Professor Tom Arie, 1933-2020

18 June 2020

Remembering Tom Arie, Foundation Professor of the Department of Health Care of the Elderly in Nottingham (1973-1995), who died at his home on Sunday 24 May 2020, aged 86.

Tom was initially a classics scholar, but later trained in medicine, specialising in psychiatry where he was attracted to the (then unpopular) specialty of old age psychiatry. As my colleague Professor Tom Dening put it, “he basically founded old age psychiatry as we know it”. Others more informed than me have written about this in the mainstream press.

To me, as a geriatrician, his legacy is more than that. He set up the ground-breaking Department of Health Care of the Elderly in the ’new‘ medical school at the University of Nottingham in the early 1970s. His ideas continue to inspire us to this day.

The very phrase‘Health Care of the Elderly’ had not been coined before (at the time, the phrase ’the elderly‘ did not carry the sense of stigma now attributed to it). His department was interdisciplinary and integrated. The disciplines of old age psychiatry, old age medicine and gerontology worked uncommonly closely together, both in the hospital and community, alongside nurses and therapists. There was no department like it in the world. He strongly bought into the ethos of the new medical school, which aimed to integrate clinicians and academics, rather than the common model of the time for the latter to be in their ‘ivory towers’. Thus the Queen’s Medical Centre building in Nottingham housed both the University Hospital and the Medical School. The Department of Health Care of the Elderly led service development and postgraduate training as well as the more traditional academic activities of research and undergraduate teaching. Tom’s leadership of the Department was associated with a transformation in the healthcare of older people in Nottingham, from a city of national shame to one of national prominence. We can continue to learn from his model of integration between specialties, professions, sectors and settings.

He was an inspirational man. In the 1970s, both old age psychiatry and geriatric medicine were still small and generally held in low esteem within the medical profession. He recalled being advised repeatedly not go into old age psychiatry when he moved to Goodmayes Hospital in 1969 to set up an old age psychiatry service – it wasn’t the sort of thing a top class doctor like him did. Thankfully he did not heed that advice. Such was his energy and vigour that he attracted a large and loyal team of devoted clinicians in Goodmayes, and he repeated and magnified this success when appointed in Nottingham. He maintained a cheerful and unassuming style that belied his incredible intellect (always Tom, not Professor) and he only displayed the hard edge that was associated with his drive when his patients, his staff or he himself were treated with disrespect, which he would not tolerate. 

As the Department matured, he took on national and international roles (including Chair of the Old Age Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and Chair of the Geriatric Psychiatry Section of the World Psychiatric Association), and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1995 Birthday Honours, for ’Services to Medicine’.

I was Tom’s Lecturer in Medicine from 1991 until his retirement in 1995, so I mainly knew him when I was a junior and he was very much a senior. Now, a quarter of a century later, my memory is of a principled but entertaining, generously witty and kind man. These were the features that inspired the loyalty that surrounded him. I knew him, too, to be very much a family man. His wife and three children will miss his love dearly. Countless others, like me, are grateful just to have known him.     

This tribute was written by Professor Arie’s friend and colleague John Gladman, Professor of the Medicine of Older People, Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at University of Nottingham.