Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lewis, Sir Aubrey Julian (1900–1975)

by Michael Shepherd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir Aubrey Julian Lewis (1900-1975), professor of psychiatry, was born on 8 November 1900 at Kent Town, Adelaide, only child of Jewish parents George Solomon Lewis, an accountant from England, and his South Australian-born wife Ré, née Isaacs, an elocution teacher. A highly gifted child, Aubrey was educated (1911-17) at Christian Brothers' College, Wakefield Street, where his intellectual abilities rapidly matured. He completed his medical studies at the University of Adelaide with distinction (M.B., B.S., 1923; M.D., 1931), worked at the (Royal) Adelaide Hospital for two years, undertook anthropological research on Aborigines and accepted (1926) a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in psychological medicine.

After two years postgraduate study in the United States of America and Germany, Lewis joined (1929) the staff of the Maudsley Hospital, London. In 1946 the hospital was designated the Institute of Psychiatry under the auspices of the University of London. Through peace and war, the quality of Lewis's work was widely appreciated; in 1946 he was appointed to the chair of psychiatry at the institute, a post he held until his retirement in 1966. On 22 February 1934 at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St Marylebone, he had married Hilda North Stoessiger (d.1966), a psychiatrist.

Lewis was a fellow (1938) of the Royal College of Physicians and an honorary fellow (1972) of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In 1959 he was knighted. As a leader, educator and administrator he built a reputation in association with the institute, which he constructed as a model of scientific research and teaching. In the process he became a trusted adviser to general medical bodies, national and international research councils, and political organizations, thereby raising the status of his discipline. These activities tended to overshadow his contributions as a clinician, scholar and researcher whose investigations embraced social inquiries, genetics, clinical phenomenology and biology. His studies of melancholia and obsessional illness were his best-known work. In his collected papers—The State of Psychiatry, Inquiries in Psychiatry (London, 1967) and The Later Papers of Sir Aubrey Lewis (Oxford, 1977)—the substance of his thought is expressed clearly by his mastery of language.

Sir Aubrey's austere appearance, well captured in Ruskin Spear's official portrait of 1966 (held by the institute) was misleading. High standards of personal and professional integrity went with a warm, kindly, humorous disposition which earned him the affection of colleagues and friends. In Emerson's sense of the term he was a representative man, and recognized as such in his lifetime, except, paradoxically, in his native land, until recently.

Survived by his two daughters and two sons, Lewis died on 21 January 1975 in Charing Cross Hospital, London. A memorial service was held in April at the synagogue in which he had been married. Fifteen years later an Aubrey Lewis unit was opened at Royal Park Hospital, Melbourne. The occasion prompted the appearance of a newspaper article, 'The man Adelaide forgot'. It began: 'Had Aubrey Lewis gone to St Peter's College and been interested in field sports his name would probably be well known to generations of South Australians. But he was Jewish, went to a Catholic school, his father was a nobody and he lived up the east end of Rundle St—definitely the wrong side of the tracks for a prejudicial, parochial Adelaide of the 1920s'. To these reasons might have been added the traditionally inferior status of his discipline and his inability through illness to revisit the country of his birth.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Shepherd and D. L. Davies (eds), Studies in Psychiatry (Lond, 1968)
  • M. Shepherd, A Representative Psychiatrist (Cambridge, Eng, 1986)
  • M. Shepherd, Sir Aubrey Lewis (Melb, 1991)
  • Psychiatry and Social Science Review, 3, 1969, p 6
  • Journal of Psychiatric Research, 17, 1983, p 93
  • Times (London), 22 Jan 1975
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 Mar 1990.

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Citation details

Michael Shepherd, 'Lewis, Sir Aubrey Julian (1900–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lewis-sir-aubrey-julian-10823/text19201, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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