Obituary: Dr W Norman Taylor, psychiatrist

Born: 17 January, 1919, in Armadale. Died: 25 July, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 94

W Norman Taylor obit pic.

Had he followed his heart, Norman Taylor could quite possibly have pursued a career in the creative sphere. However, his interests in the arts and literature were at odds with the ambitions his father harboured for his son: he wanted him to become a doctor, a career path he duly followed. It took him from a Fife GP practice to war service in the jungles of Burma followed by more than three decades as a psychiatrist at Edinburgh Royal Hospital and a spell working at the Scottish Institute of Human Relations.

Throughout that time he painted and wrote intermittently but it wasn’t until the age of 88 that, thanks to the insistence of friends, he finally saw his literary efforts in print with the publication of his book Poems of Wartime Years.

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Not war poems in the conventional sense, they were a view from the periphery, rather than the heat of the action, and reflections through the years of the Second World War and other conflicts, bearing, he said, “the stamp of futility, cynicism, sadness and a flicker of hope”.

Named William, after his father William Taylor, chief accountant for the General Post Office in Scotland, he was born in Armadale and was always known as Norman. He grew up in Uphall and Edinburgh, where he was educated at Daniel Stewart’s College before bowing to his father’s wishes and going to Edinburgh University in the late 1930s to study medicine.

He was a student when the Second World War broke out in 1939 and knew he would be conscripted after qualifying. He was doing his GP training at a practice in Leven, Fife, when the call came and, after serving with an infantry battalion in coastal defence on the Isle of Wight, he was sent to a West African division, accompanying them into the jungles of Burma as part of South East Asia Command. “This involved a fight against disease as well as the Japanese,” he later explained, recalling the constant battle against malaria, dysentery, sandfly fever and the parasitic swamp leeches that could fight their way through the lace-holes of their boots: “Two pairs of socks were helpful!”

However, at one point, on his way through the Suez Canal, he found time to produce two striking water colours of the waterway. They would later be rediscovered and displayed at his funeral.

After Burma, he set sail to return the African soldiers to their homes in the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Before being demobbed in September 1946, he spent several months at a prisoner of war camp in Lanarkshire serving as medical officer for German soldiers, many of whom had served in Russia and suffered terrible frostbite, losing not only fingers or toes but whole limbs

In his anthology of poems, published in 2007, he said: “It was disconcerting to be back in civilian life. Peace was full of unease and hardly seemed peaceful. The effect of the war on social life, and upon my reaction to it, was disturbing.

“Our culture had changed and I felt not for the better, I was uneasy and thinking moreover of the international unrest and subsequent wars. I wondered what it was all leading to. I still wonder.”

After demobilisation he decided to specialise in psychiatry and obtained a job as a trainee psychiatrist at the Jordanburn Nerve Hospital and Psychological Institute, part of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, where he studied for his diploma in psychological medicine during night shifts.

Following the birth of the National Health Service in 1948, he spent the major part of his working life in the NHS at the Royal Edinburgh, where he remained until retiring at 65. During his time there he met Anna Freud, youngest daughter of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who had followed in her father’s professional footsteps.

Among Dr Taylor’s own artworks was a charcoal portrait of Freud that hung in the Taylor family home. While at the Royal Edinburgh he specialised in psychotherapy for individuals, couples and groups, and developed a particular interest in marital work with couples.

A warm, helpful and generous man, he was known for his persistence, sticking with patients long after others would have given up.

His classic reaction, when faced with a difficulty, was to acknowledge there was something he did not understand, something missing, which he would have to grapple with in order to find the key. His longest-standing client had been a patient for 20 years who finally, thanks to his indomitable spirit, got to the root of her problems.

He also shared his expertise with students when, as an Edinburgh University lecturer, he was involved in training junior psychiatrists, nurses, social workers and other professionals involved in a counselling role. He was attached to Edinburgh University Student Counselling Service for many years and supervised counsellors on the Edinburgh Marriage Guidance Council, later the Lothian Marriage Guidance Counselling Service, for more than a decade, serving as its chairman for three years.

After retiring from the NHS, he worked as a private psychotherapist at the Scottish Institute for Human Relations and continued supervising counsellors.

Although unquestionably dedicated in a professional role, when it came to his many outside pursuits – with the exception of climbing – he could be something of a dilettante. He took up a variety of interests: he painted, but not continuously, in oils and watercolours; he wrote somewhat intermittently; he studied Chinese and Japanese calligraphy for a time.

He had a smattering of several languages: after marrying his Hebridean-born wife Isobel, in 1943, he took up her native Gaelic on and off throughout his life; when he had a Japanese interpreter he grasped the opportunity to learn some Japanese; when he had an Italian patient he tried to learn Italian; he had a good knowledge of French and had learned enough Russian and Czech during the war to attempt his own translation of a Pushkin poem and retain the ability, up until the end, to sing the Czech national anthem.

A man of almost indestructible physique, he began rock and ice climbing in his 50s and was one of the early members of Edinburgh’s Jacobite Mountaineering Club.

For the past decade he had been involved in editing a number of books. The last one he worked on, Infants and children: An introduction to emotional development, by his friend Mirabelle Maslin, focused on subject matter close to his heart and is due for publication next month.

Totally self-deprecating regarding his own talents, it took a great deal of persuasion to convince him to commit some of his poetry to print in his latter years. More remains unpublished.

Widowed more than 50 years ago, he is survived by his son Iain and daughter Deirdre.