Doctor David Campbell: Clinical psychologist who advanced the cause of family therapy

Born in Chicago, David, the younger of two brothers, came to Britain after qualifying as a clinical psychologist in Boston in the early 1970s, attracted by the Tavistock Clinic, London. He worked at the Tavistock for the rest of his life. Initially trained in child psychotherapy, he quickly became aware of the need to address the context and relationships within which children lived when they presented with difficulties, and with colleagues he began to develop the family therapy service and trainings there. Although Ronald Laing had worked at the Tavistock Clinic a decade or so earlier drawing attention to the impact of families on mental illness, the idea that it was possible to work with families to draw on their resources and engage them in finding ways to enable their members to change was a new and inspirational one. Although the Tavistock Clinic is still most widely known as a psychoanalytic institution, it is in large part through David Campbell’s work and reputation that it is also known as one of the most influential centres of systemic therapy and training in the UK.

Particularly interested in the work of a group of Italian psychiatrists, Mara Selvini-Palazzoli, Giuliana Prata, Luigi Boscolo and Gianfranco Cecchin, Campbell, with his colleague Ros Draper, became the main proponent in the UK of what became known as the Milan approach and published the first of many books in 1983. His ability to articulate complex ideas in simple and engaging ways found him an immediate following as a writer and teacher. His discovery, on editing Applications of Systemic Family Therapy. The Milan Approach in 1985 with Draper, of his gift in enabling others to write about their clinical work, in-spired them to establish the Systemic Thinking and Practice Series, published by Karnac Books, specialists in psychotherapy literature, through which he edited over 50 books, eight of which he contributed to himself.

He was a highly skilled clinician, and his own systemic therapeutic practice continually informed his teaching and writing. His clarity and thoughtfulness inspired thousands of family therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists in the NHS, social services and the voluntary sector in Britain to change their working practices. He carried out training internationally and appeared at international conferences on a regular basis, where his presentations always seemed to make a difference to the audience’s ways of thinking. He also built a considerable reputation in the area of consultation. His calm thoughtfulness and ability always to stay curious, always to imagine that there might be another way to consider the situation which might be of help, proved to be exceptionally useful and, at times, transformative for teams and institutions, public and private, all over the country.

These qualities permeated his personal life and relationships. He was as talented a teacher of water skiing at the family’s summer house in Northern Michigan as he was a trainer of therapists. World music, cinema and theatre were important interests, but it was his passion for his work which outshone all else.

Campbell continually sought to develop his thinking and his practice, and was especially adept at drawing on theoretical sources and fields outside psychotherapy to synthesise and make use of these ideas in practice. His latest work elaborated positioning theory, developed by Rom Harré, which he made enticingly accessible to family therapists and the organisations to which he consulted. His clarity often made things seem so obvious, as if one had always known this was so.

Despite Campbell’s considerable influence in the field of systemic psychotherapy and consultation he remained a modest person. He believed passionately in the generative potential of constructing ideas with others, and that his position was only one among others in the current crucial debates about families, mental health and communities in present day Britain. This balance between being able to present his own ideas clearly while honouring their dependence on and co-construction with others epitomised and embodied his systemic stance, and made him a wonderful colleague and mentor.

Throughout the 20 months with which David Campbell lived and struggled with his cancer he demonstrated an impressive openness to talking and writing about his illness. Up until the last months he was determined to continue to teach when he felt fit enough, keeping his mind alert. He will be sorely missed at the Tavistock Clinic and throughout the systemic psychotherapy world, even as his writing will continue to have influence for years to come.

David was married for 35 years to Jane Campbell, a French teacher, and he is survived by her, and their two children, Jesse, a clinical psychologist and Briony, a photographer.

Charlotte Burck

Dr David Campbell, systemic psychotherapist, clinical psychologist: born 8 December 1943; married Jane Campbell (two children); died 25 August 2009.

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