Professor Ian Robbins 1953-2018

Dr Sarah Finnis with a tribute.

Ian’s career and interests were a reflection of his enthusiasm, generosity, care and support of others. It was a varied and a nonconventional path. This brought a real richness to his professional (and personal) life. As a Clinical Psychologist he embodied the three tenets of our profession, Clinical, Research and Teaching. The area of work that Ian will be most well-known for is his work in Trauma, specifically, his work in complex war trauma. 

Always one for pragmatism, Ian decided to train as a nurse following his A-levels and being at a loose end. However he soon realised that he didn’t like physically sick people, so as well as qualifying as a Registered General Nurse he also qualified as a Registered Mental Nurse in 1975. Around this time Ian also joined the Territorial Army (TA) – a great opportunity to ‘See the World’ and, amongst other experiences, go skiing. Ian’s nursing qualifications stood him in good stead; he paid his way through his Social Psychology BSc and Clinical Psychology MSc.

In the early 80s Ian became involved in humanitarian work which again his nursing qualifications facilitated. He worked in Somalia, Uganda and Sudan during their wars and civil wars. And he became medical co-ordinator for refugee health; Help the Aged, in Sudan during the 1985 famine. Ian loved to regale others with his experiences from this time giving colourful accounts. Always ready for a challenge Ian found himself delivering babies in Uganda (with a ‘Midwifery for Dummies’ in one hand). It was during his time in Sudan that he met his wife.

Ian always had his hand in many pies. In the mid-Eighties whilst engaged in humanitarian work he was also starting out in his career as a Clinical Psychologist working in Newham. Ian then moved into lecturing in Newcastle Polytechnic before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps as an Officer with British Forces Middle East. He was part of a forward field psychiatric team and subsequently in an operational analysis team. On his return to the UK Ian moved to Plymouth Polytechnic as a Senior Lecturer which is where I had the pleasure to meet him. I was Ian’s Research Associate working in the area of combat stress but he was also my Supervisor for my M.Phil. in the area of sexual harassment of nurses. We had many an interesting discussion! Over coffee he would tell me of some of his exploits during the Iraq war such as making buildings safe based on the well-known strategies used by US TV Detectives Cagney and Lacey.

It was with Ian’s encouragement, belief in me and his unerring support that I applied for Clinical Psychology Training. But I was just one example of the support and care Ian gave to his students. Over Ian’s professional career he supervised a number of PhD, D.Clin. Psych, MPhil and MSc students. He was always ready with encouragement and praise but was also forthright in his feedback, taking no prisoners. It is a testament to the relationships he forged with his students that so many attended the ‘celebration of his life’ event.

Ian had a very successful career as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist holding senior posts in the NHS and academia. In 1994 Ian became Head of Adult Clinical Psychology Services in North Devon and completed his Psych.D, at University of Surrey in 1996. His Thesis "The Long Term Impact of War Trauma on Elderly Veterans" was a reflection of his deepening interest in War Trauma and was apposite as it coincided with the 50 years anniversaries of WW II and the increasing presentation of combatants seeking help for war trauma. 

In 1998 he established the Traumatic Stress Service, St George’s Hospital along with his colleague, a Consultant Psychiatrist. He later held the position of Associate Director of Psychological Services for Suffolk Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust. In academia, at the time of his untimely death, Ian was deputy programme leader for the MSc in War & Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry Psychology & Neurosciences, King’s College London. He has also held various professorships over his career.

Over Ian’s academic career he taught on numerous Clinical Psychology doctoral courses, was a prolific writer with many articles and chapters to his name and presented at a range of conferences. Those who knew Ian personally will know that he was never shy at coming forward, and was seen and heard on occasion in the mainstream media. 

Ian had a profound sense of justice and advocacy and from the noughties to the current day was very much involved with detainees accused of acts of terrorism and murder. For example he worked with British detainees from Guantanamo detention centre to aid their transition to freedom and in 2004-5 along with a group of psychiatrists he produced a composite report on the impact of indefinite detention without trial.

Contrary to the evidence Ian’s life was not consumed with clinical psychology and trauma. He loved entertaining and was an excellent cook producing fabulous meals and, as his wife will attest to, a lot of mess. His chocolate truffles at Christmas were legendary. In more recent years Ian, always enthusiastic about anything he put his mind to, discovered a passion for dancing Argentine Tango. He and his wife tangoed not just locally but also in Venice, Prague, Budapest and Amsterdam. For a big man he was light on his feet and a popular, considerate dance partner.

Ian died peacefully on the 20th March, his wife and daughter by his side. He chose to have an unattended cremation. He did not want a fuss to be made but instead wanted others to celebrate his life with a social gathering, good food and conversation. Ian’s life certainly was a ‘life well lived’. Although sorely missed he lives on in the hearts and minds of the many  people he had such a positive impact on in many walks of lives, both professional and personal.

- Read our 2007 interview.

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