James Arscott Raleigh Bickford

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 27 April 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1664
  1. Jane Cox,
  2. Paul Fisher

    Born in Tavistock in 1917, son of Dr Bertram Bickford DSO, naval surgeon, James Arscott Raleigh Bickford grew up in North Devon. Educated at Probus Prep School in Cornwall and Epsom College in Surrey, he went to medical school at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. Qualifying in 1941, he became surgeon lieutenant in the Royal Navy (1942-5), serving on board the destroyer HMS Goathland. He was on the Aorangi (requisitioned as a hospital ship) on D Day.

    Advised by his father after demobilisation to choose what was not popular, he went to Bodmin Mental Hospital in 1946. Working there and walking over the moors he loved helped to formulate his approach to psychiatric care. Two psychiatric registrar posts followed, one at Fishponds Hospital in Bristol (later Glenside), where he gained his diploma in psychiatric medicine and with William Tissington Tatlow and James Amor Ardis co-authored a Synopsis of Neurology. From 1951 to 1953 he helped to set up a psychiatric unit at Maryfield Hospital near Dundee. In 1953 he was appointed deputy superintendent at De La Pole Hospital, a large Victorian mental hospital in East Yorkshire, becoming consultant psychiatrist and medical superintendent there from 1956 to 1981.

    In 1953 many wards were locked and patients led dreary, unrewarding lives. With the support of senior nursing staff, Bickford began to unlock wards and develop programmes of activities, including sport, educational classes, and music and play reading groups, which provided great stimulus and interest for patients and which he often joined in with. At that time, many patients rarely left the hospital grounds, and he was instrumental in arranging holidays and hospital exchange visits to various parts of the United Kingdom and Europe. His interest in and deep concern for patients was demonstrated by the fact that he always remembered names and personal histories at a time when there were many hundreds of patients in the hospital.

    During the 1960s, with hospital staff, Bickford made a series of films for fellow professionals about the work and underpinning philosophies of the hospital. One of these, A Day in the Life of a Schizophrenic, won a bronze award at the BMA film awards in Paris in 1976. Though inevitably appearing dated now, the films are still seen as a valuable resource, historically and clinically. With his wife, Margaret, Bickford researched and wrote a series of historical publications, including The Medical Profession in Kingston upon Hull 1400-1900 (1983) and De La Pole Hospital 1883-1983 (1983). A founder member of the East Riding branch of the CPRE (Campaign for the Protection of Rural England) in 1967 and president from 1991 to 2006, Bickford had a great passion for walking, completing the Lyke Wake Walk (a walk of 40 miles over the North Yorkshire moors) many times, often with staff and patients. He can take significant credit for introducing many to the joys of outdoor life, an approach now widely accepted as beneficial but one that was at odds with the mainstream practice of the day.

    He was a man of extraordinary energy and commitment who was deeply trusted by his staff and could be relied on to make difficult decisions, often not to the liking of everyone. His willingness to work hard and think deeply while encouraging others to do likewise was evident. His contributions to psychiatric care will be remembered and valued for many years to come. He is survived by Margaret and their four children.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1664


    • Superintendent De La Pole Hospital, Willerby, East Yorkshire, 1956-81 (b 25 June 1917; q St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, 1941; DPM, FRCPsych), d 15 January 2009.

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