Eliot Slater - A Personal Memory

By Vera Steal

Bethlem & Maudsley Gazette, Vol. 31 No 3, Summer 1983, p. 18-19

In the late 1940's, as a newly appointed psw at the Mauds­ley, I first became aware of Eliot Slater as the tall, quiet figure with an intriguing shock of corn‑coloured hair falling over his eyes, who with Jerry Shields occupied the next room. Around this time, someone remarked disparagingly that Eliot had been observed, in conversat­ion with colleagues, with his feet on the desk‑top. Not done in 1948! But I was amused by the unorthodoxy. However, he remained a shadowy figure (and I am sure he was unaware of my existence).

   A few years later, my friend Eric Glithero left the Maudsley for the National in Queen Square, where he was to become closely associated with Eliot, whom I then came to know a little, if vicariously. Then, in 1959, I joined Eliot's department at the National, leaving, as also did Eric, only when Eliot himself left 6 years later. It was typical of his modesty that he was completely surprised that Eric and I were ‑ as were many others ‑ much distressed by his leaving. At about that time, 1964‑5, the MRC Psy­chiatric Genetics Unit at the Maudsley needed a worker, mainly to assist Jerry Shields, and, reluctantly at first because it was a kind of "going back", I joined the Hut team, and came to know Eliot more and was able to make small contributions to his work.

   Others more able, and more appropriately, can speak of Eliot's contribution to psychiatry, and to life; I am trying to give a picture of the man in two of whose teams I was privileged to work. He was indeed, as Sir Martin Roth [1] has written, "a man of rare intellectual vigour and passion", a man of "generosity and nobility of spirit". I was impressed by his deep humanity, his charm and courteousness, and I enjoyed his sometimes impish sense of humour; his infinite patience and gentleness with those less fortunate was humbling. To those of us who were rarely up on the same plane, Eliot was intellectually invigorating; and the breadth of his interests was inspiring. He encouraged all of us to do our own thing. Indeed, when in conversation with Brian Barraclough [2], regarding his editorship of the British Journal of Psychiatry, he said that his idea of the job of an editor was to "get a lot of helpers, let them do what they liked to do and just collate it and gather the threads"; and he spoke of "how people could be encouraged and not squashed".

   It cannot be coincidence that all Eliot's teams were happy. In his Autobiographical Sketch (1969) [3] he describes both the Sutton Emergency Hospital team, during the war years, and the Maudsley during his early years there, as a "happy ship", and the team spirit "tremendous". For me, work at the National gave six satisfying years, in a happy department, its members imbued with the know­ledge that we were all pulling together to achieve a com­mon purpose in our varied ways. The readiness with which we constantly helped each other stemmed, I am sure, from Eliot's own wide generosity. Though we had many very busy OP clinics, the week's main event was the case con­ference, when we all contributed, including colleagues from other disciplines, and visitors, to deep and wide­ranging discussion. Eliot then was a true teacher, helping to increase awareness of the many factors involved in a patient and his illness, and one rarely came away from a conference without some new insight.

   But perhaps the time at the Hut was the happiest, all of us with satisfying work, and enjoying our unorthodox, semi‑rural surroundings, which gave rise sometimes to some practical problems which we all got together to solve. In a recent letter to me, enclosing a copy of the 'In conver­sation with Eliot Slater' [2], Eliot wrote, "I am sorry I didn't get and didn't make an opportunity to say what a happy team we all were in the Hut". And on another occasion, "They say that our Hut is being refurbished beautifully" ‑still "our" Hut, several years after he had retired; and, as recently as last December, he wrote, "I do like to hear what is going on in my old home."

   The Hut was, indeed, a home. And a very busy place, noisy with the clacking of typewriters, often in every room. All, including Eliot, typed, and typed a great deal. Eliot was an efficient typist, and moderately fast. Occasionally there would be a sudden stentorian bellow of a laugh from Eliot's room, so infectious that ripples went right through the Hut. Except for the rare day when his usual benign good humour was absent arid he appeared unrecept­ive (when we would keep back the query or the small matter of interest until the next day) Eliot was always ready to give, but never to impose, help, advice and critic­ism. Our routine was fairly fixed; constant work was interrupted only by regular gatherings, always for a lim­ited time, in the general office for morning coffee, after lunch coffee and later tea (Eliot often having his in his own room). Christmas Eve was always marked by another com­munal tea, Eliot providing Dundee cake and wine.

   Eliot inspired great loyalty in his colleagues, and from him we received constant encouragement, interestand help; anger too, sometimes, if we persisted in being foolish or slovenly in our work; and tetchiness sometimes over trivial matters if we tried to slide around them instead of coping in the proper way.

   Eliot's interest in ecology is well known. In a more domestic sphere, for example, he was always concerned about the occasional, and finally the band, of stray cats that at one time scratched a living near the Hut. When, before contract cleaning, our cleaner who, equally, loved the Hut, and kept it sparklingly clean, admonished anyone who so much as threw an unwrapped tissue into the wpb discovered a stray kitten and brought it in, we took turns in taking it home at night and caring for it until a home was found. Eliot, having been warned not to tread on the little scrap in the general office, was always warmly inter­ested. And he later played a small part in helping towards the almost miraculous solution, when Brenda Robinson successfully housed all the cats in her own home. Eliot continued to ask after the cat family. And I cherish his gift of one of his paintings, of a cat, as also I cherish deeply compassionate and comforting letters from him at a time of much suffering.

   When, on Eliot's retirement, the Unit was disbanded, and the Hut became the home of the section of psychi­atric genetics of the Institute's department of psychiatry, much of the original work continued. To our pleasure, Eliot was allowed a "grace and favour" room at the Hut, which he regularly used for some years, to mutual benefit. But, naturally, more recently his visits became less frequent, more so when engrossed in the work for his Shakespearian thesis, resulting, to his delight, in the award of Ph.D only last year.

   Eliot obviously enjoyed his life, and was himself a most enjoyable man.

[1] in his Foreword to 'Man, Mind, and Heredity', Psychiatry, Genetics and Pathology: A Tribute to Eliot Slater, ed. M. Roth & V. Cowie, Gaskell, London, 1979.

[2] In Conversation with Eliot Slater, Bull. Roy. Coll. Psychiatrists. Sept/Oct. 1981.

[3] [Autobiographical Sketch (1969)] in Man, Mind and Heredity: Selected Papers of Eliot Slater on Psychiatry and Genetics, ed. J. Shields & I. I. Gottesman, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1971.