Phil Ley 1933-2015

Phil Ley died of prostate cancer last February at the age of 81 in Sydney. He was a brilliant psychologist, a talented researcher, and an expert in psychometric and statistical methods.

Phil was born in 1933 and went to school in Birkenhead. After obtaining an honours degree in psychology at the University of Manchester, he completed clinical training in 1956 at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and was awarded a PhD by the University of Liverpool in 1969 for his research into doctor­-patient communication, about which he had already published a book with Michael Spelman.

In the 1960s Phil worked with Ralph Hetherington on the postgraduate Diploma in Applied Psychology programme at Liverpool University, and this became a very stable and nationally renowned course under their leadership. When Ralph retired in 1973, Phil became head of the Liverpool course until his move in 1977 to the University of Queensland as a Reader in Psychology. In 1980 he was appointed to a chair at the University of Sydney, becoming Head of Department in 1985.He retired from full time academic work in the late 1980s because of deteriorating eyesight, but characteristically he maintained a strong interest and involvement in psychological matters.

Many of the graduates of the original Liverpool clinical psychology programme will not have seen Phil for over 40 years, although several did visit him in Australia. Even so, many remember him with great affection, admiration and respect. This recollection of Phil was resoundingly echoed by his colleagues at the University of Sydney where a memorial meeting was held shortly after his death. Phil’s abilities and personal qualities made him very well known, hugely popular, and highly valued amongst his psychological and medical colleagues. He was an inspiration and mentor to scores of students and colleagues alike, in their lives and in their careers.

His general approach to life and work was somewhat unconventional and was characterised by a combination of enthusiasm, cynicism, charm, friendliness and joviality, but with the occasional touch of belligerence. He had a great passion for wine and ‘good’ food and passed on his recommendations to students and colleagues, along with where to buy a good malt whisky, and which raunchy books to read. There was also a soft side to Phil that was not often shown. He had a very warm and close relationship with his wife Stella, with his children Tim and Susan, and with his grandchildren, and he was supportive of those trainees who came from less privileged backgrounds.

Phil published two influential books, Doctor-Patient Communication, and Quantitative Aspects of Psychological Assessment. The former covered topics such as the readability of medical leaflets, compliance with medical advice, and how to give bad news to patients; it went through several editions. In 1976 he updated his second book and made it freely available on the internet. He was also responsible for over 50 publications in scientific and professional journals, and for 30 chapters in edited books. Most of his papers and chapters followed the same topics as his books, but he also published papers on obesity, bipolar disorders, depression, reliability of psychiatric diagnosis, and pain. He was regularly approached for help by clinical researchers because of his statistical skills and his renowned generosity in making these skills available to others. Internationally, Phil’s reputation led to his membership of government advisory groups and working parties in the UK, USA and Australia on such diverse topics as swimming pool safety, obesity, readability and improvement of medical warning labels, deep sleep therapy, registration of psychologists, and hospital complaints.

While he was a staunch early advocate of behaviour therapy and of its application by clinical psychologists, his main academic contribution was to demonstrate the relevance and importance of psychology in general medicine, especially doctor-patient communication, at a time when most psychologists were working solely in psychiatric institutions and busying themselves in assessing IQ and personality with instruments of dubious validity. Phil’s work provided a major impetus to the origin and development of the discipline of health psychology.  He was truly a master of applied psychology and, with good reason, prided himself on keeping up-to-date with research in general and with areas of experimental psychology which might have had useful practical applications in his own important fields of interest. In a more general sense, perhaps his foremost contribution was his modelled insistence on writing about research with the primary emphasis on clarity without the use of obscure phrasing and unexplained technical terms. For many, he was a master of the readability of scientific research reports.

Although Phil was an eminent, influential and highly innovative academic clinical psychologist, he was no ‘prima donna’ self-publicist. He was very unassuming and what you saw was what you got. Furthermore, he was always able to see the funny side of things and did not take himself or life too seriously.

So many of us wish to say goodbye and thanks to Phil. Your colleagues, students and your friends thank you for all the wisdom, support and good humour which you showed to us over the years. You may have gone, but we will continue to benefit from having known you and from the important lessons which you passed on to us. 

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