The Genius of Ismond Rosen

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By | From the Collections

Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, authority on human sexuality, media pundit, acclaimed artist and prolific writer: whichever way you look at it Ismond Rosen (1924-1996) was possessed of an exceptional intellect. His archive, which comprises 119 boxes of documentary material, photographic images, art work and audio-visual items, reflects each of these aspects of his amazingly productive life and career. Recently catalogued in detail the Rosen archive, is now available to researchers in the Wellcome Library under the collection reference PP/ROS.

Isamond Rosen with his bust of Maudsley

Rosen with the sculpted head of Henry Maudsley, bronze. Image credit: Mrs Ruth Rosen.

South African born Ismond Rosen qualified and trained as a psychiatrist at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg. In 1952 he moved to England taking up a senior registrar post at the Maudsley Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in South London, where he was guided by the strong clinical influences of mentors such as Aubrey Lewis. Rosen separately and concurrently began training as a psychoanalyst. He went on to practice and specialise in both disciplines, being appointed research psychoanalyst at the Hampstead Clinic in 1967 (where he worked with Anna Freud) and undertaking various roles at the Paddington Centre for Psychotherapy (and its earlier incarnations) from 1958. He also built up a thriving private practice, initially in Harley Street and later at his home in Hampstead Hill Gardens.

In 1958 Rosen took up a post at London’s Portman Clinic which specialised in the psychoanalytic psychotherapeutic treatment of delinquency and what was then termed ‘sexual deviation’ (at that time this term referred to people whose sexual development or behaviour departed from accepted notions of normality, for instance, homosexuality, transvestistism and paraphilias). At the Portman Clinic Rosen was involved in an early study of transvestitism. His growing knowledge and interest in the area of sexual deviation led to his organising a conference on the subject in October 1960 at the Royal Society of Medicine. Such was the interest generated that Rosen went on to edit a major text book in this field – The Pathology and Treatment of Sexual Deviation, published in 1964. Expanded and revised editions using the shortened title of Sexual Deviation were published in 1979 and 1996.


Leaflet advertising ‘The Pathology and Treatment of Sexual Deviation’ conference, Oct 1960. Wellcome Library reference: PP/ROS/D/2/1.

Over its three editions Sexual Deviation discussed clinical psychiatric approaches, the general psychoanalytical theory of perversion and biological factors in the organisation and expression of sexual behaviour. The themes explored included exhibitionism, homosexuality, perversion and aggression and psychotherapy with sex-offenders. Rosen himself contributed the chapters ‘Exhibitionism, scopophilia and voyeurism’, ‘Perversion as a regulator of self esteem’, ‘The general psychoanalytical theory of perversion’ and ‘Adult sequelae of childhood sexual abuse’. Section D of the Rosen archive comprises twelve boxes of material relating to the research, writing and editing of each edition.

Rosen’s interest and study in this field was extensive, as is reflected in the abundance of material in Section E of the archive on a wide variety of psychological and sexual topics, including the effect on child development from observing parental nudity, the male response to frigidity, and the treatment of sexual impotence. Of particular note is a series of 51 files on violence and aggression compiled by Rosen. It is apparent that much of this material was brought together as preparation for a book on the causes, effects and understanding of violence from a psychological sociological and biological standpoint. Unfortunately, Rosen never got around to writing this book.

On examination of Section H of the archive, comprising autobiographical writings and documentation, it emerges as hardly surprising that Rosen did not have time to write the book on violence. As well as his prolific professional writings he worked on five separate unpublished autobiographical manuscripts from the 1970s onwards. The all-embracing definitive work, ‘Along the Way’, was completed by Rosen in 1996 whilst in the final, advanced stages of Motor neurone disease (to which he succumbed in October of that year). ‘Along the Way’ incorporated elements of his other autobiographical writings, ‘One Man’s Covenants’, ‘Coincidence and Creativity’ and ‘Stories of Sculpture’ (which describes the inspiration, psychological processes and practical techniques behind each sculpture he created from youth onwards). These prose works are supplemented by a hefty series of 33 bound volumes, compiled by Rosen, containing correspondence, reports, newspaper cuttings, scripts, and many other documents recording various aspects of his life and his work.

Cover of the Genesis exhibition catalogue

Front cover of the catalogue for Rosen’s ‘Genesis’ exhibition, at Camden Arts Centre, London, 1974, featuring his stainless steel sculpture, ‘Civilization’, 1974. Wellcome Library reference: P/ROS/L/3/4.

Throughout his life Rosen was active as an artist, exhibiting 2D and 3D works from 1947 onwards (see Section L of the archive). He excelled as a sculptor, being elected a member of the Society of Portrait Sculptors in 1956 (he was later made a Fellow) and mastering a wide variety of materials including bronze, iron, wood, stone and stainless steel. Several of his portrait sculptures of the 1950s were of medical people, notably John Hunter, Henry Maudsley and Erwin Stengel. Many were commissioned for or donated to institutions such as the Royal Society of Medicine and Royal College of Psychiatrists. His sculpted head of Dorothy Stuart-Russell, the first woman to hold the Chair of Morbid Anatomy at the London Hospital Medical School (1946-1969), remains on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. A major exhibition of Rosen’s works, entitled Genesis, took place in 1974 at the Camden Arts Centre, London. Other exhibitions included a posthumous tribute at Wellcome Collection, December 2009-March 2010.

C0060766 Ismond Rosen Display, Wellcome Collection

Ismond Rosen Archive display at the Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Images no. C0060766.

In the course of cataloguing the archive of Ismond Rosen I found myself constantly wondering, how did he do it? How did he fit it all in? How did he maintain such a level of activity and productiveness? This surely can be explained by the well organised, centred mind of someone at peace with themselves and the world. I would add that one cannot help but agree with Henry R. Rollin’s summation in the title of his obituary: Ismond Rosen: a genius by any other name’.

Rosen in suit and tie standing next to plaster cast

Rosen with ‘The Revelation’ (plaster cast). Bronze held in the Vatican. © Elisabeth Novick

Author: Amanda Engineer is an archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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