Laing, R. D. (Ronald David), 1927-1989Alternative names
Ronald David Laing was born in Govanhill, Glasgow, Scotland, in 1927. He started at Hutchesons' Boys' Grammar School, Glasgow, in 1932 where he excelled in Classics and Music being elected a Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music on 30th March 1944, and an associate of the Royal College of Music in April 1945. During his time at school he also read numerous works of philosophy, including Freud, Marx, Nietzsche and especially Kierkegaard.
Laing attended the University of Glasgow between 1945-1951, studying medicine and graduating MB ChB on the second attempt in 1951. During this time he worked briefly as a houseman on a psychiatric ward, which inspired him to pursue psychiatry.
In 1951, Laing was conscripted into the Royal Army Medical Corps. Upon leaving the Army in 1953 he went to Gartnavel Royal Mental Hospital, Glasgow, to complete his psychiatric training. There he set up an experimental treatment setting known as the 'Rumpus Room', where schizophrenic patients spent time in a comfortable room. Both staff and patients wore normal clothes, and patients were allowed to spend time doing activities such as cooking and art, the idea being to provide a setting where patients could respond to staff and each other in a social, rather than institutional setting. The patients all showed a noticeable improvement in behaviour as a result of this. Laing later moved to a senior registrar's post at the Southern General Hospital and qualified as a psychiatrist 1st January 1956.
After reading Colin Wilson's recently published book The Outsider, in 1956, Laing vowed to emulate his work and began writing The Divided Self . Later the same year he was appointed as a senior registrar at the Tavistock Clinic, London and began training as a psychoanalyst with the Institute of Psychoanalysis.
The Divided Self was published in 1960 and received favourable reviews but at first did not sell well. Laing qualified as a psychoanalyst and set up a private practice at 21 Wimpole Street, London and began to experiment with drugs, especially LSD.
Laing was appointed Clinical Director of the Langham Clinic in London in 1962 and in the following year began to appear in the popular media. In 1964, he wrote most of the articles that were later compiled into his most successful publication, The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise (1967) and appeared on British television five times. Sanity, Madness and the Family, which had been co-authored with Aaron Esterson was published, as was Reason and Violence, which was co-authored with David Cooper .
In 1965, the reissue of The Divided Self, by Penguin Books became an immediate best seller. In the same year the Kingsley Hall project with Aaron Esterson, David Cooper and others was opened. This was an experimental, non-hierarchical community, were schizophrenics were given space to work through their psychoses without resort to drugs, ECT or surgery. Inspiration came from Laing's 'Rumpus Room' project, Cooper's 'Villa 21', a community for schizophrenics with no distinctions made between staff and patients, and Esterson's experiences of a kibbutz for schizophrenics in Israel. The project ran until its closure in 1970.
Laing's Knots was published in 1971, a year that also saw Laing travel to Sri Lanka with his second wife and their two children where they spent two months studying meditation in a Buddhist retreat. After their visas expired, they moved on to India, where Laing spent three weeks studying under Gangroti Baba, a Hindu ascetic, who initiated Laing into the cult of the Hindu goddess Kali. He also spent time learning Sanskrit and visiting Govinda Lama, who had been a guru to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.
Following his return to London in 1972, he embarked upon a lecture tour of the United States where he appeared on TV. He met Elizabeth Fehr, a psychotherapist who used 'rebirthing' psychodramas to treat patients. Laing adopted these rebirthing techniques himself in 1973.
1976 saw the publication of Do You Love Me? and The Facts of Life . These works sold poorly in Britain and America, but were popular in continental Europe. Conversations With Children was published in 1978. In 1985, Laing published his autobiography, Wisdom, Madness and Folly and the same year a portrait of him was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland .
In 1987, Laing was forced into resigning from the medical register of the General Medical Council, effectively preventing him from practising medicine. Laing died two years later in August 1989 of a heart attacked while playing tennis in St Tropez, France.
From the guide to the Papers of Ronald David Laing, psychotherapist, 1928-1989, 1949-1989, (Glasgow University Library, Special Collections Department)
- Great Britain (as recorded)