at the Maudsley Hospital until his move to Oxford in 1969.

He married Margaret Anderson (known as ‘Mandy’), a nurse whom he met as a medical student, in 1954 and they remained devoted through more than 60 years of marriage. In Oxford, they lived in a large house and garden with a tennis court in Jack Straw’s Lane, Headington. They had three children, Fiona, Colin and Nicola, and eight grandchildren. In later years, when Mandy suffered disabling orthopaedic problems, he ensured they continued a remarkably full life together.

As an MRC fellow Michael devised a new behavioural approach to anxiety disorders using desensitisation and relaxation and, in 1966, he and Isaac Marks published a controlled trial in patients with severe agoraphobia. This was to prove important in two ways: it led to a programme developing precisely defined treatment methods for various anxiety disorders and it introduced the methods of rigorous controlled evaluation that were becoming established in general medicine into psychiatry.

Michael’s academic and administrative achievements meant he was the outstanding choice for election to the W A Handley chair in the newly-established Oxford department of psychiatry. Arriving at temporary accommodation at the Warneford Hospital in 1969, he immediately began with great energy to build the first academic department of psychiatry outside the Maudsley and Edinburgh. Overcoming the modest initial resources, he recruited talented colleagues, acquired increasing space and developed research programmes. At the same time, he established a clinical unit and gave vigorous leadership to a previously unhappy and fractious clinical service and organised medical student teaching and the training of junior doctors.

He attracted generations of highly talented psychologist and psychiatric colleagues, raised large funding and secured ever expanding buildings and facilities. His main research interest continued to be a highly productive and successful programme developing and evaluating behavioural, and later cognitive, treatments of a wide range of anxiety and depressive disorders. He also collaborated with David Grahame-Smith [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], professor of clinical pharmacology, to develop another new area of research – psychopharmacology –and later promoted multidisciplinary research teams in areas from childhood to old age.

Michael Gelder also manged to play influential roles at the MRC and the Wellcome Trust. He was member of the council of the Royal College of Psychiatrists from 1981 to 1990 but (sadly for the profession) failed in two attempts to become its president. Despite these national responsibilities, he was always conspicuous in the department and in the clinical unit, both in person and in an avalanche of terse memos in his characteristic black ink. By the time he retired in 1996 he had built a department of high international repute and second only in size in Britain to the Institute of Psychiatry.

In addition to his many original research publications, he was commissioned by Oxford University Press to write the Oxford textbook of psychiatry, and this, written with Dennis Gath [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] and Richard Mayou, was published in 1983. It was followed by a short medical student text with the same co-authors and then by further editions and translations of both books. Michael was always the demanding and effective leader in the critical review of original sources and much re-writing to produce readable and clinically useful texts. He was later the principal editor of two editions of a very substantial multi-author Oxford textbook.

Michael rightly saw his contribution to the transformation of Oxford medicine as one his greatest achievements. He was an active member of the group, together with Sir David Weatherall and Sir Peter Morris, established by Sir Richard Doll [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] when he became regius professor and which met weekly to plan the transformation of Oxford into a world-renowned centre of medical sciences research. Though rather few people were aware at the time, or have been since, they totally changed the clinical and preclinical medical schools and indeed Oxford University.

In his working life, Michael was serious, even intimidating, with no time for small talk. However, he was fair, a great supporter of the careers of members of his department and also an excellent clinician. It was a surprise to those who knew him only at work to learn that at Merton College, amongst his friends and in his very full and happy family life, he was seen as relaxed, sociable, humorous and excellent company with many interests.

In retirement Michael continued editing editions of the textbooks with his usual drive and seemingly undiminished mastery of the literature. Despite a formality of dress and a manner, he greatly enjoyed family life and friends and had many interests, including tennis and real tennis, walking with a succession of Alsatian dogs (finally a virtual dog, he told me) and with Sir Roger Bannister’s [Munk’s Roll, XII, web] walking group, travel, especially to Italy and India, and his Italian conversation group. Former colleagues, like myself, looked forward to leisurely and entertaining lunches which revealed his fuller personality and insights into a long life of achievement.

Richard Mayou

[University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry Medical Science Division Professor Michael Gelder (1929-2018) 9 April 2018 – accessed 10 October 2018; BMJ 2018 361 1935 – accessed 10 October 2018; The Times 28 April 2018 – accessed 10 October 2018]

(Volume XII, page web)

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