(or ‘What I meant to say at: The 100 years of the Tavistock and Portman: open day for staff, students, alumni, and friends’)

Author: Glenn Gossling
Based on the presentation on 27 September 2020


Over the last year or so I have been researching the histories of the Tavistock and Portman for our 100 year celebrations. Over this time I have found out some really interesting and inspiring information, particularly around some of the women of the Tavistock and Portman.

At the start of the 20th Century women were very much in a ‘minority’ position, even though after World War 1 they significantly outnumbered men. What defines a majority or a minority isn’t size. It is a model of conformity. Patriarchy is an illustration of this concept, in that while numerically there are more women than men, men still constitute the majority position. At the Tavistock and Portman, as with any institution, we see a whole range of major and minor positions at play: men/women, clinical/non-clinical staff, medical/non-medical and so on. The positions are often polarised into binaries where one is made ‘more than’ while the other is made ‘less than’.

Things get interesting, when one or the other refuse to accept the position. We see institutional responses in a form that Isabel Menzies-Lyth (another pioneering woman of the Tavistock and Portman) called ‘social defences’. We may see situations becoming charged with powerful and yet frequently unacknowledged emotions. Organisations may develop almost pathological behaviours in their resistance to what Bion called ‘a hatred of having to learn from experience’.

So let’s meet some of those pioneering women who challenged their position of being ‘less than’.

Mary Hemmingway

Mary Hemingway Rees

Let’s start with a first – Mary Hemmingway was the first female clinician at the Tavistock Clinic. She was one of the seven original doctors at the Tavistock Clinic. She is the doctor who saw the Tavistock’s second patient, our first adult patient.

The fact that Mary was a doctor in 1920 is an achievement in itself. Back then a university education was not really available to women. Most universities allowed women to study for a year or maybe two, just enough perhaps to make polite and intelligent conversation with their husbands. Very few allowed women to do a complete degree and fewer still allowed women to take qualifications (Cambridge University, for example, didn’t give degrees to women until 1948 and women who went there would have found themselves studying in a separate campus some 30 miles away in Hitchin).

To qualify as a doctor Mary started at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, then shifted across to Glasgow University, before finally having to go to Birmingham University to sit her exams, because that was one of the earliest universities to allow women full academic status.

Her psychological training took place at Bowden House under Hugh Crichton Miller and Maurice Nicoll (who had studied under Carl Jung).

Another aspect of Mary’s achievement is that she is also the first disabled clinician to have worked at the Tavistock Clinic. When he was 12 she contracted tuberculosis of the hip joint, which gradually became joined up or ankylosed leaving her permanently and painfully disabled.

Grace Pailthorpe

Grace Pailthorpe in the French Red Cross

Grace is the de jure founder of the Portman Clinic.

Like Mary Hemmingway, she had to attend several universities to finally qualify as a surgeon in 1914. At the start of World War 1 she travelled to London to volunteer at the War Office, but was turned away on account of her sex. Not being one to accept no as an answer she volunteered with the French Red Cross and ended up at the Bromley-Martin Hospital, serving the French front-line. It was probably here that she first encountered cases of shell-shock and as a fluent French speaker this is probably where she first encountered French works on psychoanalysis.

Later in the war she was transferred to Salonica supporting the French Army during the invasion of Serbia. She served as officer in charge of the ‘flying ambulance’ and became an expert in reconstructive surgery for complex wounds from high explosive shells. Then in 1917 she was posted to the military hospital in Paris.

After the war she travelled for a while, working as a medical officer to a gold mine in Australia. Then when she returned to the UK she began training in psychoanalysis under Ernest Jones, the President of the British Psycho-Analytic Society. By 1923 was an associate member and accompanied Jones to International conferences, meeting many of the most important psychoanalysts of the time (Karl Abraham, Otto Rank, Hans Sachs, Sandor Ferenczi, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Joan Riviere, Edward and James Glover, Alix and James Strachey).

While training Grace applied to work at Birmingham Prison with Maurice Hamblin Smith, Britain’s first criminologist. Before long she published a joint paper with him, before going on to do her own research on women prisoners at Birmingham and Holloway prisons, but with a more psychoanalytic perspective.

In August of 1929 Grace Pailthorpe submitted her manuscript of Studies in the Psychology of Delinquency to the Medical Research Council for publication. Her manuscript was not published until September 1932 because of a dispute over her methodology. It was eventually published thanks to the intervention of Edward Glover.

