Intended for healthcare professionals


Elizabeth Tylden

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 19 October 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4147

Remembering Betty Tylden

It is difficult to define the essence of an individual in their
obituary. Guy Dawkins, in his obituary of Betty Tylden, has given us a
comprehensive understanding of the major contibution that Betty Tylden
made to psychiatry over the course of her long career. What is more
difficult to capture is the impact that Betty had on those who knew her.

I first met Betty and her husband George in the mid 1960s, when my
mother started working for them. I was only six years old but had already
decided that I wanted to be a doctor - based prinicpally on my childish
admiration for my own GP. As might be expected, the adults around me
regarded my aspiration with amused indulgence. Betty, however, took me
very seriously and took the trouble to find out from me just why I wanted
to be a doctor. When speaking to children, she never made the mistake of
confusing inexperience with lack of insight or intelligence and she made a
profound impression on me.

The home that she and George built at St Julians was an extraordinary
experiment in communal living, its residents the most eclectic collection
of artists and free-thinking people that I have ever come across. Over a
decade of school holidays spent growing up in and around this island of
unconventionality in the stockbroker belt, I learned more about humanity
and its variations than I ever did at medical school. Yet despite the fact
that I was one of dozens of children that haunted the corridors and
grounds of this huge old house, Betty never missed an opportunity to quiz
me on my progression towards my medical ambitions.

Over the subsequent 40 years, she sustained her interest in my
career, and I learned to look forward to her infrequent but searching
phone calls. Well into her 80s the phone would ring and I would be
expected to give her an instant master-class on the interpretation of a
study design or the finer nuances of meta-anlalytical technique. Although
on the surface she might have appeared rather vague and ethereal,
underneath it was a ferocious intellect - woe betide me if I tried to fob
her off with an imprecise assessment.

In her last few years her physical health was failing, but her mind
remained razor sharp. Although she had stopped seeing patients
professionally, she adopted her accustomed approach to her own health. She
would read everything she could on the subject and then spend an hour on
the phone with me, refining the arguments she would use with her own
doctors. I suspect she was a difficult patient, always finding reasons why
the proposed course of action was inappropriate or ill thought-through. My
guilt at providing her with weopons with which to berate her medical
advisors was assuaged by the sheer pleasure of spending time talking to
this extraordinary woman.

Clearly, as you can see from her obituary, her death has left a hole
in her profession. But we have also lost an intelligent, passionate,
intriguing and iconoclastic(albeit sometimes infuriating) woman. We miss

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

28 October 2009
Jonathan Belsey
Researcher in evidence based medicine
JB Medical Ltd, Old Brickworks, Chapel Lane, Little Cornard, Sudbury, CO10 0PB