In this blog, Derek’s elder daughter, Sally Festing, shares some of her personal memories of her father, and why he was driven to set up a charity dedicated to finding and addressing the sources of mental health problems.
Sally with Derek
In January 1949, Dr Derek Richter, a neurochemist with a particular interest in mental health, vented his frustration at the scarcity of funding in the field. “I am getting tired of this perpetual fight to get small sums for research,” he wrote, “when our colleagues working on cancer and TB are almost embarrassed by the money being thrust at them.”
In 2015 I mused in my Diary:
“All Derry’s friends agreed, he was a modest man. And it’s true, the limelight never interested him. He’d have found celebrity vulgar but he wanted his contribution to be valued.
“In social settings there was a constant, barely-contained tension. He pulled himself self-consciously upright and smoothed his hair. He fidgeted, looked at his watch, jangled his keys or sitting, swung his feet from the ground, persistently and sometimes distractingly. Was he shy, or elsewhere? Impatient or a mixture of all three?
“He missed his chance for the Nobel when he moved from Hoppy’s lab¹. … But he knew his ability.
… It’s 18 years since he died. What have I been doing to let things slip so long?”
¹Hobby’s Lab is Prof. Frederick Gowland Hopkins, Biochemical Laboratory, Cambridge
Derek’s two siblings, his sister, a talented artist, and a brilliant brother, both developed schizophrenia. Outside the family and their medics, even my father’s close colleagues were not aware of this, and we children had no idea that an aunt and an uncle were in mental hospitals during our formative years. There could be several reasons for this: the stigma, the guilt, or because he felt having a personal reason to understand mental health might diminish his efforts in the eyes of others.
Being the survivor entailed a tremendous urge and obligation to discover the cause of their incarceration. During the war, he left the bio-chemistry hothouse to retrain in medicine. He became a noted neuro-psychiatrist, and with determined drive, the mover behind the creation of the Mental Health Research Fund in 1949, which later became known as the Mental Health Foundation. This year the Foundation is celebrating 70 years of pioneering new ways of looking at mental health and improving the lives of people experiencing mental illness.
To me, the background percolated through gradually. Not until twenty years after his death, have I inherited hundreds of family letters, diaries and medical notes. These provide insight into Derek’s personal experience and how it affected the call for collaboration and research, becoming the driving force of his life.
The archive has become the source of a slim collection of poems, ‘My Darling Derry’ (2019) -his Mother’s words which publishers Fair Acre Press are selling in aid of the Foundation.
Two days after writing my 2015 diary notes, I drafted this prizewinning poem first printed in The Interpreter’s House:
What Wikipedia Doesn’t Say About My Father –
That these were the days of lobotomy, ECT,
injections with testosterone, thyroid and prolan
though nothing necessarily helped. That his sister
was screaming god knows what, throwing her ‘voices’
about the house, so he covered his ears.
Years later, when he sang in his car and it was a tune
she played on the piano, the notes wept
through him like ink in water.
That it wasn’t long before his brother
went crazy too. My father didn’t curl up, he burgeoned,
had to solve the riddle and it jerked him
this way, that way – such a wind. When he arrived
at my bedside in his bike clips, I could hear
his galactic heart-beat.
That he didn’t pretend to be perfect,
and daytimes, when we sang as we tramped –
and people passed us, and I was embarrassed –
he went on singing. He needed to conform
but he didn’t small-talk, he jangled his keys,
looked at his watch and explored the scramble
of proteins in the brain.
That he fell in love with his garden.
Dug long into summer evenings. Had a passion
for sowing things – sugar snaps,
runner beans, roses, pansies – pick them
and they come again. Sweaty, showering soil,
he invoked the Rubaiyat: And look –
a thousand blossoms with the Day
Woke – and a thousand scatter’d into Clay!
That he left us to follow his dream, a quest
he often pointed to. See the Pole. See
the Great Bear. There they were,
the constellations naked. If you suit your pleasure
by borrowing women – well,
you’re risking trouble.
That you can bungle your Nobel prize
the way an astronaut hurtles through space
in a race which loses the moon (everyone’s afraid
That there were cracks in the sky.