Laureation address: Professor Sir Michael Rutter

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Professor Malcolm MacLeod, Vice-Principal (Enterprise and Engagement)

Friday 13 September 2013

Sir Michael is, by common assent, regarded as the most illustrious behavioural scientist to have emerged from the field of child mental health over the past 50 years. He stands head and shoulders above his peers and his achievements span an impossibly wide range of topics. He has made major contributions to our understanding of mental resilience, the genetic basis of autism, the effects of maternal and institutional deprivation on subsequent mental health, and the turning points in adult life following psychosocial adversity in childhood. He is rightly credited with making many significant breakthroughs in these areas and, consequently, many of his studies are regarded as core to the discipline. In doing so, he has laid an empirical foundation for a completely new field of scientific research – child psychiatry – one which allows us to better understand and evaluate how early developmental factors influence mental well-being in adolescence and adulthood.

Many of us present here today may be rather curious about what it is that makes people like Sir Michael and our other esteemed honorary graduates excel in their various fields. We might surmise that it probably has to do with a sense of curiosity, integrity, creativity, and rigour. One might also add persistence and perseverance to the pot.  But, beyond that, it is difficult to determine. We tend to think of these various characteristics in isolation but, in fact, it is the complex interactions that take place between genetic and psychosocial factors which ultimately determine who we are. Sir Michael has devoted his entire working life – which now stretches over a remarkable 50 years – to untangling this complex nexus.

Born into a family of medical doctors in Beirut in 1933, Sir Michael arrived in England at the tender age of three. With the start of WWII approaching and worries about a possible invasion, his parents reluctantly decided to send Michael and his sister to the US for safety. There, he was fostered by a loving family with whom he still keeps in contact to this day. On returning to England, he attended medical school at the University of Birmingham where an unusually high number of his contemporaries also became distinguished psychiatrists in their own right. Influenced by mentors and teachers such as Mayer-Gross and Aubrey Lewis, Sir Michael decided – against his own inclinations – to specialise in, what was then, the rather muddled and largely unempirical field of child psychiatry.

Having adopted this particular path, Sir Michael has been a consultant psychiatrist at the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospitals in London since 1966. He held the first Chair of Child Psychiatry in the UK at the Institute of Psychiatry for over 25 years and currently holds the Chair of Developmental Psychopathology, also at the Institute of Psychiatry. Sir Michael was knighted for his contribution to Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 1992. He has even had a building named in his honour – the ‘Michael Rutter Centre for Children and Adolescents’ at the Maudsley Hospital – a form of recognition which is more often afforded to those of us who are no longer around to appreciate it! In his spare time, he enjoys fell walking, playing tennis, wine tasting, and going to the theatre but also seems to have found time along the way to have set up the Medical Research Council Child Psychiatry Research Unit in 1984, and the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre a decade later. He was Honorary Director of both until 1998. He also served as Deputy Chairman of the Wellcome Trust from 1999 to 2004, and has been a long-serving Trustee of the Nuffield Foundation.

Over his long career, his research output has been truly prolific – he has published over 500 scientific papers and over 50 books. During this period, he has ploughed his own furrow. He has seldom shown respect for received wisdom, especially where he considered that it might obscure or deter a new correct explanation. Indeed, he has displayed a healthy scepticism and a readiness to challenge traditional beliefs throughout his career. Consequently, Sir Michael has debunked several apparent ‘truths’ along the way regarding the links between childhood experience and behaviour in later life. His work in the 1970s and 1980s, in particular, led to a major repositioning of our earlier ideas about the relationship between maternal deprivation and mental health and challenged the influential and controversial theory that the absence of a warm, intimate and continuous relationship between a child and its mother would lead to significant and irreversible consequences for mental health in later life. Through painstaking research, Sir Michael established that this theory was, in fact, only partially correct – and sometimes for the wrong reasons. He showed that it was normal for children to form multiple attachments rather than the selective attachment to a single person, and that it was advantageous to do so.

In the 1990s Sir Michael led a number of research teams which followed many of the orphans who were adopted by Western families following the end of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. Many of us will remember the harrowing news reports of the truly appalling conditions in these Romanian orphanages. These studies – now regarded as pivotal in the field — established that, despite the terrible privation and deprivation which many of these children endured, poor mental health and poor intellectual functioning were not inevitable. In fact, despite such suffering, subsequent exposure to loving and stimulating environments meant that many of these children caught up intellectually.

In addressing these complex questions, Sir Michael has displayed an unparalleled capacity for convergent, divergent, and lateral thinking, and complemented this with an ability to make both logical and irrational connections. In doing so, he has shown a level of creativity that is seldom seen in a researcher. Coupled with a basic concern for the disadvantaged – perhaps a function of his Quaker upbringing – and a motivation to improve the mental well-being of children and adolescents, Sir Michael has devoted his life to improving the lives of those who have been less fortunate.

Sir Michael’s research has marked him out as one of the most distinguished scientists and thinkers of his generation. He is the first psychiatrist since Sigmund Freud to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is also a Founding Fellow of the Academia Europaea, and the Academy of Medical Sciences. To these many well-deserved honours, we would wish to add our recognition on this very special day.