Dr Julian Leff obituary: 'Acclaimed psychiatrist and popular personality'

Dr Julian Leff

Dr Julian Leff - Credit: Matthew Lewin

Dr Julian Leff, the internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychiatrist who broke much new ground in the treatment of schizophrenia, died peacefully at his Hampstead home on February 23. He was 82.

Julian was born above his father’s surgery in Kentish Town into a family with strong socialist ideals.

His parents met while helping men on the 1936 hunger march of 2,000 men from Jarrow to a rally in Hyde Park. His father, Sam, went on to become one of the founders of the NHS, and his mother, Vera, a novelist, was one of the three instigators of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Julian went to University College medical school while barely 16 and after working as a house officer at UCH and the Whittington Hospital he turned to psychiatry, becoming a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 1979.

The main part of his career from 1972 to 2002, was spent at the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in South London, where he became professor of social and cultural psychiatry and director of the Medical Research Council’s Unit.

Throughout his career he was involved in research, including a major World Health Organisation international comparative study of schizophrenia around the world, and from 1980, a comparative outcome study in Apartheid South Africa with Professor Lynn Gillis, in Cape Town where he later became honorary professor at UCT.

Early on, based on his understanding of the effect of expressed emotion and family attitudes, he pioneered a treatment approach to schizophrenia that involved intensive group and individual work with families of sufferers instead of just the patient alone —and was called on to lecture and run workshops with colleagues on six continents.

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He was involved in numerous psychosocial research projects including one relatively early in his career when, attempting to explain the significantly higher rates of psychosis among Afro-Caribbean people in the UK, he was sternly warned that he was being racist and advised to abandon the project — criticism that he ignored. 

During the campaign for deinstitutionalisation of mental health care, Julian was director of TAPS (Team for Assessment of Psychiatric Services) and from1985 to 2005 conducted an extremely detailed study tracing the emotional and social effects on 1,500 patients of the closure of two large mental hospitals in north London, which led to the care in the community model now practised in the UK.

Creative even in retirement, Julian invented Avatar Therapy, a radical new approach to the treatment of schizophrenia in which patients create computer avatars of the voices that they hear and  thus find a way to talk back to their demons — which proved so effective it is now being  replicated in four centres in England.

Over the years Professor Leff published more than 200 papers and nine books, much of his attention remaining on family work with psychiatric patients in the community.

He won the Royal College of Health’s Starkey Prize in 1976, the Burgholzli Award from the University of Zurich in 1999, the Marsh Award for Mental Health Work in 2010, and the hugely prestigious Pelicier Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Association of Psychiatry in 2017.

Dr Julian Leff

Dr Julian Leff - Credit: Matthew Lewin

Julian was an enormously popular personality who loved travel, parties playing the piano and singing in choirs with his rich baritone voice. In his leisure time he swam in the Hampstead ponds, played squash with his sons, studied silk-screening, sculpture and silver-smithery.

His remarkable sense of fun stood him in good stead when in  the last few years he lived with a cruel degenerative disease with calmness and humour.

He is survived by his second wife, noted psychoanalyst and transcultural psychologist Joan Raphael-Leff PhD, four children (Alex, Jessa, Jonty and Adriel) and nine grandchildren, including four Norwegian daughters of his late stepson, Michael.