In Memoriam Professor Ray Prince, MD (1925-2012)

Ray Prince

Ray started his career in transcultural psychiatry in 1957, when he became the ‘alienist’ of the pre- independence colonial government of Nigeria, assigned to Aro Hospital in Abeokuta. He was there for two years.

It was the start of a lifetime of exploration of the influence of culture on human behavior.

Reflecting on this experience in Nigeria some 15 years later, in 1974, Ray wrote; “My main interest in going to Nigeria was to study the differences in the kinds of psychiatric disorder generated by a grossly different culture.”

Ray noticed an unusual condition that was prevalent among students in Nigeria.

“Here, the somatic complaints were focused upon the head; burning, pain, vacancy, prickling, the sensation of worms crawling – and there was a concomitant inability to concentrate and grasp the meaning of the written word. Students sometimes had to abandon their studies”.
“It gradually dawned on me, after seeing the pattern repeatedly, that this was a distinctive syndrome”.
“I called it “brain fag”, because some of the students referred to it in that way and attributed it to too much use of their brains.”

How many of us could point to an accomplishment like that; that our first published paper would became a classic in the field, and be published in Britain’s premier journal of psychiatry.
In that same year; 1960, Ray published two other papers on his work in Nigeria; “Curse, Invocation and Mental Health among the Yoruba”, in what is now called the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry,
and “The Use of Rauwolfia for the Treatment of Psychoses by Nigerian Native Doctors”, in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Not a bad start for career in academic psychiatry; three papers published in his first year, and in the major professional journals of three countries.
Ray went back to Nigeria in 1961. He spent the next two years studying the treatment of psychiatric disorders by indigenous healers.

He also participated in the “Cornell-Aro Project”, conducting field interviews as part of the large- scale survey of mental health in western Nigeria, under the leadership of Alexander Leighton.
That experience and the mentoring influence of Dr Leighton, is evident in Ray’s very active and long-term involvement in community survey research in Montreal;

– in the late 1960s, on the mental health of low- income inner-city residents, that included a large proportion of immigrants,

– and during those same years working with Dr Leighton on the validation survey of the mental health of the population of “Stirling County” Nova Scotia.

Between 1969 and 1991, as research director of the Montreal Mental Hygiene Institute. In this work, Ray acknowledges the great help, encouragement and intellectual stimulation generously offered by HBM Murphy.

He was promoted through the academic ranks at McGill to become Professor of Psychiatry in 1979, and continued in that role until his retirement from the full-time faculty in 1991. Thereafter, he was Professor Emeritus.

He was the director of the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry from 1981 to ’91, and editor of Transcultural Psychiatric Research Review; the journal we now know as Transcultural Psychiatry, during those same years.

He served as consultant to The Cree Indians’ Board of Health from 1978 to ’91. The Cree are Canada’s largest Indian tribe. Ray spent several days each month doing clinical and administrative consultations with the James Bay Cree during those years. An extensive report of his work with the Cree was published in TPRR in 1993.

He had an abiding interest in the nature of consciousness, in altered states of consciousness, in psychological healing and in spiritual healing. Ray had a continuing interest in the similarities between insight derived from psychotherapy and the inner peace derived from spiritual insight.

He also had an enduring fascination with the physiology of these phenomena, as well as with trance and possession states; those induced by religious ecstasy and those induced by drugs; and how they are related to ‘insight’, to healing and to psychopathology.Numerous publications resulted from this work, including; “Mystical States and the Concept of Regression”, with Charles Savage, Trance and Possession States, and “Fundamental Differences Between Psychoanalysis and Faith Healing”.

In 1973, he was co-organizer of a conference on transformations of consciousness, and in 1980 on shamans and endorphins. Again, important publications derived from these conferences.

He was devoted to the study of indigenous healers and healing methods throughout his career in psychiatry and has written numerous articles on these themes.
One might reasonably say that the majority of his published articles have addressed issues related to the nature of the healing experience cross- culturally; in Canada, in West Africa, in the Caribbean and in South Asia.

In June, 2000, the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry published Ray’s paper titled; “Transcultural Psychiatry: Personal Experiences and Canadian Perspectives”, in which he reflected on why Canada, and particularly Montreal, have given nurturance to the idea of multiculturalism and to the cultural perspective in psychiatry.
Ray never lost his fascination with “seeing for the first time”. Nor for careful observation and then reading, reflecting and questioning the accepted explanation.
Psychiatrists, psychologists, biologists and everyone interested in the field of cultural psychiatry in countries around the world owe a great debt of gratitude to Ray Prince. His accomplishments will live on in his published work. And in the memories of those who were inspired by his work, his guidance and and his generous spirit. That spirit will live on in the memories of all of us who knew and admired him.

Rest in peace, good friend.

by Prof Ron Wintrob