Obituaries: Lawrence J. Whalley, mental health professor behind groundbreaking studies into brain ageing and dementia

Professor Lawrence J. Whalley MD DPM FRCP(E) FRCPsych. Born: 12 March, 1946 in Lancashire. Died: 11 April, 2024 in Edinburgh, aged 78

It became an international news story when on 1 June 1998, at the invitation of Lawrence Whalley, Professor in Mental Health at the University of Aberdeen, an initial group of 90 elderly Aberdonians sat down at desks in a local music hall and took IQ tests identical to those they had taken aged 11 on the same day exactly 66 years earlier.

The class was supervised by Ian Deary from the University of Edinburgh, wearing the black gown worn by most British school teachers in the 1920s and 30s. So began a unique and immensely productive groundbreaking series of life-course studies into brain ageing and dementia.

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Like so many advances in medicine and science it depended initially on serendipity. For while exploring which life-course factors and antecedents might contribute to the risk of getting dementia in later life, Lawrence Whalley found, almost by chance, what was by any definition an epidemiologist’s treasure trove.

Lawrence J Whalley lived in Scotland for 50 years but retained his Lancashire accentLawrence J Whalley lived in Scotland for 50 years but retained his Lancashire accent
Lawrence J Whalley lived in Scotland for 50 years but retained his Lancashire accent

British educationalists had decided to test school children using recently developed intelligence quotient (IQ) tests and in 1932, on the same day, almost every child in Scotland born in 1921 sat the Moray House tests. These tests were also taken in 1947 by Scottish children born in 1936. Collaborating with Professor Ian Deary, Lawrence Whalley, by tracing and recruiting in later life people who had taken part in the Scottish Mental Surveys, discovered some of the clues to healthy cognitive ageing, making important contributions to the new field of cognitive epidemiology.

Lawrence Whalley was born in Lancashire, one of four children to James Whalley, a mechanical engineer, and his wife Florence. It was a close family whose support was unwavering during the years of their mother’s declining health and early death when Lawrence was 12.

A capacity for hard work and intellectual curiosity began early, notably at St Joseph’s College in Blackpool where the teaching brothers inspired him. He trained in Medicine at the University of Newcastle and, while still a medical student, married Patricia, who was training to be a teacher. They brought up their three daughters, Charlotte, Amanda, and Elizabeth in Edinburgh.

He had worked in junior NHS posts in Oxford before deciding psychiatry was to be his career and the family moved to Edinburgh in 1971. After psychiatric training, he was appointed Senior Clinical Scientist in the Medical Research Council’s Brain Metabolism Unit, based at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

There, the focus of clinical research was the brain chemistry underlying the devastating symptoms experienced by many patients during the early stages of major mental illnesses including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Backed up by the neuro- endocrine laboratory of Professor George Fink, Lawrence Whalley led the clinical group who measured levels of hormones in patients receiving treatment for acute psychotic illness, gaining novel insights described in a series of seminal publications on hormone changes accompanying mania.

In 1992 he was appointed Crombie Ross Professor of Mental Health in the University of Aberdeen, and honorary consultant NHS Grampian UK. With a focus on the epidemiology of dementia he seized the opportunities that opened when he gained access to the data from the Scottish Mental Surveys.

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A five-year Welcome Professorial Senior Fellowship (2001-2006) allowed him time out from his other academic responsibilities and his clinical work in old age general psychiatry to pursue this further, to publish The Ageing Brain for a lay readership in 2001 and write many scientific articles and other academic books on the subject. He continued to write after retirement, contributing a third of his final 300 peer-reviewed publications, and his contribution at international conferences was widely sought, particularly in the United States.

Although he lived for more than 50 years in Scotland, Lawrence remained proud of his Lancashire roots, and he never lost his accent. Underlying his direct way of speaking and sometimes brusque manner lay a complex emotional man for whom personal relationships were important. Patricia and Helen, his second wife, continued actively to support him in his work and within the family; he, in turn, continued to support them.

After retirement, until the Covid years intervened, he would spend winters in Spain, near his sister. He read widely, was never at a loss in conversations and was rarely without an opinion.

He enjoyed travel, walking, and cooking with friends and neighbours even as, in recent years, his general physical health declined. He saw much of his three daughters and six grandchildren, talking proudly of their many achievements. He became a lively presence too in the lives of Helen’s family, Nicola, Christina, and Ronan. He was full of energy, generosity and loyalty to friends, family members, and colleagues, for whom his death was sudden and unexpected.


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