Robert Kendell

Robert Evan Kendell, Chief Medical Officer, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists

Born: 28 March, 1935

Died: 19 December, 2002, aged 67

THERE are some whose lives embrace so many and such varied activities that it is difficult even for their friends to appreciate the full range of their accomplishments. This was certainly true of Robert Kendell.

He was born in Rotherham, Yorkshire, but spent much of his childhood among the Welsh hills from which, with the encouragement of his geologist father, he derived his lifelong passion for mountains and mountaineering. The family subsequently moved to London, where he became head boy at Mill Hill school before winning a scholarship to Peterhouse College, Cambridge. There he achieved a double first in the Natural Science Tripos (Biochemistry) in 1956.

He early resolved to become a psychiatrist and began his medical studies at King’s College Medical School, where he again swept up numerous student medals and prizes before qualifying in 1959. A series of junior appointments followed, including one at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases and another at the Brompton Hospital (though somehow he managed to fit in his passion for mountaineering, and as a highly accomplished climber took part in expeditions to the Andes and Himalayas).

After attaining a higher degree in general medicine he went to the Maudsley Hospital, the natural choice for his psychiatric training. He made rapid progress there, graduating with a distinction in the final diploma. On joining the staff of the hospital, his talent for research in a number of areas became increasingly evident; he was soon invited to join the academic Institute of Psychiatry, where within five years he was appointed Reader.

By now his scientific reputation was growing, both at home and abroad, and he was offered a professorship in psychiatry at Edinburgh University in 1974.

He did all he could to encourage the growth of research, setting an example by his prodigious energies and producing a range of highly influential publications; these chiefly concerned the major psychoses and the formidable problems of psychiatric classification, but he did not shrink from grappling with some of the philosophical assumptions that underlie the practice of psychiatry and indeed, of medicine in general.

His services were sought by the Medical Research Council, the Mental Health Foundation and the World Health Organisation, and he undertook many duties on behalf of all of these, plus many other bodies.

The part he played in policy discussions within the faculty of medicine was characterised by wise, terse and practical contributions, and the respect of his colleagues was demonstrated by his election as Dean in 1986. As with his previous appointments his period in office was marked by a strong encouragement of research, and it is no exaggeration to say that the current flourishing of medical research institutes in Edinburgh can be traced to Bob’s enthusiasm and hard work.

His talents for organisation and his grasp of epidemiology made him an ideal choice as Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, a post he occupied from 1991 to 1996. At the Scottish Office he had to contend with all the usual problems attendant on Scotland’s excessive fondness for alcohol and tobacco, but in addition found himself in the centre of the crisis over BSE and CJD, which made many stressful demands on all his skills. The award of a CBE was recognition of his success.

He was soon after elected president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and though the role is virtually full-time he was able to find the energy and time to act as president or chairman of a number of scientific bodies, to travel as visiting professor to many centres in the United States, Canada and Australia, to act as examiner at several centres, and to serve on innumerable committees concerned with education and science.

He retired in 1999, but for Bob retirement meant working at home, and he published some 12 substantial papers over the next two years.

He was always courteous, amiable and readily willing to help others, but notwithstanding his general good humour he was a reserved man and there was always a touch of diffidence about him, as though he was never quite convinced of his own eminence.

Though always exceptionally fit, he collapsed at his home on 19 December and died a few hours later.

He is survived by his wife Ann, a consultant anaesthetist, four children and a grandchild, and by a reputation that places him both academically and for his practical contributions as one of the outstanding figures of his generation.