Lionel Penrose (11 June 1898 – 12 May 1972)*

*an English psychiatrist, medical geneticist, paediatrician, mathematician and chess theorist, who carried out pioneering work on the genetics of intellectual disability (see post of 1.11.19).

From In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics And the Uses of Human Heredity (1986), by Daniel J. Kevles:

Chapter X:

“…By the time he matriculated at Cambridge, in 1919, the knowledge Penrose cared about had gone beyond mathematics and science to include an increasingly intense interest in Freudian psychology…

…here and there he found brave Freudian shoots. Among them were the lectures of W.H.R. Rivers, the anthropologist and neurophysiologist and the leading Freudian on the faculty. There was also John Rickman, a physician, whose example helped steer Penrose in the direction of professional work in mental illness. Rickman, a marvellous raconteur, had often come to Leighton Park, where he was an “old boy,” to regale the students with his tales, and Penrose met him again by chance in the street. Rickman was working at the nearby Fulbourn Asylum. “The difference between me and the patients,” he explained to Penrose, “is that I have a key and they haven’t.” Soon after this meeting, attracted by the new Freudian psychology, Rickman went to study in Vienna. “So it came about,” Penrose recalled in an unpublished memoir, “that, after learning nothing at Cambridge except a little mathematical logic,…I set off [in 1922]…to Vienna with the vague idea of following in Rickman’s footsteps.”


The discontent with Freudian psychoanalysis was reinforced by Margaret Leathes, his future wife, whom he met while climbing in the Austrian Alps. A medical student at the time, and a woman of a strongly independent and irreverent cast of mind, she perceived a streak of self-importance in the psychoanalytic fraternity. When back in London, accompanying Lionel to meetings of Ernest Jones’s Psycho-Analytic Institute, she was struck by Jones’s custom of seating himself beneath a wall picture of Freud, giving him the appearance of an anointed monarch on a throne. She thought that Lionel would have made a terrible analyst because he was too absorbed in his own ideas to pay much attention to anyone else’s.”

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