Issy Pilowsky

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 24 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6925
  1. Sandra Braude

Issy Pilowsky was born in Cape Town, His parents and grandparents had migrated to South Africa from White Russia some year before, thereby avoiding the fate of most of their relatives who were murdered by the Nazis. The family lived in a distinctly Jewish environment, and Issy often had to explain things to them in Yiddish. His interest in language and his linguistic skills persisted throughout his life.

Issy studied medicine at the University of Cape Town. He was regarded by all those who knew him as a brilliant student. His abilities were many, and they included writing, acting and play production. While still at school he won a major prize for his essay based on Richard Lovelace’s poem, “To Althea in Prison”—“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage;/Souls innocent and free take that as an hermitage.” He never lost his interest in human rights.

After graduating he was awarded an MD from the University of Cape Town for his thesis on hypochondriasis. This would later form the basis for his work on abnormal illness behaviour.

In 1956 he married Marlene Noar. In 1959 they left South Africa, which was then under apartheid laws, and travelled to England. Initially thinking he would specialise as a physician Issy was, during his term as registrar, turned to psychiatry under the inspiration of Henry Walton, who had returned from three years work at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Issy then continued his studies in Sheffield, under the well respected psychiatrist Erwin Stengel, an Austrian Jew, who himself was a refugee from the Nazis. Issy and Stengel were so close that some people thought of them as father and son, and the older man exerted a great influence on Issy’s thinking and professional development.

In 1966 the Pilowsky family (there were now four children) relocated to Australia. Initially settling in Sydney, Issy took up a position at Sydney University and the psychiatric hospital in Callan Park.

A further move to Adelaide in 1971 saw Issy established as professor of psychiatry at Adelaide University, a position he held for 25 years, during which time he established his reputation as one of Australia’s foremost and most important psychiatrists, becoming renowned both locally and internationally as academician, clinician and teacher. He was subsequently appointed Honorary Professor Psychiatry at Sydney Unversity

Issy became increasingly interested in the concept of abnormal illness behaviour, making a substantial contribution to the medical literature on that subject. He noted that individuals who are ill take on specific roles and may manifest behaviour that is outside the range of that normally accepted by their society. He was struck that some hospital patients could be totally preoccupied by their pain, whereas others seemed almost completely oblivious to it. This suggested that abnormal illness behaviour could be either illness denying or illness affirming. While in England, working at the Whitely Clinic, Issy had developed the Whitely index of hypochondriasis, which was later expanded into the illness behaviour questionnaire, a research instrument that has been translated into many languages and is widely used to measure the dimensions of abnormal illness behaviour.

Issy was sought after as a speaker both in Australia and abroad. He was nominated as a fellow of the Academy of Science, and was awarded the Medal of Australia.

In 1978 he was among a handful of people who laid the foundations of the Australian Pain Society, in which he continued to play an active part. He was active in the Australasian Society for Psychiatric Research, and the annual Issy Pilowsky Oration perpetuates his name.

In 1987 Issy experienced the first symptoms of a brain tumour. Over the years he was subjected to bouts of surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. All these things he dealt with with strength and equanimity.

In 1997 Issy’s book Abnormal Illness Behaviour was published by Wiley. The book addresses the problem of the widespread misunderstanding and confusion in the medical profession about patients with abnormal illness behaviour. It provides a general introduction to the early recognition and management of abnormal illness behaviour and offers medical, nursing, and mental health care professionals the skills to identify abnormal illness behaviour in their patients, provide appropriate psychological care, and recognise when to recommend specialist psychiatric help.

When his wife Marlene developed cancer Issy retired, and the two returned to live in Sydney. After Marlene died, Issy married again.

Issy and Sandra Braude had known each other in South Africa, having met in the early 1950s. It was a second marriage for both of them. Sandra was a teacher trainer and lecturer in English and is a published author. The two continued to live in Issy’s little house in Leichhardt, which became a centre for social gatherings.

In 2007 Issy’s middle daughter, Lyn, died of a brain tumour in London. Lyn, like her father, was an internationally renowned professor of psychiatry, and the two were as close as father and daughter could be. Issy never recovered from her death.

Throughout his life Issy was a seeker. He had an extraordinary vitality and spiritual strength, finding interest in almost everything and everyone. His valiant battle with his brain tumour eventually sank into a peaceful sleep. As he had always wished, he had passed on the baton of culture to future generations.

Issy will not be forgotten. He leaves three children, five grandchildren, and his wife, Sandra. He also leaves his work, his ideas, his vitality, and the memories in the hearts and minds of those who loved him.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6925


  • Professor emeritus of psychiatry (b 1935; q 1957; MD, DPM, FRANZCP, FRCPsych, FRACP), d 17 August 2012.