Published: 11 November 2010
by JOSH LOEB
A REMARKABLE doctor, watercolourist and a musician last week spoke movingly about the suicide in 1963 of his patient, the poet Sylvia Plath, and revealed how he wondered after her death if there had been more he could have done to help her.
John Horder, 91, a former senior partner at the groundbreaking James Wigg Practice in Kentish Town and former president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, was the “castaway” at a Desert Island Discs-style event at the Primrose Hill Community Centre last Tuesday.
He was Plath’s doctor when she was living in Primrose Hill in the 1960s and told the audience he had known she was in a depressive state in the period leading up to her suicide.
After pausing hesitantly when interviewer Dick Bird asked him about Plath, Dr Horder – who has in the past been reluctant to discuss the case – said: “I looked after her in two patches and she went away, I think to Devonshire, in the meantime. It was perfectly obvious she was in a depressive state. In her last week I saw her every day. I doubt if I ever saw any other patient – well no, that can’t be true, I had to, but in this sort of situation… I knew there was danger and I organised for her to go into hospital.”
Dr Horder said it had been difficult to find appropriate hospital accommodation for Plath as she had two young children, but that space had been found in a hospital where patients could have their children with them. Before she could be admitted, it was arranged that somebody would be with her all the time. Dr Horder said: “We couldn’t find anybody who could be with her on the Sunday night. She took advantage of that and chose the time when for everybody depression is at its severest, which is 4am, and that is when she put her head in the gas oven. The nurse found her dead the next morning and she called us and we came round. It was a bitter episode and I keep asking myself, ‘was there anything more I could have done?’.”
Dr Horder also talked about his own bouts of debilitating depression, which he said was “hereditary” and which had begun to affect him in the 1940s.
“My wife must have suffered a lot when I was depressed because you’re almost not there,” he said. “I have had to go into hospital three times for what were quite long periods. In the end the doctor who knew me well and who had seen me through the hospital period said, ‘I think you better go on a small dose of treatment for the rest of your life’. My life has been different ever since – I mean different for the better.”
Many of Dr Horder’s former patients were in the audience for the event and praised him as “a wonderful human being” with one telling of how she had “run home and told my family he’s just like Laurence Olivier” after being to see Dr Horder in the 1950s. Unusually, the “castaway” provided the music too, in the form of recordings of himself playing organ compositions including Bach’s Prelude in C Major.
Dr Horder, who has been married to Elizabeth Horder for 70 years and has been a resident of Primrose Hill for 65 years, said he was deeply affected during his childhood by conversations he had with his family’s gardener, who had served in the First World War, adding: “Virtually all the people I respected in my youth were pacifists.
“The First World War sort of hung over my life. It was so dreadful, the thought of men sometimes only talking distance apart killing each other.”
During the Second World War Dr Horder said he “faced the worst moral problem I have ever faced” when he was called up to fight. After his marriage to Elizabeth, who he met while studying at Oxford, he did join the army and “had the sheer good fortune” to stay in the UK where he rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant.
Of his decision to go into medicine, Dr Horder said: “I think I was expected by my rather religious family to become a minister of the church in some way.
“Being a doctor was an alternative because I was beginning by the age of 20 for the first time in my life to have doubts about parts of the story that I was brought up with about Christianity – notice I say parts of the story – and being a doctor was somehow the next best thing.
“I actually hoped that I would become a stretcher bearer in the army because that would have meant I would have been able to serve without killing people. I had to go before this tribunal in Oxford which was a one-man tribunal for students who had this dilemma about army service. They didn’t think that I had sufficient reason or was wholehearted enough, so I went into the army. It was only two-and-a-half years later that I ran into my first experience of a depressive illness.”
Asked what luxury he would take with him if sent to a desert island, Dr Horder – who has written a volume of memoirs part of which was published recently in the London Journal of Primary Care and whose paintings of churches were shown at the event – replied instantly: “A paintbox, and I would have need of paper too.”