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Tribute to Prof Lynn Sinclair Gillis

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My close friend professor Lynn Sinclair Gillis died on May 24th at home in Cape Town, aged 96. Born to emigrant parents who exchanged antisemitism in the small Lithuanian town of Kretinga for Boerland Kroonstad (= ‘Crown City’, ironically named not after royalty but a favourite horse that drowned in the local stream). Lynn’s father Julius, a dentist, grew competition prize roses as a hobby, and his mother Annie (nee Lynn), a concert­-pianist, gave music lessons. Late in life, Lynn recalled the chicken soup and Kneidels made by his granny, who lived with them. This parochial background grounded his fluent vernacular Africaans, a language he deemed second only to Yiddish in its rich array of metaphors and colourful curses. Perhaps too, it underpinned Lynn’s initiatives in community and social psychiatry. Hospitalisation aged nine for scarlet fever in the Johannesburg Children’s Fever Hospital similarly primed later innovative ideas.

When the war broke out, he served in makeshift hospitals in Northern Africa and Italy. 1945-1962 he worked at Tara Hospital, a pioneering mental health facility in Johannesburg, taking a break in the 1950’s to hold positions at the Maudsley hospital in London, and becoming a founding member of the UK Royal College of Psychiatry.

These formative experiences bore fruit when he was recruited in 1962 to be founding Head of Department of Psychiatry & Mental Health at the University of Cape Town and first consultant at Groote Schur Hospital. He initiated ground-breaking community services and clinics, unusually led by nurses. Under his guidance a day hospital was established, and psychiatric Social Club promoting continuity of care for patients in the community, with outreach provisions to destigmatise mental illness. At Government funded Valkenberg Hospital and Alexandra Rehabilitation Centre he courageously defied Apartheid segregation, by integrating staff across wards.

Lynn Gillis won many awards and held esteemed positions, among them President, of the S.A. National Council for Mental Health. We met in 1980 when as Director of the South African Medical Research Council’s Clinical Psychiatry Research Unit he invited my husband Professor Julian Leff of the British Medical Research Council to participate in an extensive study of Life Events and ongoing precipitants of relapses in schizophrenia. Their findings revealed massive discrepancies in the different racial groups’ lived experience. We remained fast friends ever since, with reciprocal bi-annual visits (adjusted in the academic boycott years), between ourselves and Lynn and his late wife Shirley (nee Lourie, a clan who claim to trace their roots back to King David).

All agreed that Professor Gillis was an inspirational teacher, mentor and author of numerous professional books and publications. Many eminent people in the field cite his singularly trusting style of leadership which encouraged their personal initiative. 

Ever curious, Lynn was drawn to psychoanalysis, and pursued Buddhism. His fine appreciation of music, travel and art flourished in retirement when he also studied sculpture and created austere carvings in marble and rare woods. Always an avid mountaineer he remained remarkably healthy and agile, lucid and fiercely independent to the end of his full and fulfilled professional and artistic life.

He leaves a daughter Jenny, four adult grandchildren (Josh, Gabrielle, Jason, Danielle) and three great grandbabies (Nomi, Yael and Lev).
Professor Joan Raphael-Leff, PhD [Retired] 
Psychoanalyst/Transcultural Psychologist,

Fellow of the British Psychoanalytical Society & Member IPA.

Leader, Academic Faculty for Psychoanalytic Research

Anna Freud Centre, London







Lynn Sinclair Gillis MD
FRCPsych, M.B.Ch.B.,D.P.M.
Formerly Head of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cape Town, and Consultant Psychiatrist, Groote Schur Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa


