skip to primary navigationskip to content
 

Obituary: Professor Donald J. West

last modified Feb 26, 2020 08:19 AM

Professor Donald West MD, LittD, FRCPsych

9 June 1924 - 31 January 2020

 

Donald West, who died peacefully on 31 January aged 95, was a pioneering criminologist and a courageous clinical scientist whose early work was a major educational influence leading to the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

 

Born in Liverpool, he experienced an isolated childhood and a bleak, puritanical home life that left him, as he later wrote, with persisting shyness and feelings of inadequacy. From Merchant Taylor’s School, Crosby, where he won a scholarship, he went to study medicine at Liverpool University. Here he made friendships, began to read works on psychology and psychoanalysis, and qualified as a doctor in 1947.

 

His first academic work was as the Research Officer of the Society for Psychical Research in London where his commitment to rigorous and impartial experimental examination of claims of paranormal phenomena eventually led to discontent amongst less sceptical members of the Society and he was advised to seek other employment. In 1951 he started training in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital under Sir Aubrey Lewis, Frederick Kraupl-Taylor, and Peter Scott, a leading forensic psychiatrist. He spent an interim period at the Marlborough Clinic, Hampstead  where he worked on the book he personally regarded as his most important, Homosexuality, published as a Penguin paperback in 1955. At the time the Wolfenden Committee was deliberating, and their 1957 Report concluded that continued criminalisation of homosexual practices between consenting adults infringed civil liberties. The Cabinet was opposed to implementation of the Wolfenden recommendations and it was a further decade before male homosexuality was decriminalised in the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Donald West’s book was written as a detached review of the factual evidence – anthropological, statistical and psychological -  and made a powerful, rational case in the circumstances of the time for tolerance and understanding of a stigmatised and censured community. (In later, more open, years he looked back on his detached stance as “hypocritical”). At the time, even the title of the book was intolerable in the United States where - to be published - it had to be changed to The Other Man. In his eighties he reflected on how important the book had been for many gay people in his generation who had told him how comforting it had been in their early days to read something that confirmed their normality.

 

In 1960 Donald West was appointed as an Assistant Director of Research at the newly established Institute of Criminology at Cambridge, presided over by Sir Leon Radzinowicz whose vision was to create an interdisciplinary research centre that would include psychiatry amongst the other academic subjects contributing to criminology. Donald’s subsequent contributions to the Institute’s research and teaching, and to criminology internationally, were substantial and enduring. At Cambridge he became a Fellow of Darwin College, and was promoted to a personal professorship in Clinical Criminology,  while also  providing an outpatient clinic at Addenbroooke’s Hospital as an (unpaid) honorary consultant psychiatrist.   He remained in Cambridge until retiring in 1984, serving as Director of the Institute for the last three years. He was the last surviving member of its founding staff.

 

His publications and teaching exemplified ‘clinical criminology’ with distinction during a period characterised by anti-psychiatry critiques and strong currents of criticism of ‘positivist’ criminology. He was a careful researcher whose primary adherence was to evidence. He published The Habitual Prisoner in 1963, Murder followed by Suicide in 1965, and The Young Offender in 1967. All were characterised by detailed clinical assessments, analyses of research findings, and rational inferences in restrained prose. Whilst his writing style was neutral and understated, the messages - countering unsubstantiated beliefs and highlighting the humanity and welfare of offenders - were clear.

 

In 1961 he started the best known of his contributions to criminological research, the Cambridge longitudinal study in delinquent development. He was joined in 1969 by his colleague David Farrington, and their project became one of the major, continuing, prospective longitudinal studies internationally in the field of developmental criminology. The study commenced as a prospective survey of 411 London boys, aged 8 in 1961, who have since been interviewed  at intervals through their lives, and their children have been interviewed in more recent years, enabling a rich and extensive range of findings about antecedents and causes of criminality and desistance. Major books arising from the study include Who becomes Delinquent in 1973 The Delinquent Way of Life in 1977, and Delinquency, Its Roots, Careers and Prospects on 1982. Prolific publications from the study continue.

 

Donald West continued to teach and conduct research on sexuality and offending, publishing Sexual Crimes and Confrontations in 1987, and (with Buz de Villiers) Male Prostitution in 1992.  He served as a founding member of the newly-established Parole Board in the late 1960s and as a member of the Mental Health Act Commission in the 1980s.

 

His final book was a candid autobiography, Gay Life, Straight Work, in 2012, in which he commented on the remarkable transformation in official attitudes towards homosexuality in the UK in his lifetime. He described the freedom that had eventually become possible for him, and his closing sentence was, “Liberation is fragile”.

 

It was his wish that he should have no funeral. At the age of 76 he lost Pietro, his partner for over forty years. There was unexpected later happiness.  He leaves his devoted civil partner, Vicenzo, and many friends.