[Clinical Psychology Forum, 95, 14-17,1996]

J. Richard Marshall

DAVID SMAIL, Nottingham Community Health NHS Trust

I just want to say a little about what I see as the importance of Richard's work, and perhaps to convey some idea of what some of it was about to those who aren't familiar with it.

Richard was a kind of passionate intellectual force within psychology - particularly of course clinical psychology. He didn't just see patients for a living and write articles to further his career; he was fired by a hatred of the kinds of social injustice and inequality which so often underlie the difficulties which cause people emotional and psychological distress, and he offered himself as a kind of resource in the intellectual battle against those supposedly 'scientific' influences within psychiatry and psychology which serve the very interests of power and privilege which maintain social inequality.

Every time I have some reason to look through my collection of papers and journal articles I am always surprised to find how many of them were sent to me by Richard, many because he had either written or contributed to them himself, but many more because he had come across them and knew I'd be interested in them. This was a tremendously sustaining and supportive aspect of Richard's activity, and one I badly miss. If Richard identified you as an ally, he made sure you stayed part of something, a momentum of opposition to the abuse of power; kept you informed and in contact, introduced you to people and ideas with whom and with which he knew you'd sympathize.

Richard lived more clearly and uncompromisingly than anyone I know by the recognition that disciplines like psychiatry and psychology are not just neutral scientific activities - the platitudinous 'disinterested pursuit of knowledge' in order to 'benefit mankind' - but are through and through political enterprises set up to support and further a particular kind of social order.

At a distance, we can all appreciate easily enough how supposedly scientific enterprises might get out of hand. Take the following, for example (supplied, needless to say, by Richard). This is from an article by Prof Ernst Rüdin, leading light in the Society for Race Hygiene in Nazi Germany:

The foundation of the German Society for Racial Hygiene was back in the year 1905, when Alfred Ploetz, the founder of German racial hygiene and today honorary member of the society, together with a group of friends, to which I also belonged, undertook the first attempt in Germany to create a spread of the principles of racial Hygiene though the organisation of societies. In spite of our constant endeavours to inform the public that it was about time that something was done about the race, in spite of our references even at the beginning of this century to the cultural-creative value of the Nordic race and the drastic danger of the decline of the German birth rate and the spoonfeeding of all the hereditarily weak, ill and less valuable, which is contrary to nature, our ideas could find no recognition in authoritative positions. Even if our movement succeeded in silently and slowly winning over the brains and hearts of our best Germans, the lack of organization ensured that no racial hygiene measures could be taken. The importance of racial hygiene has only become known in Germany to all intelligent Germans through the political work of Adolf Hitler, and it was only through him that our more than thirty-year-old dream has become a reality and racial hygiene principles have been translated into action.

Well, nothing particularly surprising about that, you might think - just the kind of crazy outpouring you might expect of a Nazi psychiatrist in 1938. Even so, it's salutary to reflect on what an important establishment figure this man (and others like him) had been since the turn of the century. This was no lunatic shouting in a Munich beer hall, but a respected medical figure who could expect and no doubt received an attentive audience among his profession. Serious, accredited, respectable professionals attended earnestly to this kind of stuff and no doubt genuinely believed it to have sound scientific credentials. But all right, you might say, that was them, and not us. But then what about this?

This is from an after-dinner speech by a famous psychological scientist. The dinner was given in his honour at University College London, and in this section he is developing a rather nauseatingly self-laudatory nostalgic overview of his career:

The Royal Society Council having passed a resolution that mathematics and biology should not be mixed, Biometrika was founded with Galton as consultant and Weldon and myself as joint editors. Buccaneer expeditions into many fields followed; fights took place on many seas, but whether we had right or wrong, whether we lost or won, we did produce some effect. The climax culminated in Galton's preaching of Eugenics, and his foundation of the Eugenics Professorship. Did I say 'culmination'? No, that lies rather in the future, perhaps with Reichskanzler Hitler and his proposals to regenerate the German people. In Germany a vast experiment is in hand, and some of you may live to see its results. If it fails it will not be for want of enthusiasm, but rather because the Germans are only just starting the study of mathematical statistics in the modern sense!

Now these certainly are not the words of just another crazy Nazi in 1938, but of Karl Pearson, one of the founding fathers of British scientific psychology, holding forth at a gathering of the intellectual establishment in 1934. While I was at UCL in the late fifties and early sixties, his photograph was framed on the staircase along with other respected luminaries of our discipline (such as Sir Cyril Burt!).

Richard demonstrated that the same pernicious ideas which led to the Nazi concentration camps inspired a great deal of the research into the genetic basis of so-called 'mental diseases' such as 'schizophrenia'. The man who was for years regarded as having established the genetic basis of schizophrenia beyond reasonable doubt, F.J. Kallmann, had close professional involvement with Rüdin and others before he decamped to the United States, where he pursued 'research' in which the statistical procedures he used to make his case, were, as Richard showed, to say the least highly suspect. Indeed, the use of statistics in the effort to establish that some human beings are less psychologically 'normal' than others by virtue of their genetically inherited characteristics, has in the hands of a range of supposedly respectable scientists - pillars of the scientific establishment of their time - often been discovered subsequently to be highly dubious if not fraudulent.

Well, this is all old hat, you might think, water under the bridge. But no it isn't. It was precisely Richard's point that scientific undertakings cannot be kept free of political ideology. One might indeed have begun to hope fifteen or twenty years ago that the 'medical model of mental illness' - the idea that psychological and emotional distress are really symptoms of bodily disorders, many of which have a strong genetic component - was about to be laid to rest. Naively, one might have thought that the arguments and evidence piling up against the 'medical model', including the demonstration of so much distortion and fraud in the compilation of the case for inherited weaknesses and inferiorities, were at last establishing 'the truth' of the matter. Certainly it seemed more reasonable to suppose that what drove people crazy was the state of the world they found themselves in rather than any genetically inherited disease.

