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Well into his 80’s, John decided to join the world-famous neuroscience team lead by Dr. Ramachandran, in California and remained active until a few months before his demise in January this year. A tribute by Prof. Ashoka, exclusively in Different Truths.
I have always harboured the belief that psychiatry over the years has lost a large part of its sheen because of its reluctance to encompass the entire scope of the discipline. Many if not most of its dimensions are completely ignored in the training process, which suffocates the specialty to a large extent.
One of the foremost pioneers to challenge this status quo was John Raymond Smythies. As he had deviated from the mainstream, he is not as widely known as his contribution merits.
…he completed his medical training in Cambridge and then worked with the Royal Navy in Bermuda, which is where he developed an interest in psychiatry.
John was born in Nainital where his father was a philatelist in 1922. His more than fluent Hindi had its provenance to his various interactions with his playmates and father’s colleagues with whom he retained lifelong contact. Following his relocation to the United Kingdom, he completed his medical training in Cambridge and then worked with the Royal Navy in Bermuda, which is where he developed an interest in psychiatry.
But he was very clear that he did not wish to step into his discipline unless he had what he regarded as ‘proper grounding.’ He therefore decided to train as a neuroscientist under the Nobel Laureate, Sir John Eccles. While still a neuroscience researcher, he appreciated the philosophico-anthropological contribution to the understanding of mental health and developed a deep friendship with Aldous Huxley. He then moved to the United States where he formally trained and obtained a masters’ in philosophy and submitted his dissertation to the University of Cambridge, which earned him an MD.
Only then did he consider himself ready to undergo psychiatric training at the Maudsley Hospital under Sir Aubrey Lewis. He then felt he needed some grounding in biochemistry and worked with John Osmond for two years before taking up a clinical assignment. He spent 12 years in Edinburgh at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital (where I trained).
He noticed that mescaline could produce schizophrenia-like symptoms
His orientation quite frequently put him at odds with his colleagues, but he persisted, nevertheless. He noticed that mescaline could produce schizophrenia like symptoms and published a hypothesis that came to be the first biological explanation for schizophrenia and was popularised as ‘transmethylation hypothesis’. This created quite a lot of excitement in those days. But he firmly believed that in order to fully comprehend schizophrenia, one needed a philosophical orientation along with a neurobiological.
He was an absolute delight to listen to and a regular at both neuroscience and philosophical conclaves.
He moved to Alabama to take up an endowed chair in psychiatry and remained there for over 20 years continuing with his neurobiological-philosophical research in psychiatric disorders. He was an absolute delight to listen to and a regular at both neuroscience and philosophical conclaves. Well into his 80’s, he decided to join the world-famous neuroscience team lead by Dr. Ramachandran, in California, and remained active until a few months before his demise in January this year.
Somehow the sad news took its time to reach me. There are many, me included, who looked to him for inspiration and were always rewarded with effusive hospitality over meals at his place, where he lived with his Italian wife.
I mourn the passing away of a pioneer. We shall not see the likes of him again!
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
Photos from the Internet