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Ronald David Laing

Lord Joseph Lister / Medical Pioneers

  • Name  : Laing
  • Born  : 1927
  • Died  : 1989
  • Category  : Medical Pioneers
  • Finest Moment : Publication of The Self and Others (1961)

Born 7 October 1927 in Glasgow, RD Laing, as he was invariably called, was brought up in a working class family. He studied medicine and psychiatry, gaining a doctoral degree in medicine at Glasgow in 1951. After a year as an army conscript psychiatrist, and three years teaching at Glasgow University, Laing moved south to the Tavistock Clinic in 1956, finally settling at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations from 1960-89. He also had a private practice in London.

As a psychiatrist, Laing had a life-long interest in schizophrenia. His theme was often one of environment, particularly the family, as a cause of the illness. Schizophrenia is a very common illness, affecting about 0.8% of the population between the ages of 15 and 45 at some time in their lives. At one time indeed, about a quarter of all hospital beds were taken by schizophrenic patients, though later better treatment and modified discharge policies have much reduced this.

Laing was opposed to the standard treatment for schizophrenics, including hospitalisation and electroshock. Schizophrenia is often difficult to comprehend, but may be loosely viewed as a shattering or fragmentation of the mind. Many sufferers do not cope well with emotional intensity, and a restrictive and critical family environment for example is often a factor. There is also little doubt that there is a strong genetic factor, perhaps involving several genes.

Laing made several important contributions to the literature from 1960 onwards, including The Divided Self (1960), which argued that insecurity about one's existence could generate the psychotic symptoms characteristic of schizophrenia. Other publications include The Self and Others (1961), The Politics of Experience (1967),The Politics of the Family (1971), and his autobiographical book Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist, 1927-1957 (1985). His early approach to the illness aroused much controversy, though he would later modify some of this. He died in St Tropez on 23 August 1989.

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