Photograph of psychoanalyst Dr Leslie Sohn

Leslie Sohn

Leslie Sohn (1919-2013) was born in Cape Town, South Africa. He was the youngest of three children, having two sisters several years older. He attended the local public day school and then read medicine at the University of Cape Town. His attachment to the psychiatric department of the university hospital produced clear signs of a profound interest in this field. He completed his House Officer posts in Durban and, after the end of the Second World War, came to England for post-graduate training in psychiatry.

Psychoanalytic training

Dr Sohn was delighted to be appointed Senior House Physician in 1947 to Aubrey Lewis at the Maudsley Hospital. In 1948, with the forming of the National Health Service, he became Registrar, and then Senior Registrar. At this stage, the word ‘psychoanalysis’ had not yet entered his vocabulary. However, whilst working at the Maudsley Hospital, he was fortunate to work clinically for Clifford Scott and William Gillespie, who inspired in him an interest in psychoanalytic ideas. He was encouraged to apply to the Institute of Psychoanalysis, and was accepted and supervised by Marion Milner and Hanna Segal, qualifying in 1952. Two of his peers during his training were Sydney Klein and Isabel Menzies Lyth with whom he maintained a friendship over several decades. They continued to meet regularly at postgraduate seminars, including over a period of twelve years at the Rosenfeld seminar, where Sohn and Sydney Klein presented. A similar pattern took place at the Segal post-graduate seminar over many years.

Throughout this period Dr Sohn continued working at the Maudsley Hospital and, post-qualification as a psychoanalyst, he began to develop his private practice. He also completed the Child Psychoanalytic training. This he found difficult, as he had the same supervisor for each section of the training, “and I can’t claim that we got on well”.

Understanding violent behaviour

Dr Sohn maintained his position as Consultant Psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital from 1952 until 1995. He was then appointed as Consultant Psychiatrist at Broadmoor High Security Hospital, where he worked until 2010. This means that Dr Sohn was employed in the NHS for an unbroken period of 62 years (1948–2010).

During this time, Dr Sohn assessed and treated hundreds of patients, and supervised and inspired hundreds of junior practitioners, from medical and other disciplines. He excelled as a clinician and teacher. In particular, his attachment to the Medium Secure Unit at the Bethlem Royal Hospital (Dennis Hill Unit) revolutionised the thinking around violent behaviour in mentally disordered offenders and, in particular, those suffering from psychotic illnesses. His paper ‘Unprovoked Assaults’ was particularly influential in providing a way of understanding the apparently inexplicable, sudden, and often bizarre violent offences carried out by mentally ill patients. Sohn indicated that there was indeed a provocation, albeit a complex psychical one arising from traumatic historical events, where the victim of the assault becomes a suitable external recipient for the extreme projections that are enacted bodily through the violent act.

He especially enjoyed working alongside colleagues in forensic psychiatry, Dr James McKeith, Prof. John Gunn and Prof. Pamela Taylor. He was a pioneer in developing a highly sophisticated form of peer review for forensic mental health clinicians at all levels of seniority. He published several papers in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. One of his most interesting and useful theoretical developments is his idea of a mad part of the psychotic patient’s superego envying what goes on between patient and analyst, and repeatedly attempting to ‘assault’ the therapeutic process. His repeated reminders to clinicians working in forensic psychiatry settings, of the constant need to watch out for “collusions with delusions of sanity” has had a major impact on the training of clinicians from different disciplines, in turn ameliorating the care provided to patients in these settings, where there is a strong tendency for such collusions to arise. This has also had repercussions in risk assessment and the management of patients who have been violent.

Later years

Dr Sohn continued working in private practice and providing supervision for clinicians working in the NHS and in private practice. He co-ran a monthly Forensic Psychoanalysis seminar at the Institute of Psychoanalysis for interested clinicians. A collection of his papers is being prepared for publication.

Dr Sohn had four children with his beloved wife Myra, who died in 1995. He was a real family man, spending his free time with his four children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, until his death in 2013 at the age of 93.

Carine Minne, 2012

Photograph: Matthias von der Tann

Key publications

1985 Sohn, L. ‘Anorexic and Bulimic States of Mind in the Psycho-Analytic Treatment of Anorexic/Bulimic Patients and Psychotic Patients’. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 1(2):49-56.

1985 Sohn, L. ‘Narcissistic Organization, Projective Identification, and the Formation of the Identificate’. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 66:201-213.

1995 Sohn, L. ‘Unprovoked Assaults – Making Sense Of Apparently Random Violence’. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 76:565-575.