While waiting for publication she set up the ‘The Association for the Scientific Treatment of Criminals’ on 22 July 1931. This was the organisation that led to the founded the Portman Clinic (originally known as the Psychopathic Clinic) as its clinical wing in 1933.

As if this isn’t enough, Grace became a famous surrealist painter, in her quest to find a more direct way of accessing the unconscious. She exhibited at the First International Surrealist Exhibition and the Tate modern now has several of her works in its collection.

Sylvia Leith Ross


Sylvia was the first secretary of the Tavistock Clinic.

Sylvia was the daughter of an English Admiral and an American mother, who took her to France to raise her. She volunteered as a nurse in French military hospitals during World War 1 and it is this experience that led to her connection with Hugh Crichton-Miller.

She was at the house of Lady Margaret Nicholson in Pont Street where Hugh Crichton-Miller first raised the funds for the clinic in 1919. She found the location for the clinic at 51 Tavistock Square, supplied the furniture for the clinic and lived into the attic.

As well as providing all the administrative support for the clinic she did its accounts and successfully managed the educational programme of lectures for doctors, teachers and the wider public. These were a key source of income for the Clinic in their own right, but they also drove donations and patient referrals.

While at the Tavistock Clinic Sylvia attended the educational lectures that she organised and studied anthropology at the LSE under Charles Seligman.

In 1925 she went to Nigeria and developed a career as an anthropologist. She published books on Nigerian cooking, pottery, mythology and following the women’s war African Women: A Study of the Ibo of Nigeria, which arguably pioneers the psychoanalysis of anticolonial insurgency.

Later in life she returned to Europe to working in military hospitals both during the Spanish Civil War and early in World War 2.

Mary Luff

Mary Luff Follow Up Research

Mary is an incredibly important woman in the history of the Tavistock and Portman, but she is almost forgotten and we don’t even have a photo of her.

Mary joined the Tavistock Clinic in 1930 and is responsible for conducting the Clinic’s first follow up study on the effects of the treatment. It is our first evidence based research and showed that across the board 65.6 per cent of patients were improved at the end of treatment and 55 per cent remained improved three years later. It was published in the British Medical Journal in 1935.

In 1939 she became the first woman to be in charge of the Tavistock Clinic, taking on the role of acting Director, just after the start of World War 2. With the coming of the Blitz in 1940, she resigned to take her children to the safety of the United States, but returned later in the war to join her other Tavistock colleagues in the military.

After the war she played an important role in the new Tavistock Clinic, staying with it as it joined the NHS. She was also a founder member of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and the Tavistock Marital Unit.

Mary Luff retired from the Tavistock Clinic in 1958. She and her husband moved to Jamaica, where Mary helped to set up the island’s first family planning clinics.

Jane Isabel Suttie

Jane Suttie book

Jane Suttie is perhaps best known nowadays as the translator of Sándor Ferenczi, but during the 1930s she and her husband Ian were probably the most important theorists at the Tavistock Clinic.

She was known for making the impassioned argument that ‘there is such a thing as a mother’. Although this sounds self-evident nowadays, in the 1930s the key relationship for psychoanalysis was the Oedipal relationship between the father and the child and almost nothing was said about the mother.

She almost certainly worked closely with her husband Ian on the book The Origins of Love and Hate, but Ian died suddenly and the book was published posthumously in his name alone. John Bowlby himself cited this book as a key influence on his development of Attachment Theory.

During World War 2 Jane succeeded Mary Luff as acting Director and the second woman in charge of the Tavistock Clinic.

In many ways World War 2 was a watershed moment in the history of women. During the war women took over the jobs in factories that had previously been done by men. Organisations like the Home Office had to drop its ban on employing married women. Women had gained entry into the working world and there was no going back. The world changed and nowadays it would be difficult to imagine most work places without equality of employment.

Esther Bick

Esther Bick

Esther was one of the generation of analysts who arrived as refugees in the UK just prior to the start of World War 2. Almost her entire family died in concentration camps in Poland during the war.

Esther Bick joined the Tavistock Clinic in 1946 and in 1948 John Bowlby asked her to devise and lead a new child psychotherapy training for the Tavistock Clinic, in the context of our joining the new NHS. Esther Bick’s response to this was to come up with an entirely new method of learning. She organised her first Infant Observation seminars and introduced this method into the core of the child psychotherapist’s training.

