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Anthony Clare: Psychiatry's Ambassador to the Public

NOVEMBER 02, 2007

Professor Robin Murray at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's reflects on the life and career of his former colleague and friend Anthony Clare, the renowned Psychiatrist and former Institute Vice Dean as well as a famous broadcaster, who died on 28th October Paris.

Anthony Clare was the most brilliant and talented psychiatrist of his generation. He was born in Dublin in 1942, educated by the Jesuits, and qualified in medicine at University College Dublin in 1966.  He was wonderful debater, and as a student won the Observer Mace Trophy. This competition was fought between all UK and Irish Universities, and in winning it, Tony out-argued many who subsequently became prominent politicians. He did an internship in New York, before returning to Dublin and then the Maudsley (in 1969) to train as a psychiatrist. I remember my induction to the Maudsley in 1972. While the various professors and consultants gave informed and well-meaning talks, by far the most impressive came from a Senior Registrar in a velvet suit, Tony Clare. Indeed, Tony, from his relatively lowly position, was in many ways the dominant figure in the Maudsley and IoP in the 1970s. He could as easily electrify a lecture theatre full of bored psychiatrists as he could initiate a lively philosophical argument at the lunch table on the role of psychiatry.  He made everything interesting!

As a Registrar, Tony led a successful national revolt of junior psychiatrists against excessive impositions on trainees from the nascent Royal College of Psychiatrists. Indeed, his political skills resulted in junior psychiatrists both at the Maudsley and nationally, being given a surprisingly big say in decision making for a decade; sadly line-management and the follies of NHS bureaucracy later put paid to this. He became a Researcher in the General Practice Research Unit at the IoP in 1976, and subsequently the deputy to Professor Michael Shepherd. They made a very good partnership, Shepherd the aloof and rather frightening professor, and Tony, at least as intelligent, but also approachable and always in the thick of things, effectively running the Unit. Tony became Vice-Dean of the IoP in 1982 and the following year Professor and Head of Psychological Medicine at Bart’s. He was a hugely energetic head, building up an excellent department, and convincing an over-traditional hospital of the value of psychiatry. In 1979 he returned to Dublin and took up a chair there together with the medical directorship of Saint Patrick's, one of the two main psychiatric hospitals. 

Tony loved communicating, becoming equally passionate in one to one conversation as when talking to millions. He popularized psychiatry throughout the 80s and 90s with the long-running radio 4 series "In the Psychiatrist's Chair", in which he talked with well known people about their life and motivation. He also initiated “All in the Mind” but his scope in broadcasting was larger than just psychiatry. Because he could talk with such eloquence and wit on many subjects from literature to theatre to politics, he appeared as a guest on many TV and radio programmes in the UK and Ireland. In reality, he was a better ambassador to the general public than psychiatry could have wished or even hoped for. Articulate, charming, and so, so knowledgeable, he put a kindly yet intellectually rigorous face to our subject; if only we could have lived up to the picture he painted of us.  His interviews gave a flavour of how the best psychiatrists try to understand people and to do therapy without relying on what he regarded as outmoded Freudian theories.

Tony wrote his first, and best, book, Psychiatry in Dissent, as a trainee psychiatrist. Until its publication in 1976, academic psychiatry had not known how to respond to the attacks of the anti-psychiatrists, R D Laing and Thomas Szasz, tending to oscillate between trying to ignore them and alternately exploding with incoherent rage. Tony considered psychiatry and anti-psychiatry in depth and concluded that while the latter had little theoretical justification, it was a natural reaction to the dreadfully poor state of psychiatric practice in Britain and the USA. He penned several further books on psychiatry for the general public, including three volumes based on his radio show, as well as Depression and How to Survive It (1994) which was co-written with the comedian Spike Milligan. 

Tony Clare was undoubtedly the psychiatrist who has made the greatest impact on the public consciousness over the last 30 years, as demonstrated by the many tributes to him in the newspapers, TV and radio. His legacy includes not only a better understanding of psychiatry among the public but also very many present-day psychiatrists who were persuaded to take up the specialty by the inspirational model that he provided. In 2001 he decided that he had done enough in the public sphere and thereafter worked quietly as a psychiatrist at St Edmundsbury Hospital in Dublin. He had been very well and was returning from a happy holiday in Sardinia when he died suddenly of a heart attack during a stop-over in Paris on 28 October.   He is survived by his wife, Jane, and their seven children. There was a huge funeral on Thursday 1st November with 700 attendees, including half the political and media establishment of Dublin. Particularly impressive was the number of his own patients who came to pay their personal respects and thanks. His son Simon gave a touching farewell in which he pointed out that his highly energetic father had done so much rushing around, from buying the family shopping and dropping the numerous children, to lecturing at medical school, seeing patients in hospital, and doing TV interviews, that he was often running late. Sadly, said Simon, the one thing that Tony was early for in his life was his death!  

Robin M Murray

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