Eliot Slater - A Tribute

by César Pérez de Francisco

I come from a family of physicians and odontologists; illness and therapeutic efforts were the background of my early life. When I was able to define and state clearly to myself what I felt, it was to realize that my father, my grandfather, my uncles, and all physicians, were combating the darker side of life. By this I mean that the war we, the white armies, wage is aimed at restoring health, at imposing order on the havoc caused by disease, and at preventing death; we are not accustomed in our work to see much of creativity, one aspect of the excellence human beings can achieve. I believe that the engineer, the farmer, the manufacturer and the miner all feel themselves to be in one way or another creative in producing, bridges, food, tooth­paste, or mercury.

But the highest aim a doctor can hope to accomplish is to recover for his patient a biological balance. Perhaps this is the basis on which the behaviour of a physician is built. He knows that man has but a poor foothold, is subject to the ravages of time and to an unavoidable transiency. He knows too, more or less clearly, the sad and tragic faces of existence. Of course, he knows also, and there is no doubt that this is an exception, the joy of birth; but even here, and using the term 'therapist' in a strict sense, he knows that to help and to deliver is not to cure. Hence, this image of the physician as antagonist of disease, pain and madness represents only one aspect of the truth about him.

    When I met Eliot Slater I suspected that before me there was in Unamuno's words a complete man. Not a man all‑of‑a‑piece, which would imply simplicity, but, a complete man in the subtle and infinite complexity that the term implies. I shall not easily forget those big high boots, for it was winter, his warm clothes of a sport­ing cut, harmonious, nonchalant. He saw me that first time, in the Unit to which I was to return to work after three years. It was winter in 1964 and we talked for a while. We talked of his friend of Munich days, Dionisio Nieto, now Professor of Psychiatry in Mexico, under whose guidance I took my first steps in psychological medicine. All this was a long time ago but I remember that he recalled Pasternak and the translations of his poems so well done by his first wife; he talked of his children, of his second wife and, of course, of his activities and of things I could do when part of the team. The impression, at first mere conjecture, was becoming firmer: this man had a strong personality.

    Compared with the many months of postgraduate clinical studies in Paris, those I spent in London in late 1967 were in marked con­trast. From my first stumbling steps in psychiatry in Mexico, reading through the 'bible', Mayer‑Gross, Slater and Roth, I realized that Anglo‑Saxon thinking was rigorous. Upon becoming a member of the Genetics Unit, this opinion was confirmed day after day. Eliot Slater made me decide first exactly what it was I wanted to do. Whenever we talked, he drove me to telling him exactly what I meant. He made me understand exactly what research consists of. He did not present it as description, nor as criticism, nor as a difficult pursuit, but as a way of life. It consisted of attaining, first of all, small and already‑known truths which when discovered by oneself, flourish again and seem virgin. To be able to read a karyotype was an accomplishment I owe to J. Khan, since he taught me how to do it, but before him, Eliot Slater, who forced me to make my own ideas clear to myself before starting any work.

    His teachings were transcendant in far more than their practical aspects. I remember that for some reason I made some comments about psychopathic personalities. On realizing that there was no end to my argumentativeness, for I admit I have a marked weakness for arguments, he brought me the next day the proof‑sheets of an important part of the third edition of Clinical Psychiatry. He would be grateful he said if I would criticize and correct the chapter. I do not have to describe how embarrassing it was for me to accept the proofs for such a purpose. But, I read them with a scientific passion, with a true eagerness to find new points to debate, so as to feed and preserve the intellectual pleasure which I gained from arguing with Eliot Slater. I never finished learning as much as I should have liked. Whether this was due to the short time I stayed at the Maudsley or to my own limitations I cannot say.

    For these reasons, and because of the deep affection I feel for my English professor, I always call when visiting London. On the most recent occasion, we went to the Royal Society of Medicine's Club which used to be in Chandos House, to lunch and to talk at ease. We drank coffee in the yard warmed by a tender spring sun and then we went to the small room where he edited the British Journal of Psychiatry. I call this room minute when I compare it with one's mental image of such a prestigious journal. I did not accept gladly

    Slater's leaving his position as Editor‑in‑Chief of theJournal. When I told him so, he gave me another lesson: 'Ten years', he said, 'is enough. Let others come and do it, let them change the whole approach, let the tone be modified, let other viewpoints evolve'‑1 kept my silence and listened‑'Besides', he added, 'now I read a lot, I listen to music, I paint, I write poems, and some philosophical essays about science'.

    I was then aware again of what I had already realized. Slater is creative in every sense of the word. He strives at all times, and here I remember Ortega's words, to make his life with elegance and dignity.

    Many have been able to know Eliot Slater the scientist and doctor either directly, through his books, the three editions of Clinical Psychiatry, the volume on genetic psychiatry, and his work with William Sargant on physical treatments in psychiatry, his numerous papers or through the homage that Shields and Gottesman dedicated to him. Few know that Eliot Slater is a poet too.

    In The Ebbless Sea (1962) he published poems written between 1922

to 1962. A wonderful book! Not only because it is proof of his creativity; but because in discovering that the psychiatrist and the scientist is also a poet we realize Slater's great intellectual restless­ness. It is a good book because it shows all the flavour of a proud, intelligent being caught between the joy of living and the certainty of death. Perhaps, that is why he begins his work with the epitaph for a poet:

Stranger, smile kindly; 'twas my youth to blame
                           That I once hoped that you might know my name.

    It is a most difficult thing to try to understand a poet without mastering the language in which he writes. I think, however, that I have understood the implicit beauty of 'Summer', the refined and subtle humour of 'Good Resolution', and the tenderness of 'Re­encounter' where love arises from metaphysical profiles and trans­itoriness. Since in this book we are paying homage to a man we all love and admire, I have translated into Spanish, for him the title of his book of poems and the last poem in it.

    'The Ebbless Sea' may be translated into Spanish in just one word which is, incidentally, a seaworthy one: pleamar. My reason for the choice are that 'ebb' means a receding sea and implies decline or loss. Since the suffix contradicts the 'ebb' we must be dealing with a desire to describe fullness. In Spanish, pleamar means the end or the highest part of the tide, and it means too the time such a tide lasts. It is my wish that the Spanish translation of the poems that ought some day to be made should be called Pleamar. Let us now pass on to those wonderful four lines which Slater has named 'Coda', which, as we know, is the name which, in music, is given to the brilliant addition to the last part of a musical piece. It has not been easy, however, to find a just and equivalent Spanish expression for 'Be not cast down'. I finally translated it as 'No te aflijas, oh Dios!'. This, then, is the result:


Be not cast down, O God! When disappear
   Thou and Thy Works, the Substance and the Law,
There was one morning of ten billion years
   Which I, E. Slater, found without a flaw.

                             No te aflijas, oh Dios! cuando desaparezcan
                               Tù y Tus obras, las Sustancia y la Ley
                             Hubo una mañana entre diez billones de años
                                Que yo, E. Slater, hallé sin falla.

    The Editors, Sir Martin Roth and my old friend Dr Valerie Cowie asked me to be brief. I mention this because I have so many more things to say. Though we have all had fine professors and skilful teachers, there are few masters. I am proud to have contributed to this book. I have been and remain Eliot Slater's pupil.