In the first two years Esther Bick was lucky to have an unusually talented cohort of students that included Mary Boston, Martha Harris, and Frances Tustin. Her innovative work and influence has led to at least two generations of outstanding women clinicians at the Tavistock Clinic, which includes: Mary Ainsworth, Dilys Dawes, Isca Wittenberg, Mattie Harris, Margot Waddell, to name but a few.

My intention here was not to talk about this generation of women in any detail, because I knew that my talk was being followed by one by Margaret Rustin, who not only knew most of these pioneering women personally, but was a key figure among them.

Looking back at the second half of the 20th century it is difficult to imagine what the Tavistock Clinic would have been like if access hadn’t been given to such talented women. It would have been a huge loss.

Just as huge societal changes transformed the workplace in terms of the roles that women could play, other changes were also afoot. Post war Britain needed to rebuild the UK’s infrastructure including the transport system and the NHS, and sent out a call for help, in an invitation, to the then commonwealth countries. 

In 1948 the first of the much needed labour arrived from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago among other Caribbean islands on the Windrush ship.  This generation was vital in the UK’s recovery after the war.

Laverne Antrobus

Laverne Antrobus

Laverne is, so far as I can find the Tavistock and Portman’s first black clinician. She joined the staff of Gloucester House in 2000 and transferred across into the Family Mental Health Team in 2013.

Laverne’s family is of Caribbean heritage. Her parents came from St Vincent just after the Windrush part of migration. She studied psychology at university and worked as a teacher before training at the Tavistock Clinic in the 1990s.

As well as being our first black clinician she has also carved out a separate, but connected career for herself as a TV presenter and commentator and was nominated for a BAFTA Award in 2005.

During the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 it is this side of her work that has really made her an important figure, not just at the Tavi, but nationally. Just as Donald Winnicott’s broadcasts during World War 2 helped parents deal with the stresses and anxieties of war, so Laverne’s insightful broadcasts and advice through the BBC have helped children, parents and families cope with the anxieties that the pandemic has caused.

As the parent of a three-year-old I personally feel incredibly grateful to Laverne for her work and advice during this period. During lockdown when my son turned and said to me, ‘I feel sad, I miss my friends,’ Laverne’s considerate advice helped. It is not just what she said, but the way that she said it. Through her tone and manner she was able to embody a containment of emotions and anxieties that were hard to handle. I’m sure I am not alone in my experience of this.

Beyond this Laverne is also an innovator. This year she led a ground breaking digital first project – Level Up – which supports vulnerable young people in the transition between junior and senior school.

Agnes Bryan

Agnes Bryan

Agnes was one of the first black senior clinicians at the Tavistock and Portman and so far she remains the only black senior manager (Associate Dean) to have been employed by the Trust. I was lucky enough to be able to interview her last year.

Agnes has led a life of activism that puts most of us to shame. She is a hugely successful academic, but has balanced this through her work in the community. She helped establish the black women’s centre in Brixton and a large education and skills training establishment in Woolwich. She ran projects for black single mothers in Lambeth with the community relations councils.  She also worked with Hackney Community Relations Council and was highly active in challenging inequalities across London.

When she joined the Tavistock and Portman in 2001 she came in as a complete outsider. She came from the wrong kind of university, she was the wrong kind of therapist (gestalt) and she was black and a woman, but she had the passion and energy to get things changed.

Agnes came to the Tavi with a specific remit to address issues of access for black and minority ethnic groups. She helped create in-roads for black and BAME students and communities. She increased the number of BAME students and trainees recruited. Not only did she get people through the door, but she developed support networks for staff, students and trainees, to help make sure that they stayed.

As well as these ‘on the ground’ changes Agnes organised three black African psychology conferences. For many, these were inspirational and aspirational. They were a completely new and radically different direction for the Tavi. The conferences exposed students to different voices and help validate the students’ own experiences.

Her work was an important breakthrough in terms of equalities at the Tavistock and Portman. Now with the events of 2020 ensuring that it continues and picks up in pace is more important than ever.

Irene Henderson

Irene Henderson

Irene is the Race and Diversity Champion for the Tavistock and Portman.

Irene is not a clinician. She is not an academic. She is not particularly an activist. But she is still one of the most important figures at the Trust today.

Around the world 2020 has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In London the way it played out had a specific, negative impact on particular NHS staff groups: those from black and ethnic minorities. The disparities have been stark. The death toll has been high and it has had a huge impact on morale.

One might have thought that Covid-19 would be the dominating issue for 2020, but at the end of May footage of George Floyd being slowly killed by four police officers shocked the world. For eight minutes he begged for his life while police officers knelt on him and suffocated him. Protests spread from Minnesota, across the US and the world. Black Lives Matter (BLM) was a grass roots response and people gathered to protest in spite of and fully aware of the risks to their own health.

People took to the streets with home-made placards and in a spontaneous and strangely ambivalent gesture ‘took the knee’ chanting “I can’t breathe…”

The trauma of bereavement, anxieties and existential threat over the pandemic, high levels of BAME staff deaths in the NHS, and then the death of George Floyd combined to make race and inequality a crucial issue. In response the Trust Race Equality Network for black, Asian and minority ethnic staff, held an all staff meeting which was attended by around 180 staff. Throughout this period I was hugely impressed by Irene’s ability to speak to staff with thoughtfulness, honesty and dignity.

In her day to day work Irene works in Clinical Governance and Quality. Like many of us, I guess she would be classified as ‘support staff’, so like Sylvia Leith Ross she represent that other ‘minority’ group of staff who are not clinicians, but who are still vital to the functioning of the organisation, even though our contribution is not always acknowledged or recognised.

As well as her ‘day-job’, Irene spends a portion of her time working as Race and Diversity Champion dealing with a wide range of staff issues around. Some of these issues may be misunderstandings, some may be micro-aggressions, some are bullying plain and simple, but there are also cases of out and out racism.

In some respects, even though she is not a therapist, Irene acts as a container for anxieties around race, discrimination and inequality for staff across the Trust. She is not paid enough for all that she does. She makes a huge difference and in her own way she is a true pioneer. Not only this, but she manages to maintain a sense of humour and is always able to give down to earth advice about maintaining a work-life balance and the importance of family.


The feeling that I got from the Network meeting in the summer is that the staff of the Trust as a whole want to see change. At the end of World War 2 we saw huge changes in the patterns of female employment. Currently the Trust and the NHS as a whole faces some challenging issues around race equalities.

In London, being white British is now to be in the numerically smaller group, but white remains the majority position. The NHS across London struggles to maintain a numerical representation with the wider population. Representation is even more strained in senior or ‘major’ positions. This is why Laverne as a first black clinician is so important. As a first, she creates and leaves space for others to come after her, just as the likes of Mary Hemmingway, Grace Pailthorpe and Esther Bick created space and new ways of thinking for the women that came after them.

Imagine what the Tavistock and Portman would have been like if the inspirational post-war generation of women had never occured. It would have been a huge loss. Their contribution was huge. If we don’t rise to we don’t rise to the current challenges of race we are going to lose the benefit of further generations of talented and dedicated staff to other industries.

The post-Derridean Supplement

Bernadette Wren

Finally I want to apologise for not including Bernadette Wren in the above. She more than deserves to be considered one of the pioneering women of the Tavistock and Portman. But at the same time I would feel slightly hesitant about including Bernadette in such a simplistically binary approach as looking at ‘the women’ of the Tavistock and Portman. Her unpicking of gender and the wider politics of identity is an important area of current thinking. And one that is going to be of continued importance in the future of the Tavistock and Portman. Just as the subject of race equalities has its echoes in the imperialist history of figures like Sylvia Leith-Ross, so the subject of gender also resonates back to the non-conformity of Grace Pailthorpe.

Bernadette’s writings on gender flag wider issues of identity and a wider unwillingness to conform to fixed, socially determined positions. Like the ‘unseen’ emotions that Bion drew attention to with his work on groups, Bernadette’s writings draw attention to the simplistic, over-confident assertions about truth and falsity, right and wrong by focussing on the ‘unseen’ ethical, philosophical and politically complex dimensions that underlie our ‘normal’ gender positions and roles in society.

Questions of autonomy and the right to self-define in defiance of normative expectations are as relevant to thinking about the women who wanted to be doctors in the 1920s as they are to current questions of race. Any sense of genuine engagement means you have to take seriously what people feel and say, particularly when that is incongruent, uncomfortable or challenging.

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