Jean- François Dreyfus: 15 Years with Pierre Pichot
Today I learned almost by accident that Pierre Pichot had died; he was 101-years-old. In the newspaper and on the internet, I found few tributes to this man. Because I had had the chance to work with him for almost 15 years, I think it may be of interest to some if I share my recollections of that period.
As some may remember, 1968 was a very special year in France, especially the “Merry Month of May.” At that time I did not know Pierre Pichot but my former wife, who was trained at the Institut de Psychologie in Paris, told me about this very peculiar old-fashioned person, who already had the appearance of an old man although he was, at that time, in his early 50s.
He was considered the grandmaster of psychological testing and psychometry and his appetite for multivariate statistics was terrifying for many psychological students. He had translated, adapted and validated many tests and/or scales and appeared as a kind of dinosaur at a time when psychoanalysis was sweeping through psychiatric research.
At that very moment I was recruited as a junior resident at the Paris Hôpital International de la Cité Univerrsitaire (HICU) in a psychiatry department that breathed psychoanalysis. This was the place where I fell in love with psychiatry. As a political activist, I was instrumental in creating the first worker’s trade union ever in the hospital and at the end of the “revolutionary period” I was encouraged not to continue my residency there.
After a short spell in hematology, Pichot agreed to a six-month residency period, my final statutory one, in his department at the University Clinic at Sainte-Anne. Jean Delay was the Chief Professor and about to retire; Pichot on one side and Pierre Deniker on the other wanted to become his successor.
To be frank, I do not think my knowledge of psychiatry impressed Professor Pichot since he hardly recognized me in the corridors although I had been recruited by INSERM, the French equivalent of the NIH, to create a functional computer department. I thus had free access to one of the few computers available to physicians, an IBM 1130 with the Fortran Scientific Subroutine Package, a statistical package on punched cards, which I could use to my liking. Pichot somehow learned about this and I at once became his “pet slave,” not that he had much faith in my psychiatric approach; at that time I had been recruited as a senior resident in, as far as I know, the first and only antipsychiatry faction in a public hospital.
While Pichot was quite eclectic in the selection of his collaborators, I do not think he wanted to have a anything to do with antipsychiatry. He convinced me, however, that I could work for him without jeopardizing my “other” approach and we started doing “firsts,” at least in France: first multivariate analysis of the French version of the BPRS; first attempt at automatic diagnosis in psychiatry; first computer interview of psychiatric patients; first attempt to use artificial intelligence to select psychiatric drugs in emergency situations (a complete failure); first homogeneity training of a group of psychiatrists from academic and non-academic hospitals; first group standardization of ratings on videotapes; first attempt to collect study data on a remote terminal; first attempt to monitor clinical trials using a portable computer (a total failure as the machine weighed about 15 kilos); and even a first attempt to produce a television film for lay persons praising the psychiatric virtues of electronic devices. All this in less than 10 years in addition to organizing randomized clinical trials with almost all psychoactive drugs that were to be registered in France. I even accompanied him to Montréal, Honolulu and Wien (Vienna) when I was a practicing psychoanalyst and managing a Research Unit in, at the time, the largest French pharmaceutical company, Rhône-Poulenc.
When in Paris, once or twice per week I would go to his office at lunchtime and we would discuss, for about an hour, ongoing projects and exchange ideas while he ate his Granny Smith apple and had some tea. It was not even thinkable for me to eat my own lunch and I would come out of his office hungry with one or two new assignments. Those who consider this remarkable person as having blinkers on modernity should be reminded of his futuristic visions.
Of course, even if I had been a short sleeper, as most sleep researchers, I could not stand such a pace for a very long period. Clinical trials went to Julien Guelfi and Charles Pull, psychopharmacology to Patrice Boyer and research on instruments to an on-site National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) unit chaired by Pichot. I only kept computer usage and issues that required a good command of English, especially those related to terminology standardization. I thus attended several sessions of the Wittenborn Committee, worked with Tom Ban and Turan Itil on their sets of diagnostic criteria and led a dedicated campaign to push for the use of the DSM-III and IIIR in France.
But all good things come to an end. My own psychiatric practice led me towards psychoanalysis and Pierre Pichot, although he was quite an eclectic person, was hardly attracted to Jacques Lacan the most controversial French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who influenced many French intellectuals – I included, in the 1970s. On the other hand, my work as head of the CNS development Unit for Rhône-Poulenc led me quite often out of France. Finally, Pichot had to retire, rather abruptly as required by his successor Bertrand Samuel−Lajeunesse.
Conversely to many of his disciples, I stayed in touch with him, once or twice a year at least until 2005. He wrote me a very nice letter after I sent him my book on Alfred Dreyfus, telling me that he had personally encountered Alfred’s wife on several occasions. Unfortunately, this time his letter reached me after about one year and the opportunity to continue our realationship was lost.
Despite his shortcomings, which I do not wish to mention, I recognize that Pierre Pichot was one of my masters.
January 21, 2021