President's column

Graham Powell on Hans Eysenck.
In this issue is Ian Deary’s Eysenck Lecture on cognitive epidemiology (p.616), derived from his talk at the Annual Conference in Manchester earlier this year. It reminded me of my last meeting with Hans Eysenck, and being a hoarder I rummaged in my files and came up with my handwritten notes of that meeting, 2pm on 10 October 1992.
In this issue is Ian Deary’s Eysenck Lecture on cognitive epidemiology (p.616),
derived from his talk at the Annual Conference
in Manchester earlier this year. It reminded me
of my last meeting with Hans Eysenck, and being
a hoarder I rummaged in my files and came up with my handwritten notes of that meeting, 2pm on 10 October 1992.
But to rewind a bit first, Hans Eysenck, born
on 4 March 1916, was elevated to Professor of Psychology at the Maudsley Hospital, Institute of Psychiatry, in 1953. That same year was the first edition of the Bethlem & Maudsley Gazette, in which there was an article generous in its praise of him, but there was also a letter from one Coira Fitte that represented a different climate of opinion. It simply states, ‘Dear Sir, I note that psychologists should wait on psychiatrists at table, your, aye, Coira Fitte’. Eysenck fought such prejudice professionally and academically for the whole of his career, but it was a long battle, and I am reminded that it is only now, over 50 years later, that psychologists will have recognition under the new Mental Health Act.
I worked at the Maudsley on the neurosurgical unit and had a special interest in children with intractable epilepsy, who were growing up in a climate of prejudice and social exclusion. For them, the possibility of surgical relief (for example by removing the epileptic focus or by dividing the two hemispheres) offered hope of adjustment and social acceptance. In discussing my work with Hans, my PhD emerged, a study of the development of social stereotyping and social conformity in children from the age of 8 through to 16 years, and Hans agreed to be my supervisor.
First, though, I had to gather together the materials necessary for the study, and this started with tennis and squash racquets, because supervision was invariably organised around one type of court or another. His sporting prowess was legendary. Local Camberwell sayings included ‘Ne’er cast a clout till Eysenck’s out’, and of course there is the well-known poem beginning ‘In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove, In the Spring Professor Eysenck lightly dreams of 40–love’. Eysenck taught me how to apply psychology to sport. I used to mutter ‘Good shot’, but he would never reciprocate, eventually explaining to me, ‘Never praise an opponent’s winner – you are reinforcing a motor pattern disadvantageous to yourself.’ But he was never competitive in his supervision, would never try to score points – he was just endlessly patient and profoundly intelligent.
The patience showed academically too, building up the momentum to his ideas, meticulously, piece by piece. I edited a special edition of the Bethlem & Maudsley Gazette for him in spring 1983 to celebrate his retirement. He wrote an article on his 40 years at the Maudsley and he chose to sum up his contribution in rather a modest way in the second-to-last sentence: ‘The events of the past 40 years suggest that progress may be slow, but it is also inexorable.’ This again reminds me how as a profession and discipline we have had to continue to combine patience with steely resolve to underpin the inexorable growth of psychology and its applications.
So, let me return to 2pm on 10 October 1992. Eysenck was 76 then (so I was just beginning to take the odd set off him) and there was the possibility of editing a book of his major writings. We sat down and began to make a list of the main themes to his work that such a book would have to cover. We got to double figures in main themes and he was still going strong, and I was beginning to envisage a series rather than a volume, so we agreed to stick to just the ‘main’ main themes. One was the importance of theory – as he explained, a fact is powerful, but an explanation of that fact is even more powerful. We talked about the difficulty of applying theory to practice, and he knew exactly where his strengths were: ‘I’ll do science; it will filter through.’ While believing in the power of science per se, he always supported to the hilt those applied scientists who could and would make sure it filtered through. He gave me
a copy of the 1955 inaugural lecture that he gave upon his elevation to a chair, and it is clear that he saw psychology as a fundamental science upon which a whole range of applied scientists would draw for the benefit of their clients, not just applied psychologists. For example, he saw psychiatry as desperately needing the explanatory concepts and theories of psychology. I would argue the same today – all professionals in mental health, the prison service, the educational system, in business, and so forth, benefit by drawing upon fundamental psychology.
The book of writings never did materialise, but he remained as active as possible until the very end – 4 September 1997 – and I am delighted that the BPS continues to honour his contribution and that, as described on his official website (tinyurl.com/9ne57), his Memorial Fund offers annual scholarships to continue his search for explanations of individual differences. Over to you, Ian Deary…

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber