Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Professor George Brown

Oration given on 12 July 2002

Chancellor, the Senate has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon Professor George Brown.

Professor George Brown is a distinguished medical sociologist whose main area of work has been in the field of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia and depression. It is particularly appropriate that we are honouring him at a time  when a new Department of  Health and Human Sciences is just coming into existence in the University.  His work is scholarly in the best sense of the word – meticulous, thorough and insightful.  At the same time his research has enormous social and practical relevance.  Schizophrenia is a major, severe and often debilitating mental disorder, whilst depression is now said to be the most common mental health problem in Western societies.  George Brown’s work has considerably advanced our understanding of mental illness; and has done so from a distinctively social perspective.  His research on depression established very convincingly the crucial role of social factors in causing depression.  It is now a commonplace that the stresses and strains of living can lead individuals to become depressed, but the scientific evidence for this type of connection owes much to the work of George Brown and to his classic book written with Tirril Harris, Social Origins of Depression, first published in 1978.

Born in Portobello, London, in 1930, George Brown was one of non-identical twins. His father, a lens maker, belonged to what sociologists have sometimes called the aristocracy of labour; his mother had been a waitress.  As was typical of other children from the working class in that period his pathway into academia was by no means smooth, and his achievement is all the more impressive for that.  Though he went to Grammar School, the only boy from his area to do so, this was prior to the Butler Education Act, and his parents had to pay a fee.  Like others in their situation they found this difficult and George had to leave school at 16, having successfully matriculated, in order to contribute to the family income.  He initially moved between a number of jobs, including work in the Post Office, as a shop boy in a bookshop, and as a draughtsman in a heating and ventilating firm. In 1948, however, he was called up for national service – in the Air Force.  There, he reports, he began to make friends for the first time and was encouraged by a friend to go to university, preparing for the entrance examinations in English and Latin.  He went up to University College, London in 1951 – a time when a far smaller proportion of the population went to University – studying archaeology and anthropology.  There he clearly flourished and impressed his teachers.  Yet, when he left University his path was still not straightforward.  He initially went into town planning, which he did not like, and followed this with a six-months post with the Industrial Research Operations Unit.  Then, on the recommendation of one of his professors, he got a post at the Social Psychiatry Research Unit at the Maudsley Hospital, London. There he began the first phase of his research career studying chronic schizophrenia, the mental illness then particularly associated with long stays in mental hospital.

In addition to generating his life-long interest in mental health, his research at the Unit laid down some key features of his subsequent work.  First, working with psychologists and psychiatrists, gave him a commitment to research that was properly scientific, and took measurement very seriously.  This was vital since it meant that psychiatrists, often sceptical of the work of social scientists, have found it difficult to reject his research on methodological grounds.  Second, working in an interdisciplinary context put him in what seems to have been a sometimes frustrating but highly creative tension with academics from other disciplines.  Third, his research at the Unit gave him first hand experience of interviewing and made him realise the importance of direct experience in fieldwork and hands on involvement in research.  Fourth, it gave him a commitment to exploring the social context and meanings of actions and feelings, something that is often difficult to capture within standardised questionnaires.  And finally, the research developed his interest in the expression emotions within family relationships.

One of his earliest research collaborators was the psychiatrist, J.K Wing.  The two carried out an important comparative study of the rehabilitation of patients in three major mental hospitals, producing a joint book in 1970, Institutionalism and Schizophrenia.  This showed very effectively that a more enriched social environment facilitated improvement in patients’ psychiatric state. A point of some interest given the location of this University, is that one of the three mental hospitals in the study was Severalls Hospital, Colchester, then headed by the charismatic psychiatrist Russell Barton.  The hospital closed in the late 1990s, but so far the building is still standing.

With the benefit of hindsight, the late 1960s look to have been a turning point in George Brown’s academic career.  He moved from the Social Psychiatry Research Unit at the Maudsley to the Social Research Unit at Bedford College, London, where he became first Deputy Director, then joint Director.  This move is associated with a change in his intellectual identity from anthropologist to sociologist, and the Unit established the first, and highly influential, Masters degree in Medical Sociology in Britain. Finally, the period is also linked to the shift from research on schizophrenia to work on clinical depression – that is depression that involves a more severe set of symptoms than grief or unhappiness – a shift designed to allow him to study the impact of life events on individuals in the community. 

George Brown’s commitment to careful, precise measurement alongside his commitment to detailed, interviewing which plays proper attention to social context and meaning came to clear fruition in his impressive and important book with Tirril Harris, Social Origins of Depression.  The book was largely based on two surveys of women in Camberwell in London and explores class differences in levels of depression – depression, like many other mental illnesses, is more common amongst those from the lower social classes. Using a sophisticated measure of the stressfulness of events, the research provided very clear evidence that the observed class differences could be accounted for in terms of two sets of factors: the life events experienced in the previous year, and a set of four ‘vulnerability’ factors: the absence of a confiding relationship, having three or more children under 14 to look after, not having paid work outside the home, and the loss of one’s mother before the age of 11.

George Brown’s subsequent research has continued to be primarily in the field of depression and he and his colleagues  have generated a range of comparative studies in the Outer Hebrides, Spain and Zimbabwe, as well as a longitudinal study in Islington., studies which have generally replicated his earlier findings. This work has also looked at other vulnerability factors such as childhood neglect, as well as the factors facilitating recovery from depression.  In addition, he and his co-workers and students, have linked stressful life-events to other illnesses, both mental and physical.  A collection of papers he and Tirril Harris published in 1989, Life Events and Illness, included papers linking life events with anxiety, schizophrenia, appendicitis, abdominal pain, multiple sclerosis, heart attacks, and speech disorders as well as depression, and there is now a very broad range of work on the psychosocial causation of illness.

Professor George Brown is an eminent sociologist whose highly influential work serves as a model of excellence for social scientific research: sophisticated, precise and authoritative.

Chancellor, I present to you Professor George Brown

Orator : Professor Joan Busfield