Professor Alec Jenner 1927 – 2014

FA JENNER, MB, ChB, PhD, FRCP, FRCPsych, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry (Sheffield), Professor Visitante (Conception, Chile), was in practice for fifty years. After qualifying in medicine, he was recruited to psychiatry for his expertise in research biochemistry. In 1967 he was appointed Professor at Sheffield University and found himself managing the psychiatric services for the whole of the Trent Region – a population of six million.

Meanwhile, he carried out the first double-blind UK trials on Librium and Valium and became Honorary Director of the UK’s Medical Research Council Units for Chemical Pathology of Mental Disorders, and for Metabolic Studies in Psychiatry. Professor Jenner was also instrumental in several institutional reforms. In particular, he initiated the Phoenix House Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Unit at Sheffield (the second biggest in the country) and, responding to the appalling provisions for the elderly, set-up a psychogeriatric service (now known as specialist service of old age) for the city. He was the first Western psychiatrist to draw attention to the political use of psychiatry in the Soviet Union.

Despite initially believing in the so-called medical model of mental illness, in the light of the accumulated evidence Professor Jenner came to advocate social psychiatry. In 1986, his vision, organisational skills and financial help was vital in setting-up Asylum – the magazine for democratic psychiatry, and to keeping it going; he was also a regular contributor. In retirement, concerned with the topic which had always intrigued him the most, he at last found time to review the research and literature and come to his own conclusions, and published: Jenner, FA et al (1993) Schizophrenia: A disease or some ways of being human? Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Alec is an unsung hero. Aside from Laing and Cooper, in the UK he was perhaps the most influential psychiatrist of his generation. Since he was trained in chemistry, he understood better than almost any other psychiatrist of his time the actualities of the biochemistry and genetics of mental disorder – and demonstrated the absence of evidence for either kind of cause, or cure. He carried out and supervised key drug trials, but he also did much to promote the idea of social psychiatry, both in changing the focus of the services within his ‘domain’ to include the voice of the patient, and by inspiring a fair number of the next generation who passed through his University department and went on to make their own careers based on scepticism of the so-called medical model.

Alec also had an interest in the planets so did his wife Barbara. Alec invested in two immensely powerful telescopes and he and Barbara would spend time in the evenings looking at the Moon, stars, and different planets. Alec bought books on the solar system and like everything else that took his interest he became deeply knowledgeable on the subject. In later years he donated the telescopes to Kate Crawford another solar system enthusiast, who kindly passed them onto the Salford Astronomy Society