But in fact the battle was far from over, and in a talk he gave at the British Psychological Society's annual conference in 1987 (subsequently published in The Psychologist: Marshall, 1988), Richard noted that:

It is my impression that during the past decade there has been a reorientation towards an emphasis on the search for genetic and biological causation of what we term 'mental illness', as well as for a range of other disorders of conduct ranging from criminality to alcoholism. That impression ... is not only based upon the increasing volume of biologically oriented research in the field, but on the confident assertions that the genetic underpinnings of such research are well proven.

The core issues, of course (as Richard wrote later in the same paper) was that:

... it is necessary to consider the ways in which the very nature of psychology and psychiatry ... tend to localise disorder or distress within the individual. It could be argued that such an approach, whether at a biological or psychological level, serves to obviate the necessity to look at wider, more complex, societal issues.

The fact is that biologism in psychiatry is now back with, just about literally, a vengeance, and spreading rapidly into the fashionable views of the chattering classes. Channel Four as well as The Guardian have, for instance, recently run features on, respectively, the biological, essentially genetic basis of serious criminal conduct on the one hand and 'illnesses' like depression on the other. Prozac has become the enlightened liberal's answer to psychological unease. Even today, as I write this, the Guardian Education section has a piece on 'attention deficit disorder' in children and the wonders of Ritalin as a treatment for it.

'Psychometrics' (i.e. supposedly standardized psychological tests of personality, etc.) are also back in full swing, being wielded with particular enthusiasm by managers in 'human resources' departments who are too stupid or too ignorant to know better. Polygraphic lie detection is, apparently, back in fashion in the USA. So here it all is again - the whole baleful apparatus of control which so excites a significant proportion of our benighted profession.

To many of us old enough to remember, this has a weary familiarity. Personally, I can remember all too well the kind of crackpot enthusiasm which was so pervasive in the 50s and early 60s for ideas about, for instance, the biochemical basis of 'diseases' like schizophrenia. It was refreshing then to laugh at the inanity with which some of the crazier of these notions were often put forward (and Richard, for one, was brilliantly funny at parodying them). I seem to remember one paper which caused a lot of excitement in its day by describing the way some obscure breed of spiders, having been injected with the blood of schizophrenics, proceeded to weave chaotic webs.

But it's not so easy to laugh now, because it's so dispiriting, once you thought the battle had been won, to see what you had confidently taken to be the corpses of the enemy scrambling to their feet to start a new onslaught.

I just know that the biological approach to psychological distress is bollocks. Part of that knowledge is because of Richard's work. I personally just can't be bothered to argue about it any more with a new generation. I don't care what 'new evidence' is supposedly advanced: I've seen it all before. Fatuous, self-important professors in white coats staring at computer images of people's brain waves, etc., expounding their half-baked ideas to mesmerized television pundits who swallow the story whole and breathlessly reproduce it for the viewing millions. It's all crap and I'm too old and too tired to be doing with it.

But that is not the attitude!

These ideas are dangerous and destructive and they have to be dealt with. And this, I think, is where Richard's contribution is going to be so sorely missed. For Richard, though he was an extremely effective polemicist, wasn't just a polemicist. He was dogged, and thorough, and intelligent and patient. If someone claimed to have produced evidence for, say, the heritabilty of 'schizophrenia', Richard would go back to the sources and examine it carefully - and if there were holes in it he'd find them. If he found ideological principles masquerading as 'value-free science', he'd root out their political origins and associations: he had a penchant for historical research which is very rare indeed in psychology, and he used it to great effect.

I must say that, as I was writing and thinking about this little piece, I found myself wondering whether it might not be possible to establish, in Richard's spirit if not in his name, some kind of association of, to start with perhaps, people who were associated with him, to protect and further the things in psychology which he stood for.

In these days of individualization and professional competitiveness and isolation, not to say exhaustion, I wouldn't be too sanguine about the prospects of succeeding, but maybe it is just possible to discern what such an association might look like - and also what it would not look like.

It would not, for example, simply extol a kind of priggish political correctness which thinks it know all the answers about how we should conduct ourselves. It certainly wouldn't have any truck with the suffocating smugness of Amitai Etzioni's 'communitarian' movement which reputedly Tony Blair is so sold on. Nor would it slide into the kind of intellectual pretentiousness of some 'New Left' collectives (no longer 'new', of course) which take more pleasure in waspish theoretical infighting than in extending tolerance and solidarity. It would, presumably, be more about patient, painstaking, reasoned opposition to the self-deceiving fabrications, distortions, mystifications and injustices which so easily come, through professions such as ours, to consume the heart of our society. Richard himself suggested in a short paper last year (Marshall, 1994) that we will need 'a more organized challenge to scientism and the overstated case of biological determinism ... to place in perspective the increasingly accepted belief that problems in living arise simply from biology'.

But however that might be, I don't think that there's much doubt that we live in dark and difficult times, and Reason needs all the allies it can find. I wish I could persuade myself that, from the aspect of his work, Richard will be replaceable. But whether or not that proves to be the case, there is a comforting sense in which his ideas, his approach and his commitment are sustaining even without his living presence.


Marshall, J.R. 1988. The role of ideology in the individualizaion of distress. The Psychologist, 2, 67-69

Marshall, J.R. 1994. Is biological determinism heritable? Clinical Psychology Forum, No 67, May, p 3.