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Donald West: criminologist who served as president of the Society for Psychical Research and whose work contributed to the decriminalisation of homosexuality

BMJ 2020; 368 doi: (Published 20 March 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;368:m1138
  1. Rebecca Wallersteiner
  1. London, UK
  1. wallersteiner{at}
Credit: Institute of Criminology, Cambridge

Donald West, the pioneering criminologist and clinical scientist whose early work contributed to the decriminalisation of homosexuality and who attended the UK’s last witchcraft trial, has died peacefully at the age of 95.

Born in the Liverpool docklands, the only child of John West, who worked for the Cunard shipping company, and his wife Jessie, who had worked in a cake shop, Donald James West experienced an isolated childhood and a puritanical home life that left him, as he later wrote, with persisting shyness and feelings of inadequacy. The family moved to Crosby, where he won a scholarship to Merchant Taylor’s secondary school, close to his home, where he shone at science.

He read medicine at the University of Liverpool. While a student he forged friendships, read works on psychology and psychoanalysis, developed an interest in the psychic, and started attending séances in Liverpool. He qualified as a doctor in 1947. During the second world war he joined the Officers’ Training Corps, but saw no active military action.

His first academic work was as the research officer of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London, where his commitment to rigorous and impartial examination of claims of paranormal phenomena eventually led to discontent among less sceptical members of the society. He was advised to seek other employment. He retained his links with the SPR throughout his life, however, joining its governing body, serving three terms as president, and publishing several books on the subject, including …

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