“John Rickman was the only child in an extended Quaker family and was throughout his life a practising Quaker. His father ran an ironmonger’s shop in Dorking and died of tuberculosis when John was 2. His mother never remarried, and the main male influences in his early life were his grandfathers. John’s maternal grandfather was often unkind to him, something he recalled years later when in analysis with Sándor Ferenczi. He was at Leighton Park, the Quaker school near Reading, along with two other leading members of the British Psychoanalytical Society, Helton Godwin Baynes and Lionel Penrose. Rickman later studied Natural Sciences at King’s College, Cambridge, followed by Medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.
When the First World War broke out, John continued his training and faced with conscription, became a conscientious objector and refused to join up. In 1916 Rickman joined ‘the Friends’ War Victims Relief Service’ in the Samara Oblast province of South Russia, where there was great poverty and deprivation, and the Czar still ruled. There he taught peasant women how to nurse typhoid patients during an epidemic and made anthropological observations of the severe limitations of village life. In 1917 Rickman met an American social worker Lydia Cooper Lewis, who had just joined the Relief Service unit. John and Lydia married in Buzuluk on 20 March 1918, after the revolution, and then set off on a dramatic and dangerous escape from the horrors of Civil War, arriving at Vladivostok after more than three months on a very slow trans-Siberian railway journey, frequently stopped and searched by rival agents of the civil war. Once home, Rickman worked as a medical officer with psychiatric patients at Fulbourn Hospital in Cambridge. In Cambridge he met W. H. R. Rivers, an anthropologist and physician who had treated soldiers traumatized by the war at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh. Rivers advised Rickman to seek an analysis with Freud.
In 1919 Rickman went to Vienna to have analysis with Freud. He made many contacts there, including Karl Abraham (1877–1925) and Sándor Ferenczi (1873–1933). He continued with Freud until 1922, when he qualified as a psychoanalyst. In 1928 he travelled to Budapest to have treatment from Ferenczi. In 1934 Rickman began an analysis with Melanie Klein that was to continue, intermittently, until 1941 and again for some sessions after the war. In 1938 Dr Wilfred Bion, who had been working as a psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, asked Rickman to be his training psychoanalyst. This was brought to a premature end by the onset of the second world war.
At the beginning of 1940 Rickman was sent to Wharncliffe Hospital near Sheffield, where his work attracted considerable interest and admiration from army psychologists and psychiatrists, including Wilfred Bion, who visited him there. As a result of this reunion Bion drafted what came to be known as the Wharncliffe Memorandum, of which no copy has survived. It contained some of the first ideas on what was to become after the war the therapeutic community movement. Rickman joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and with the rank of major was posted to Northfield Military Hospital near Birmingham in July 1942. Most of the patients there were soldiers who could not manage army life. Rickman’s approach was thoughtful, practical and hopeful, not typical of army psychiatrists of the day. Wilfred Bion asked to be transferred to Northfield and arrived in September of the same year. Here he initiated what has since been seen as a revolutionary experiment with groups which, though it lasted only six weeks, led to developments in the understanding and management of groups, not only in mental health but in public services and organisations.”
Andrew Cooper in: Conjunctions: Social Work, Psychoanalysis, and Society (2018):
“If a student does not have the opportunity to undertake a personal analysis or therapy as part of a course or training, the Tavistock tradition has devised all sorts of pretty good substitutes – group relations events, infant observation, experiential groups, and institutional observations. A post-qualifying social work student decided to undertake his institutional observation by attending Sunday morning meetings at his local Quaker meeting house. He describes how often, in the silence of the meeting, his thoughts turned to death. He wonders why this should be, and then at one point, reflecting partly on the age of the majority of those attending, he asks himself whether this non-proselytising religious institution might harbour unconscious anxieties about its own capacity to survive…
…During my observations individuals felt moved to share poems or lines from the bible:
He read aloud the poem “This Was the Summer Day” by Mary Oliver which ended with the line “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life…”…
…This student did not know until I told him that there is more than a coincidental connection between the practices of Quaker meetings and the teaching and learning methods of the Tavistock Centre. In his paper on this theme, “The Quaker Connection in the Tavistock Clinic’s development”, Sebastian Kraemer says:
“When I arrived at the Tavistock Clinic as a psychiatric registrar over thirty years ago I remember thinking that the reflective practice of seminars, including the arrangement of chairs in a circle, might be something like a Quaker meeting, though I had never (and still have not) been to one. Only recently did it occur to me that there may actually be a connection. It turned out there was more than I expected.” (2011)
He later quotes from a lecture by John Rickman, one of the analysts who influenced those who shaped Tavistock methods, about the Quakers:
“There is an element of mutual admiration and a tendency to undue exaltation of the performances of the members or of the group as a whole, but there is another and more valuable process at work as well: the production of an atmosphere of tolerance towards the expression of any idea irrespective of the effect that the idea may have on the individual or on society. I do not want to minimise the dangers of this atmosphere…” (Rickman, 2003).”