Who Was Psychiatry Pioneer Robin Skynner? | History Hit

Who Was Psychiatry Pioneer Robin Skynner?

Robin Skynner
Image Credit: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Robin Skynner (1922-2000) was a Royal Airforce bomber pilot, a prolific writer, a family therapist and, most famously, an innovative psychiatrist. He’s best remembered for his contribution to the field of psychiatry via his therapy methods, highly popular books and incisive lectures.

Skynner’s time serving during World War Two mentally affected him so profoundly that he pursued a career in psychiatry. Over the course of his illustrious career, Skynner’s developments in the field fundamentally altered the way that various psychiatric disorders are treated today, while his teaching and books have helped educate future generations of doctors and researchers in the area.

Here are 10 facts about Robin Skynner.

1. He was one of five boys

Robin Skynner was born on 16 August 1922 in Cornwall, UK, to a father who had a family business mining and shipping china clay, and a mother who was a local fisherman’s daughter. The eldest of five boys, Skynner later claimed that he resented each of his brothers being born. At 18, he volunteered for the Royal Air Force and was selected as a potential bomber pilot.

2. He served as an RAF fighter pilot

De Havilland Mosquito, Robin Skynner would have flown with this model of plane during World War Two

Image Credit: Official UK government photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Skynner was commissioned and qualified as a pilot and navigator, and spent 30 months training pilots in Britain and Canada. During World War Two, Skynner flew the Mosquito twin-engined fighter plane. He found the destruction and slaughter so traumatising that he was drawn to psychiatry.

3. He qualified in medicine

After he finished serving in the RAF, Skynner enrolled at University College Hospital, London, and qualified in 1952. He then started his psychiatric training, and in 1957, passed the Diploma of Psychological Medicine.

4. He specialised in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital

Skynner later became Director of the Woodberry Down Child Guidance Unit, Physician-in Charge of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, Senior Tutor in Psychotherapy at the Institute of Psychiatry and finally, Honorary Associate Consultant at the Maudsley Hospital, where he specialised in child psychiatry. His child and family therapy treatments would go on to become some of his most famous work.

5. He developed a new form of psychiatry

Maudsley Hospital, the largest mental health training institution in the UK. 22 April 2018

Image Credit: AC Manley / Shutterstock.com

While at the Maudsley Hospital, Skynner met Dr. Foulkes, a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who had come from Germany in the 1930s and had treated war victims in Birmingham. Together with Foulkes, Skynner founded the Group Analytic Practice, which aimed to change the way that mental health patients and those with war trauma were treated. A core focus of the practice was ‘group analysis’, which centred a more community or group-based approach in treating patients.

6. He created the Institute of Family Therapy

In 1977, Skynner founded the Institute of Family Therapy and chaired it for the next 2 years. The institute began as a staff training programme, and today informs most psychiatric services for children and teenagers in Britain. Skynner became a regular contributor to the institute’s Journal Of Family Therapy.

7. He worked with his wife

Skynner had a working relationship with his late wife Prudence until her death in 1987. Together, they provided leadership for the courses for the Institute of Family Therapy, and helped raise the profile of treatments involving group therapy for couples and families, as well as more specialised therapies for groups such as Church of England bishops and their wives.

In 1978, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy awarded them distinguished affiliate membership, and later, the family therapy unit at St George’s Hospital was named in honour of Prudence.

8. He wrote books with John Cleese

Robin Skynner (left) together with John Cleese (right)

Image Credit: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Skynner’s first two books, One Flesh, Separate Persons: Principles Of Family and Marital Psychotherapy (1976) and Families And How To Survive Them (1983) remain highly popular today. The latter was written with actor, comedian, writer and producer John Cleese, and has sold some 350,000 copies in English and has been translated into 10 languages. Skynner later collaborated with Cleese again on Life and How To Survive It (1993)

9. He was spiritual

Skynner was a very spiritual man, and was long associated with the Gurdjieff Society. He meditated regularly and found that it helped him pay special attention to his patients. During his early training, he was also influenced by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell.

10. He suffered a serious stroke

Skynner suffered a severe stroke in 1993 which led him with residual paralysis, a slower gait and needing a walking stick. However, in spite of his stroke, he went on to travel around the world and lecture widely.

Lucy Davidson