Professor Martin Herbert (1933 – 2017)

An appreciation from Dr Gloria Babiker.

Professor Martin Herbert, who died in November 2017 at the age of 84, was a distinguished academic and clinician in the field of clinical child psychology and one of the outstanding psychologists of his generation. It was difficult during his career to meet a clinical psychologist who did not know Martin Herbert, and more importantly one who did not like him and enjoy spending time with him.  

Although I had met Martin once before when he examined my PhD, we really only got to know each other well when I joined him at Exeter University in the early 1990s. He had just taken up a chair in clinical and community psychology and been appointed director of the clinical psychology training course, and I arrived on secondment from Bristol as assistant course director. Martin immediately made me feel welcome, and eased me gently into the job with his customary thoughtfulness. Over the next few years we worked closely together, along with other clinical course staff. It is a testament to Martin’s interpersonal and managerial skills that the course sat so well in the academic psychology department. He set a remarkable example in how to get on with others.

This was not Martin’s first clinical psychology course directorship. In fact he had started as director of the School of Social Work in Leicester from 1976 to 1982 despite having no social work training himself, then moved to developing the Clinical Psychology training course there, which he headed until 1991. 

Martin started out as a gifted musician and was a brilliant jazz pianist. He had to choose between a career in the precarious world of nightclubs in South Africa under apartheid, and the more stable track of clinical psychology in Britain after he qualified at the Maudsley. Close colleagues and trainees have had a glimpse of what the rest of the world has missed when we have been amazed and delighted by his piano-playing in informal gatherings.

Martin always said of himself that he was a clinician who happened to be an academic. His own approach was multi-disciplinary and multi theoretical. Indeed he was suspicious of dogmatic views. His main interest academic and clinical, was in how to help families where children are seriously disruptive with oppositional or hyperactive behaviour. Possibly in clinical psychology we do not recognise outright talent the way it registers in the arts, however time and again clinicians who witnessed Martin ‘at work’ in a very demanding situation with a child, would come away touched, and awed by his skill.  

Martin was very much in demand nationally and internationally as a trainer in the field of child psychology. When I taught in Singapore in 1996, the psychologists there still referred to his seminar series of three years previously. His involvement in the Children act of 1989 meant training a whole range of professionals in applying the act – from teaching undergraduates about its basic tenets, to interpreting and explaining its implications to a group of high court judges by whom he was convened.

Clearly Martin was a very eminent academic clinical psychologist. But he was no prima donna self-publicist. He was very unassuming and he was always able to see the funny side of things and didn’t take himself or any obstacles too seriously. Nevertheless he became one of the outstanding child psychologists of his generation: he was the psychologist other psychologists took their own children to see when they had problems.

He published hundreds of books and papers: many were cornerstone academic tomes or published in prestigious journals; others were training guides and leaflets, some very simple, intended to help therapists carers and families to give children what they needed.

Martin Herbert is survived by Gaynor, his wife of 36 years. He will be remembered with great affection by his many friends and colleagues.

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