Obituary: Dr Ronald Sandison

Shetland-born psychiatrist pioneered use of LSD to treat his British patients

Born: 1 April, 1916, on Shetland.

Died: 18 June, 2010, in Ledbury, Herefordshire, aged 94.

RONALD Sandison was an acclaimed psychiatrist and early pioneer in the UK of the clinical use of the drug LSD. He believed that, if administered under strict control, it could help the recovery of disturbed patients. Later in his career, he abandoned using the drug in treatment but remained convinced of its benefits.

A fine, much respected clinician, he had a powerful intellect and a gracious and patient manner. He had a keen understanding for, and empathy with, his often troubled patients. He was a firm believer in encouraging patients to listen to music and relax with other forms of art.

Despite leaving the islands at an early age, Sandison always considered himself a Shetlander: his father's family stretched back to the 15th century. He returned most summers for a holiday and in 1969 bought a rundown cottage that he enjoyed converting and modernising. In 1975, he accepted the post of resident psychiatrist on Shetland. It was a post he filled with much distinction and which he greatly enjoyed.

Ronald Arthur Sandison was born in the Shetland Islands but his father soon after his birth was transferred to London to supervise the department that managed ancient monuments in Britain. He attended King's College School, Wimbledon, and then won a scholarship to read medicine at King's College Hospital in London. He qualified in 1940 and joined the RAF, but he was much involved carrying out research at the physiological laboratory at Farnborough.

Prior to the D-Day invasion, Sandison toured RAF stations, advising the pilots on breathing oxygen at high altitudes. In 1946, he was demobbed in the rank of wing commander.

Rather than return to medical practice or research, he decided to study psychiatry and qualified in 1948. Three years later, he was appointed a consultant at Powick Hospital in Worcester. It was a huge establishment - with up to 1,000 patients - and in a sorry state. "The amenities were bleak in the extreme," he later wrote. The rooms were overcrowded and the treatment sadly out of date. By dint of his own hard work and the respect he enjoyed from his colleagues, the hospital gained an international reputation for its care and modern methods of treatment. Dr Sandison also founded a branch of the Samaritans in Worcester.

In 1952, Sandison had visited Switzerland, where colleagues were researching the clinical uses of LSD. He brought back to Powick some LSD which he administered to selected patients. The doses he gave were small and were principally used to explore the patients' subconscious - they were only given to patients where other treatment and counselling had failed. It was, nonetheless, a controversial move and was the subject of an investigative and somewhat critical programme on the BBC.

His pioneering work was to be continued at Powick, but starting in 1964, Sandison worked for a decade in Southampton University, where he developed group therapy meetings for schizophrenics and was involved in the creation of the university's medical school.

In 1975, Sandison returned to work in Shetland. He had had lengthy discussions with the local health board, arguing that it was more practical (and cheaper) to set up a clinic with him in charge rather than fly their psychiatric patients down to Aberdeen for treatment. His work on Shetland branched out to assisting many areas of the community. Sandison helped his patients through many difficult periods in their lives and founded centres for those with alcohol problems and advised young people on family panning.

His contribution to advancing health care in his professional years on Shetland was considerable and he became a popular and respected member of the community.

Sandison spent the last years of his professional career in London working on various projects. He established a successful private practice at St Luke's Hospital and acted as consultant to the Bishop of London and his clergy. He retired to Hertfordshire in 1992.

Malcolm Pines, in his introduction to Sandison's autobiography (A Century of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Group Analysis: a Search for Integration), extolled his career.

"Ronnie has drawn on his life experience with his excellent memory and looks over his more than half century of experience in psychiatry and psychotherapy. He draws us into the world as he found it, and changed it," he wrote.

Sandison, a man of confirmed Christian faith, was a keen sailor and walker. He was thrice married. With his first wife, Evelyn Oppen, he had two sons That and his second marriage in 1965, to Margaret Godfrey, ended in divorce. In 1982, he married Beth Almond, who survives him.