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“Are you retired?” “Well, sort of!”

The historical journey of a retired professor.

Nicol Ferrier

I was appointed to the Chair of Psychiatry at Newcastle University in 1990. I was involved with research into the neurobiology of severe affective disorders (depression and bipolar disorder) and my clinical interests were with the same group of patients.

I first sort of retired in 2011 at the age of 62.

This was part-retirement with re-engagement three days a week as a Senior Research Co-Ordinator (I liked all three of these words!). This may not be for everyone, and in fact may not be available to many or all soon, but for me it was great. I gave up things I didn’t like or wasn’t much good at (for example, University administration and committee work) and did more of the things I liked (research and teaching postgraduate (PG) psychiatrists in training).

I next sort of retired in 2015.

I became Emeritus (NB the term has nothing to do with merit!) and ceased to be paid. Since then, I have continued to do some of my previous research, done some teaching (mostly with the British Association of Psychopharmacology) and some advisory work, e.g., with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. All this has been rewarding, particularly as it allowed me to keep in touch with peers and junior colleagues. That is to say, this work had a social function. Not being paid for work does lead to the pleasant state of doing it when one can fit it in to one’s schedule, rather than feeling under perpetual pressure as before.

I did some research on successful retirement and cognitive ageing around this time and to boil it down, three things stood out. Exercise (which should be a mix of cardio, stretching and muscle strengthening), keeping active socially and learning something new. (I let a medical student friend know of this evidence and he decided to take up dancing as a way of doing all three! Subsequently, he is both very well preserved and a very good dancer...). I was keeping physically active with walking, cycling and golf, and was reasonably social with my “old” work described above, friends and family. But what to do about learning something new? I knew I just couldn’t learn a language or to play a musical instrument…

My first love at school was history and I had dabbled in it over the years so I thought I might study history. I quickly excluded being an undergraduate (UG) again (exams and having to be at lectures which might be before 11am!) so I decided to do a postgraduate (PG) degree, a PhD. This was partly because a lifetime of having been told what to do and working to deadlines left me in a situation when I, being a sad person, knew that these were necessary requirements to keep me on track rather than just dabbling. There is, of course, nothing wrong with dabbling, better known as taking an interest, it just wasn’t for me. But one can’t just swan in and do a PG degree in History without an UG degree in History. Unless, that is, you want to study the History of Medicine, in which case a medical degree can suffice as an entry requirement. Decision made.

Now seven years part time on, I have finally been awarded my PhD in the History of Medicine. I was fortunate in finding an excellent supervisor (Dr Jonathan Andrews, Reader in Medical History at Newcastle University, and a real card-carrying expert in the history of the care of people with severe mental health conditions, or the “insane” as they were called, over the last three centuries) and a topic of interest to me. I investigated the causes of death of the “insane” in asylums in the late Victorian period by studying post-mortem reports in those who died under the age of 55. Infections particularly tuberculosis predominated as a cause of death, but about a third of patients had evidence of arterial disease (atheroma) in the heart or brain. These patients were mostly thin, didn’t smoke and were active so this may be evidence that vessel disease is part of serious mental illness and not just an artefact of drugs and obesity as some see it today.

So, I think the results are of relevance today and I plan/hope to write some papers on the topic, sometime. Overall, my project and the study for it has been very rewarding. Being a student again was largely fun and as a byproduct, as it were, I have become very interested in the History of Psychiatry (HoP) more broadly and am now much involved with its Special Interest Group (HoPSIG) of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

But it was also tough at times.

The key problem was unlearning years of training and practice in writing in a medical and scientific way and learning to write like an historian. This is an interesting topic in its own right (and one I could drone on about to anyone who is interested) but it was, and is, a real and ongoing struggle, relieved only slightly by the fact that historians find practicing medicine difficult too! Other difficulties included learning to type and battling with the complexities of formatting huge Word documents and tables. Long hours in various Archives collecting data were not exactly a joy, though the idea of it was worse than actually doing it.

An example of an asylum post-mortem report is shown below. I looked at over 400 of these! (doctors handwriting has always been bad!). Lots of support and other pastimes (golf and grandchildren!) helped a great deal in distracting one from these issues.

Example of post-mortem notes (from Berks Asylum)

So, all in all, I can recommend formal study as a good way of structuring and enjoying retirement. But the key thing is that it is each to their own. Dancing and dabbling are great too! Whichever route one follows, I think the important thing is to think about retirement, plan for it and structure it, at least to some extent. If anyone has been stimulated by this story to study HoP before or after retirement, then all the better. HoPSIG Needs You!

I continue to say that I have sort of retired. Good luck to you whenever and however yours comes along!


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