Rees, John Rawlings (1890-1969)

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A British physician and psychiatrist, John Rawlings Rees was born on June 25, 1890, in Leicester and died on April 11, 1969, in London. He was a Commander of the British Empire and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

Rees came from a religious background, his father having been a Wesleyan Methodist minister (nonconformist Protestant). He had thought of becoming a missionary, but instead studied medicine. His sense of mission was fulfilled by his leadership at the Tavistock Clinic before World War II, later as chief psychiatrist to the British Army and, after the war, founding and becoming the first president of the International Federation for Mental Health. Rees served as a doctor in World War I, in France, Mesopotamia, and India. There he saw soldiers with nervous breakdowns who were not well treated. He ensured that good treatment was available in World War II. He wrote that it was through his military experiences that he grew up emotionally.

At first he was interested in public health, but moved into psychiatry through meeting with Hugh Crichton-Miller, a pioneer psychotherapist who had founded Bowden House, an in-patient clinic for the early treatment of psychiatric illness. Later Crichton-Miller founded the Tavistock Clinic. Rees did not train as a psychoanalyst, though he had a personal analysis with Morris Nicoll, a Jungian. He was a fine administrator and teacher, who recognized his limits as a therapist. Crichton-Miller resigned in 1932, having grown out of sympathy with developments at the Tavistock, and Rees succeeded him as director. Under his leadership the clinic grew to becoming the main center for psychoanalytic psychiatry in the United Kingdom, in opposition to the Maudsley Hospital at the University of London.

Rees encouraged training in psychiatric social work and child guidance. In the 1930s the clinic was eclectic, with Jungian, Adlerian, and other psychotherapists of many persuasions. Its leading figures were James Arthur Hadfield and Ian Suttie, whose 1935 book TheOrigins of Love and Hate had an important impact in British psychotherapy. Both John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott acknowledged this influence. Suttie attempted to integrate the individual, the social, and the spiritual. Among the staff in the 1930s was Wilfred R. Bion, who treated Samuel Beckett. Henry V. Dicks, for many years his colleague, described Rees "as a natural unselfconscious leader and originator."

Rees was surprised to be invited in 1939 to take command of British Army psychiatry. He found that there were hardly any psychiatrists in the army at that time and quickly assembled a team, many of whom had served under him at the Tavistock. Rees was able to cooperate with the military hierarchy and to persuade and to show them the value of psychiatry in the selection and allocation of soldiers to work appropriate to their personality and intelligence; in the rehabilitation of psychiatric casualties; and in the maintenance of good morale. He was ably assisted by Ronald Hargreaves. Through their work senior psychiatrists were appointed to army groups and were recognized as valuable advisors.

The education and training of soldiers with limited intelligence was a major innovation in wartime which cleared the way to post-war developments in this field. By 1945 there were 300 trained army psychiatrists and Rees had been promoted to brigadier. After World War II the Tavistock was a changed institution as the younger generation had experienced power and influence in the armed forces, and they were enthusiastic to train in psychoanalysis and to use psychoanalytic knowledge in their work with the clinic. Rees was out of tune with this development and felt pressured to give up as director in 1947.

At the age of 57 he was at the height of his powers and devoted himself to organizing the first Mental Health Congress in London in 1948. He became the leading figure in the movement to maintain and develop wartime international cooperation among psychiatrists. His mission then became the research and treatment of mental illness in its social roots. He was a leading figure in the formation of the World Federation for Mental Health of which he was director for many years. The Federation brought modern psychiatry to undeveloped countries, trained their personnel, and stimulated research. He was indefatigable in his travels, and his London home was always a place of welcome for colleagues worldwide.

Rees published an autobiographical volume, Reflections. His own writings were not original, but he was able to explain psychotherapy in straightforward terms to the general public, and his work in exploring society was influential.

Malcolm Pines

See also: Great Britain; Tavistock Clinic.


King, Pearl H.M. (1982). Activities of British psychoanalysts during the Second World War and the influence of their interdisciplinary collaboration on the development of psychoanalysis in Great Britain. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 16, 15-33.

Rees, John Rawlings. (1929). The health of the mind. London: Faber & Faber; New York: W. W. Norton, 1951.

. (1943). Three years of military psychiatry in the United Kingdom. British Medical Journal, 2.

. (1944). A brief impression of British military psychiatry. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 8, 29-35.

. (1945). The shaping of psychiatry by war. New York: W. W. Norton.