Sylvia Leith-Ross (1884 to 1980) was an important figure in both the founding and the early days of the Tavistock Clinic. She worked as the Clinic’s first honorary secretary.

Sylvia Leith-Ross was the daughter of an English Admiral and an American, Sylvia Howland Grinnell Ruxton. Sylvia and her mother moved to Paris in 1896, where she attended school. Her schooling was the beginning of a lifelong attachment to France and is recounted in her memoir, Cocks in the Dawn (1944).

Sylvia and Arthur Leith-Ross

In 1907 she moved to Zungeru in Nigeria with her new husband Arthur Leith-Ross, a Canadian officer who served in Northern Nigeria, Sylvia’s brother. A year later Sylvia was widowed, when Arthur died from blackwater fever. She returned to Nigeria in 1910 to stay with her brother and his wife and while in Africa published a book on West African Cookery, a guide to the Fulani language and translations of folktales. Then during World War 1 returned to France volunteering in military hospitals with the French Red Cross.

Leith-Ross Home in Zungeru

The Leith-Ross Home in Zungeru

She first met Hugh Crichton-Miller in 1912 as a patient at his consulting rooms on Park Street Mayfair. It was her experiences working in hospitals during the war that led Hugh Crichton-Miller to invite her to be the Tavistock Clinic’s first Honorary Secretary.

She was at the drawing room meeting at the house of Lady Margaret Nicholson in Pont Street where Hugh Crichton-Miller first expounded his idea for the clinic in 1919. She helped find the location for the clinic, a failed ‘Victory Club’ at 51 Tavistock Square, moved into the attic and supplied the furniture for the clinic. She was secretary for six years.

In the early days of the Clinic our professional training took the form of training supervision meetings for staff and our wider educational offer took the form of public lectures for doctors and teachers. This wider ‘public’ programme was successfully organised by Sylvia Leith-Ross.

The lecture series included such subjects as: elementary psychotherapy, elementary psychology, psychology and ethics, and analytical psychology. In the first seven years 389 lectures were given. Initially these were held in the Chinese wallpapered drawing room, but as audiences grew there were not enough chairs and people had to stand at the back. Then there was not enough standing room and the audience overflowed onto the stairs. Eventually, the large hall at the Mary Ward Settlement across the road had to be hired to accommodate the growing audiences.

While at the Tavi Sylvia Leith-Ross attended the educational lectures that she organised and studied anthropology at the LSE under Charles Seligman.

African Women

In 1925 she returned to Nigeria as Lady Superintendent of Education, helping to found schools and colleges, but had to return to England because of ill health. In 1934 she returned to Nigeria with a research grant to investigate the roots of the Women’s War that had shaken the country, producing the book African Women: A Study of the Ibo of Nigeria, which arguably pioneers the psychoanalysis of anticolonial insurgency by linking revolt to frustrated desires and traumatic memories.

photo of an Igbo girl by Sylvia Leith Ross 1940s

Photo of an Igbo girl by Sylvia Leith-Ross, 1940s

With the outbreak of war in Europe Sylvia Leith-Ross returned to working in military hospitals both during the Spanish Civil War and early in World War 2.

Nigerian Pottery

Late in life she spent a decade (1956 to 1966) collecting pottery and interviewing pottery makers in Nigeria, Nigerian Pottery (1970), records her findings in photographs and text, as a catalogue to an exhibit she organised at the Jos Museum.

Sylvia Leith-Ross

Sylvia Leith-Ross died in London in 1980, aged 95 years. Her autobiography, Stepping Stones: Memoirs of Colonial Nigeria, 1907–1960, was published after her death, in 1983.

Author: Glenn Gossling 2019

An account of the early days of the Tavistock Clinic by Sylvia Leith-Ross