Lynn Gillis who died recently at the age of 96 years, was, over a long period, one of the leaders of academic psychiatry in South Africa. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was a pioneer of community psychiatry and set up numerous community psychiatry services, mostly led by nurses. Under his guidance, a Day Hospital was established in 1963 in Cape Town, allied to a Community Service and Psychiatric Social Club, which promoted continuity of care for patients in the community. This linked outreach provisions with psychiatric advocacy, aiming to destigmatise mental illness. Outpatient clinics were established at most hospitals, and peripheral clinics were established in many parts of the country which catered mostly for patients who had been discharged from hospital. Later legislation in 1976 made formal provision for a community service in country areas associated with particular psychiatric hospitals. Over time, beginning with consultations at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital and introducing an outpatient clinic in 1964, an active Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry was established in the department. In 1983 the division assumed responsibility for the psychiatric needs of patients at Sonstraal Adolescent Unit for behaviourally disturbed children at Valkenberg and for the psychiatric care of patients at Alexandra Care and Rehabilitation Centre.
Courageously defying apartheid segregation, he integrated staff across wards. In 1968, he carried out a significant research project into the rate of mental illness and alcoholism in the Coloured People of the Cape Peninsula.  A community service for alcoholism, staffed by a psychiatrist and psychiatric nurses, was opened in Heideveld in 1971. He developed Community services for the geriatric population and in 1976 specialised geriatric psychiatry beds were established at Valkenberg in close co-operation with the Division of Geriatrics (in the Department of Medicine) of Groote Schuur Hopsital as an extension. This was the first such organised service in South Africa.
In 1980 the Social Psychiatry MRC Unit established and headed by LSG focused further on the development and research into community based mental health. In collaboration with Professor Julian Leff of the UK Medical Research Council he carried out a number of studies of the social precipitants of relapse in schizophrenia. Their studies revealed massive discrepancies in the lived experience of the different racial groups.
Lynn’s clinical teaching and research laid the foundations for the existing Department of Psychiatry in the University of Cape Town, now a leader of psychiatric research in the African continent. Professor Dan Stein, the current Head of the Department, recalls that ‘the clinical, teaching, research, and social responsiveness strengths of the existing Department are in no small measure due to his pioneering work’. As well as clinical work and carrying out research, Lynn wrote several books dealing with different aspects of clinical practice in psychiatry and psychiatric education. Towards the end of his life he wrote a series of reflections on his rich and varied experience.
Lynn was born on 1 February 1924 to Jewish parents who had migrated from Kretinga in Lithuania. His father, Julius Gillis, was a dentist who grew competition roses as a hobby. His mother, Annie Gillis, (née Lynn) was a concert pianist who gave music lessons locally.  He was first brought up in the small South African town of Kroonstad in the Orange Free State.  As a result, he spoke vernacular Afrikaans, (a language he deemed second only to Yiddish in its rich array of metaphors and flamboyant curses,) with fluency. At the age of nine years, a year after the family had moved to Johannesburg, he contracted scarlet fever. His experience in the Children’s Fever Hospital may have influenced his later ideas about hospitals as institutions.
He entered Witwatersrand medical school  in 1941. He interrupted his medical studies to enlist as a medical assistant in the South African Medical Corps, serving in makeshift hospitals in North Africa and Italy. Returning to South Africa he worked from 1945 until 1962 at Tara Hospital, Johannesburg, a pioneering mental health facility where he was influenced by the indomitable Dr. Mary Gordon, a migrant from Russia. In the 1950’s Lynn took a break from Tara to hold positions at both the Maudsley Hospital in London and St. Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath in Sussex. In 1962, he was recruited to fill the position of founding Head of the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health at the University of Cape Town and first consultant at Groote Schur Hospital (posts he held for 27 years).
During his career, Lynn won numerous awards, among them the SALUS Medal (silver) for Meritorious Service to Medicine (1989) and Merit Award for Outstanding Services, Medical Association of S.A., (1990). He also held many positions of responsibility, including President, of the South African National Council for Mental Health (1969-1970/ 1976-1978/1981-1983), President, Society of Psychiatrists of South Africa (1969- 1971). He was an elected member of the International Brain Research Organisation (1977‑1989); President, of the South African Geriatric Society (1978‑1980),  President of the South African Gerontological Association  (1982-1993); and Chairman of the National Research Programme on Aging of the South African population, Human Sciences Research Council (1987‑1991). He was a founding member and later Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (1971).  
Although a reserved man, Lynn’s warmth, compassion and mischievous humour influenced several generations of psychiatrists, psychologists and allied practitioners as much as his professional capacities as inspirational teacher, mentor and author of many publications. He had a long-lasting effect on his trainees, many of whom rose to eminence in South Africa, USA and the UK. Today, they still acknowledge the lasting legacy of his singularly trusting style of leadership which fostered personal initiative. Ever curious, his awareness of the many contradictions and unconscious processes of the human mind drew Lynn to psychoanalysis, and he pursued a lifelong interest in Buddhism. He always had a subtle appreciation of beauty, art, and music. In retirement he studied sculpture and became a prolific creator of many austere carvings in marble and rare woods. An enthusiastic mountaineer, he remained remarkably healthy and agile until his last years. He was lucid and fiercely independent to the end of his full and fulfilled professional and artistic life. He died on 24thc of May, 2020.

Shirley (neé Lurie) his wife of 64 years, died in 2015. He leaves a daughter (Jennifer), four grandchildren (Josh, Gabrielle, Jason, Danielle) and three great grandchildren (Nomi, Yael and Lev).            
Joan Raphael Leff

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