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Eliot Trevor Oakeshott Slater MD (28 August 1904 – 15 May 1983), was a British psychiatrist who was a pioneer in the field of the genetics of mental disorders. He held senior posts at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square, London, and the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital. He was the author of some 150 scientific papers, and co-author of several books on psychiatric topics, including one that became for many years the leading textbook of psychiatry in English.

Early life and medical education[]

Eliot Slater was born in Plumstead, London, on 28 August 1904. His father was Gilbert Slater, an economic historian who became Professor of Indian Economics at the University of Madras and later Principal of Ruskin College, Oxford. His mother, Violet Oakeshott, a Quaker and pacifist, was instrumental in sending him to Leighton Park School, Reading, from where he won an exhibition to St John's College, Cambridge, to study natural sciences in order to become a doctor. He gives a downbeat but amusing account of his education in his ‘Autobiographical Sketch’ (v. sub Sources). He went on to St. George’s Hospital, London, and qualified as a doctor in 1928. In 1931 he was appointed medical officer at the Maudsley Hospital, London, where he was encouraged by his chiefs Aubrey Lewis and Edward Mapother to apply statistical methods to the empirical study of mental illness.

Germany 1934-5; the Second World War[]

In 1934 Slater was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation travelling fellowship, which he used to study psychiatric genetics under Bruno Schulz at the Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie (Psychiatric Research Institute) in Munich. He also made visits to psychiatric institutes in Denmark, Sweden and Austria. By this time Nazi persecution of Jewish professionals was well under way, and on Mapother’s initiative the Rockefeller Foundation started providing funds enabling the Maudsley to receive prominent psychiatrists expelled from their posts in Germany. Among them was Willi Mayer-Gross, with whom Slater subsequently collaborated both in research and in the writing of a celebrated textbook.

Meanwhile, in Munich, Slater met his future wife Lydia Pasternak, daughter of the Russian artist Leonid Pasternak and sister of the poet Boris Pasternak. The increasing Nazification of the Munich institute during this period outraged and sickened him (its head, Ernst Rüdin, was one of the architects of Hitler’s eugenic sterilization policy), and he was glad to leave in 1935.{v. sub Sources} He returned to his post at the Maudsley Hospital, bringing Lydia Pasternak to England with him. As he wrote, “It was a source of peculiar satisfaction to me to be showing what I thought of Nazi Rassenhygiene by marrying a Jewess, a member of an inferior race by their standards, a lady of the highest genetical aristocracy by mine.” Between 1936 and 1944 he fathered four children with his Jewish wife, and rescued her parents, her sister’s family of four, and several others from Nazi persecution in Germany. With the outbreak of war in 1939 the Maudsley was evacuated, and Slater became clinical director of the Sutton Emergency Hospital, where he had responsibility for the treatment of some 20,000 psychiatric casualties. This experience led to the influential book An Introduction to Physical Methods of Treatment in Psychiatry (with William Sargant, 1944).

Post-war years[]

Eliot Slater’s first marriage was dissolved in 1946 and he married Jean Fyfe Foster in the same year. Also in 1946, he was appointed Physician in psychological medicine at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square, London, where he worked for eighteen years. He resigned in 1964 in protest at the hospital’s rejection of the offer of a benefaction from the Mental Health Research Fund to establish a chair in psychiatry, writing in his resignation letter that the collective views of his colleagues had “…turned increasingly counter to everything for which I have stood”, and that they had failed to appreciate the need for academic research in psychiatry. In 1949 he was appointed a member of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1949-1953). He was strongly opposed to capital punishment, not only as a barbarity, but also because statistical studies indicated that it was ineffective. He was delighted when capital punishment was finally abolished in 1969. Meanwhile he continued his own research as Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, notably on the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in twins (with James Shields). In 1959 he founded the Medical Research Council Psychiatric Genetics Unit at the Maudsley, which he directed until 1969. His work here culminated in The Genetics of Mental Disorders (with Valerie Cowie, 1971).

Among his numerous other publications, one to be singled out is Clinical Psychiatry (with Willi Mayer-Gross and Martin Roth, 1954), which became a standard textbook for doctors and students, and remained so for many years (third edition 1969 by Slater and Roth; revised 1977). He gave the Litchfield (1959), Galton (1960) and Mapother (1960) lectures. In his Maudsley (1961) lecture and later writings he questioned the concept of ‘hysteria’ as a valid diagnosis, showing that serious physical illness subsequently emerged in many patients initially labelled ‘hysterical’ and that the physical illness could often account for their allegedly psychological symptoms. He was Editor of the British Journal of Psychiatry from 1961 to 1972, and transformed it into a leading European journal. In 1966 he was appointed C.B.E. He held honorary fellowships of several British, German and American medical and psychiatric societies, as well as of his Cambridge college, St. John’s, and received an honorary degree from the University of Dundee in 1971.

He died at his home in Barnes, London, on 15 May 1983, being survived by his first and second wives and by the four children of his first marriage - a mathematician, a haematologist, a psychiatrist and an English don.

Outside interests[]

He had wide interests outside his work. They included chess (he published a statistical investigation of chess openings), music (studying and publishing on the pathography of Schumann and other composers), poetry (he published a book of his own, often rather dark, poems, The Ebbless Sea), eugenics (he was fellow and vice-president (1963-6) of the Eugenics Society), euthanasia (he joined the Euthanasia Society after his retirement), painting (an exhibition of his paintings was held in 1977), and the statistical study of literature (he was awarded a Ph.D. from London University at the age of 77 for a statistical word study of the play Edward III, which provided evidence that the play was by Shakespeare).


The article on Eliot Slater in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (“DNB”).

The obituaries cited in that article.

The Autobiographical Sketch in Man, Mind and Heredity (v.sub).

Bibliography (books only)[]

Introduction to physical methods of treatment in psychiatry (with W. Sargant), 1944, 1948, 1954, and (4th ed) 1963, Livingstone.

Patterns of Marriage (with M. Woodside), 1951, Cassell.

Psychotic and neurotic illnesses in twins, 1953, HMSO.

Clinical Psychiatry (with W. Mayer-Gross and M. Roth), 1954 and (2nd ed.) 1960, Baillière,Tyndall and Cassell. This book went on to an extensively revised 3rd edition (with M. Roth) in 1969, which in turn was reprinted in 1970, 1972, 1974 and (with further revisions) 1977.

Delinquency in girls (with J. Cowie and V. Cowie), 1968, Heinemann.

The Ebbless Sea, Poems 1922-1962, 1968, Outposts Publications.

Man, Mind and Heredity (ed. J. Shields and I. I. Gottesman), 1971, The Johns Hopkins Press.

The genetics of mental disorders (with V. Cowie), 1971, OUP.

Eliot Slater: A tribute (ed. M Roth and V Cowie), 1979, Gaskell Press.

The problem of The Reign of King Edward III, a statistical approach, 1988, CUP.

External links[]

DIREETOS. The Eliot Slater Archive]]

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