Dr Ronald Sandison, who has died aged 94, was a well-known psychiatrist and an early pioneer in Britain of the clinical use of LSD; although he later abandoned using the drug in treatments, he remained convinced of its benefits to the end of his life.
On completing his medical training, Sandison was offered his first post as a consultant in 1951, when he was only 35. This was at Powick Hospital, a large former Victorian “lunatic asylum” outside Worcester. What he found was a hospital he described as “medieval”; it was overcrowded and run-down; there were no curtains or table cloths; the 1,000 patients were subjected to electric shock and insulin-coma therapies, and lobotomies.
Sandison, a man of fine intellect, gentle manner and natural empathy, introduced psychotherapy (effectively counselling) as well as treat
He and his colleagues turned the hospital round, creating a centre of clinical excellence with an international reputation. He also established a branch of the Samaritans in nearby Worcester.
In 1952 Sandison visited Switzerland, where he was introduced to the clinical use of lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. This had been synthesised by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann at the Sandoz laboratories in Basle in 1938. Sandison met Hofmann and brought back from Sandoz a supply of the drug which he began to use at Powick as a tool in psychotherapy. He used only small amounts of LSD to prepare patients for investigation of their subconscious.
Over the next 12 years Sandison treated thousands of patients with LSD. These were principally those whose treatment had hitherto failed to help them combat neurosis or depression.
Sandison’s aim was to unlock parts of the mind that were repressed, allowing his patients to explore material to which they had previously had no access. For example one young woman he treated, “tormented by evil thoughts”, had found “no remedy” through traditional means.
Sandison started her on LSD sessions, during which “she experienced herself as the devil and saw her long pointed tail curled around me. It was one of those powerful moments which characterised LSD therapy.” Her visions, Sandison was careful to point out, marked the “beginning, rather than the end” of the therapeutic process. Months of follow-up psychotherapy would be needed. “But the process,” he noted, “had started.”
Sandison considered LSD therapy highly successful. In 1954, with two of his colleagues, he published a paper showing that he had made great breakthroughs with a majority of his patients.
Medical trials in the 1950s were less rigorous than they are today, and Sandison’s results would now be considered somewhat anecdotal. But the project aroused worldwide interest, and in 1955 a government-funded, purpose-built LSD unit was established at Powick. The new building could accommodate five patients to receive LSD therapy simultaneously; each had his own room with a couch, a chair, a blackboard for recording images and a record player.
Sandison and his team would oversee the sessions and at the end of the day patients would attend a group session to discuss their experiences.
By 1964 Sandison was ready to move on. He left Powick, and never again explored treatment with LSD. Two years later, when LSD had begun to be widely abused as a recreational drug, it was banned; a negative press contributed to its loss of scientific credibility, and it became increasingly difficult to obtain a licence for its use. This was a development that greatly disheartened Sandison, who never lost faith in LSD’s therapeutic value in a clinical setting.
Ronald Arthur Sandison was born in the Shetland Islands on April 1 1916 . Not long after his birth his father, Arthur, moved to London and joined the civil service, where he was responsible for ancient monuments.
From King’s College School, Wimbledon, Ronald won a scholarship to study Medicine at King’s College Hospital in London, qualifying with excellent results in 1940. The following year he joined the RAF, and was based at the physiological laboratory at Farnborough studying the medical problems of flight. One of these was the effects of oxygen deficiency; another was the sight aspects of night flying.
In the weeks before D-Day Sandison visited all the RAF stations involved in order to brief the (often very young) pilots on oxygen uptake at altitude and on the light levels they could expect during the airborne night assault. In 1946 he was demobbed in the rank of wing commander, having been mentioned in despatches — an unusual award for a non-combatant.
A promising career in medicine or surgery seemed certain. But Sandison had lost enthusiasm for conventional medicine and become interested in the working of people’s minds. He turned to psychiatry and joined the staff of Warlingham Park Hospital, Surrey, as a trainee, qualifying with a diploma in Psychological Medicine in 1948.
From 1964 to 1975 he worked at Southampton, developing group therapy for the treatment of schizophrenic patients and helping to build the new medical school at the university.
For much of his life Sandison had considered himself a Shetlander in exile, and in 1975 he returned to his roots. From childhood he had visited the Islands on summer holidays, and in 1969 he had bought a derelict croft-house there. In 1975 he accepted the post of resident psychiatrist, having persuaded the Health Board that it was cheaper to employ him than to fly their psychiatric patients down to Aberdeen for treatment.
While working in Lerwick, he helped institute an alcohol resource centre for the Shetlands and took on family planning work.
Sandison’s final 10 years of work — “the most satisfying of my whole career” — were spent in London on a variety of projects. He worked with the Group Analytic Society, which explores the theories of group psychotherapy, and for some years edited its journal.
He also worked on family planning with the Margaret Pyke Centre. He had a busy private practice and was consultant to St Luke’s Hospital. In addition he was consultant to the London Pastoral Support Group, established by the Bishop of London for his clergy. Sandison, a man of faith, had promoted links between the Churches and psychiatric centres throughout his career and was involved with two Cistercian monasteries: one at Portglenone near Belfast, the other on Caldey Island, Pembrokeshire.
Sandison was a member of the scientific advisory board of the Beckley Foundation, established in 1998 to investigate consciousness and its altered states and to research into public policy on drugs.
He was also the author of numerous articles and books. A Century of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Group Analysis (2001) combines the story of his career as a psychiatrist with a very personal account of his own emotional development and dreams.
Ronald Sandison, who died on June 18, was thrice married. With his first wife, Evelyn Oppen, a friend from his school days, he had two sons . In 1965 he married Margaret Godfrey, but this marriage too ended in divorce. In 1982 he married Beth Almond, with whom he moved to Ledbury, in Herefordshire, on his retirement in 1992. She survives him.
Published: 7:17PM BST 05 Aug 2010