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Dr Jim Birley CBE | 1928 - 2013

The Institute of Psychiatry at King’s regrets to announce the death of Dr Jim Birley, former Dean of the Institute of Psychiatry and outstanding academic in the field of social psychiatry. 

Dr James Leatham Tennant Birley CBE (1928 – 2013), known to everyone as Jim, was born on Wimpole St London, into a distinguished medical family and was educated at Winchester College, Oxford University, and St Thomas's Hospital, London.

Becoming interested in psychiatry while working in the army, Dr Birley followed his role as a (conscript) Junior Medical Specialist while stationed in Germany with a MRCP (London), a year working with Dr William Sargant, and then in 1960, a clinical position at the Maudsley Hospital where he stayed for the rest of his career.

Dr Birley also worked for three years in the MRC Social Psychiatry Unit  (now the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Department) and was appointed consultant in 1968. This was followed by his election to the positions of Dean of the Institute of Psychiatry (1971-82); Dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists 1982-87; and President of the Royal College of Psychiatrist 1987-90. Awarded a CBE for services to psychiatry in the late 80’s, he retired from clinical work on January 1st, 1991 before being elected President of the British Medical Association for 1993-94.

In addition to his remarkable academic achievements, Dr Birley (alongside his wife Julia) initiated many social schemes to improve the Camberwell community. These included, establishing the Windsor Walk Housing Association (1960s) which provided several houses for supervised patient accommodation and was the first of its kind set up in Southwark including one at the perfectly named address, Therapia Road, Peckham; founding the Southwark Association for Mental Health and organising the annual Maudsley fete (bringing together patients, staff and members of the public) for 15 consecutive years.

Jim Birley played a key role in establishing social psychiatry as the most innovative and influential area in psychiatric research and service development. With academic and creative leadership provided by John Wing and George Brown, Jim Birley made a major contribution to early studies linking life stress to the onset of psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia. This paved the way to studies of family interactions and their effect on prognosis in schizophrenia with Julian Leff. At the Maudsley, Jim pressed for local catchment area services, expanded out patient and community services (as an alternative to long term institutional care) and pioneered the ‘District Services Centre (DSC)’ housed in what became Douglas Bennett House.

Prof Tony David, (Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, Department of Psychosis and former colleague) writes: “I have a few distinct memories of Jim Birley. He was always curious about new developments in psychiatry and supportive to me throughout my career. After his retirement we had a correspondence in which he would ask for updates on research and tell me quirky anecdotes about life in his farmhouse in Hereford and gossipy tales about the Institute.

“In one letter he described an episode which he had spoken about publicly before, when he himself suffered a brief psychotic illness. This was early on during his tenure as Dean of the IoP when, along with much of the country, industrial relations were poor. After a long struggle with one of the trades unions, a resolution seemed to be in sight. He suddenly came to believe that he had been supported by some higher perhaps divine power. Word of this sudden and abnormal change reached Dr Douglas Bennett  who came to see Jim and advised him to go home immediately and rest, along with a small dose of haloperidol. This he took but it caused uncomfortable side-effects. He instead took some of his supply of largactil (chlorpromazine) which he kept for domiciliary visits. He wrote: “this gave me the most delicious feeling of total relaxation – like sinking into a hot bath”. After 72 hours he was back to normal. No doubt this gave Jim even more empathy and understanding of people who suffer from mental illness.

Jim to me will always be the big guy with huge humanity, an infectious wheezy laugh and terrible taste in knitted ties!”

Described as the "caring face of psychiatry", Dr Jim Birley will be remembered for his outstanding contribution to psychiatry as well as his unshakable good nature. Jim will be missed, by all who knew him and the many more who were touched by his work. Our thoughts are with his friends and family.