On This Day … 11 November

People (Births)

  • 1891 – Grunya Sukhareva, Ukrainian-Russian psychiatrist and university lecturer (d. 1981).

People (Deaths)

  • 2002 – Frances Ames, South African neurologist, psychiatrist, and human rights activist (b. 1920).

Grunya Sukhareva

Grunya Efimovna Sukhareva (11 November 1891 to 26 April 1981) was a Soviet child psychiatrist. She was the first to publish a detailed description of autistic symptoms in 1925. The original paper was in Russian and published in German a year later. Sula Wolff translated it in 1996 for the English-speaking world.

She initially used the term “schizoid psychopathy”, “schizoid” meaning “eccentric” at the time, but later replaced it with “autistic (pathological avoidant) psychopathy” to describe the clinical picture of autism. The article was created almost two decades before the case reports of Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner, which were published while Sukhareva’s pioneering work remained unnoticed. This is possibly because of various political and language barriers at the time. Her name was transliterated as “Ssucharewa” when her papers appeared in Germany, and the autism researcher Hans Asperger likely chose not to cite her work, due to his affiliation with the Nazi Party and her Jewish heritage.

Biography

Sukhareva was born in Kiev to the Jewish family of Chaim Faitelevich and Rachil Iosifovna Sukhareva. Between 1917 and 1921, she worked in a psychiatric hospital in Kiev. From 1921, she worked in Moscow, and from 1933 to 1935 she was leading the department of Psychiatry in Kharkov University (Kharkov Psychoneurological Institute).

Sukhareva studied autistic children, and described them in a way which has been compared to the modern description of autism in the DSM V. She helped open schools for autistic children where they participated in multiple activities, such as gymnastics, drawing, and woodwork.

In 1935, Sukhareva founded a Faculty of Pediatric Psychiatry in the Central Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education. In 1938, she led a clinic of childhood psychosis under the Russian SFSR Ministry of Agriculture and Food. For many years, she worked as a councillor and leader of the Psychiatric Hospital of Kashchenko in Moscow.

Sukhareva believed that for personality disorders to appear in children and teenagers, a significant social factor was required. Some of the factors she discussed for personality disorders were a poor family environment and societal structure. She was a pioneer in using the method of suggestion, and fought for children’s rights, stating that difficult children should not be sent to labour camps, but to medical institutions. She also studied PTSD from war injuries sustained by children.

By order of the Moscow Department of Health, the Moscow Scientific and Practical Centre for Mental Health of Children and Adolescents was named after Sukhareva, with the prefix G.E. Sukhareva appended to the front. The centre is the leading specialised medical institution for the treatment of suicidal states in children and adolescents under 18 years of age.

Frances Ames

Frances Rix Ames (20 April 1920 to 11 November 2002) was a South African neurologist, psychiatrist, and human rights activist, best known for leading the medical ethics inquiry into the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died from medical neglect after being tortured in police custody. When the South African Medical and Dental Council (SAMDC) declined to discipline the chief district surgeon and his assistant who treated Biko, Ames and a group of five academics and physicians raised funds and fought an eight-year legal battle against the medical establishment. Ames risked her personal safety and academic career in her pursuit of justice, taking the dispute to the South African Supreme Court, where she eventually won the case in 1985.

Born in Pretoria and raised in poverty in Cape Town, Ames became the first woman to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Cape Town in 1964. Ames studied the effects of cannabis on the brain and published several articles on the subject. Seeing the therapeutic benefits of cannabis on patients in her own hospital, she became an early proponent of legalization for medicinal use. She headed the neurology department at Groote Schuur Hospital before retiring in 1985, but continued to lecture at Valkenberg and Alexandra Hospital. After apartheid was dismantled in 1994, Ames testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about her work on the “Biko doctors” medical ethics inquiry. In 1999, Nelson Mandela awarded Ames the Star of South Africa, the country’s highest civilian award, in recognition of her work on behalf of human rights.

Early Life

Ames was born at Voortrekkerhoogte in Pretoria, South Africa, on 20 April 1920, to Frank and Georgina Ames, the second of three daughters. Her mother, who was raised in a Boer concentration camp by Ames’ grandmother, a nurse in the Second Boer War, was also a nurse. Ames never knew her father, who left her mother alone to raise three daughters in poverty. With her mother unable to care for her family, Ames spent part of her childhood in a Catholic orphanage where she was stricken with typhoid fever. Her mother later rejoined the family and moved them to Cape Town, where Ames attended the Rustenburg School for Girls. She enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT) medical school where she received her MBChB degree in 1942.

Medical Career

In Cape Town, Ames interned at Groote Schuur Hospital; she also worked in the Transkei region as a general practitioner. She earned her MD degree in 1964 from UCT, the first woman to do so. Ames became head of the neurology department at Groote Schuur Hospital in 1976. She was made an associate professor in 1978. Ames retired in 1985, but continued to work part-time at both Valkenberg and Alexandra Hospital as a lecturer in the UCT Psychiatry and Mental Health departments. In 1997, UCT made Ames an associate professor emeritus of neurology; she received an honorary doctorate in medicine from UCT in 2001. According to Pat Sidley of the British Medical Journal, Ames “was never made a full professor, and believed that this was because she was a woman.”

Cannabis Research

Ames studied the effects of cannabis in 1958, publishing her work in The British Journal of Psychiatry as “A clinical and metabolic study of acute intoxication with Cannabis sativa and its role in the model psychoses”. Her work is cited extensively throughout the cannabis literature. She opposed the War on Drugs and was a proponent of the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, particularly for people with multiple sclerosis (MS). Ames observed first-hand how cannabis (known as dagga in South Africa) relieved spasm in MS patients and helped paraplegics in the spinal injuries ward of her hospital. She continued to study the effects of cannabis in the 1990s, publishing several articles about cannabis-induced euphoria and the effects of cannabis on the brain.

Death

Ames struggled with leukaemia for some time. Before her death, she told an interviewer, “I shall go on until I drop.” She continued to work for UCT as a part-time lecturer at Valkenberg Hospital until six weeks before she died at home in Rondebosch on 11 November 2002. Representing UCT’s psychiatry department, Greg McCarthy gave the eulogy at the funeral. Ames was cremated, and according to her wishes, her ashes were combined with hemp seed and dispersed outside of Valkenberg Hospital where her memorial service was held.

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