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Jean Delay

By Driss Moussaoui

Jean Delay was born in Bayonne, in the Basque country of France, in 1907. His father was a surgeon and wanted his only child to follow his professional path. He obtained his baccalaureate at the age of 14, and began his medical studies in Paris. Although he was a brilliant student, he chose to become a psychiatrist, which was hard for his classmates to understand, due to the poor reputation of psychiatry at that time. Meanwhile, he obtained a diploma in psychology, after completing his thesis on the “psychopathology of memory.” Although still a student, he became involved in neurophysiological experiments.

Jean Delay became one of the youngest professors of medicine in France, and the main collaborator of Levy-Valensi. It was during this period that he introduced EEG in France and became interested in the biological treatments of psychoses, using electroconvulsive therapy, insulin therapy, and “pneumo-shock” which he invented himself. In 1947, at the age of 39, he became the chairman of the “Clinique des Maladies Mentales et de l’Encéphale.” He started building up a prestigious team of specialists from every field of psychiatry and related sciences: neurophysiology, neuropathology, electrophysiology, psychology, psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan gave lectures in his department for many years), psychopharmacology, and psychosomatics.

Delay’s international work started very early, in 1945, when he was nominated as an expert at the Nuremberg trial, during which he examined Rudolph Hess and Julius Streicher. In 1950 he organized, in collaboration with Henri Ey, the first World Congress of Psychiatry in Paris. One of the aims of that congress which was attended by 2,200 participants from 52 different countries was to bring together psychiatrists from France and Germany, only 5 years after World War II ended. He became the first president of the Association for the Organization of World Congresses in Psychiatry, which was the parent association of the World Psychiatric Association (1).

In 1950, Delay published a book on Biological Methods in Psychiatry in which he included a chapter on psychochemistry. From findings about the transient effects of barbiturates and amphetamines on the mental state of patients “he was convinced” that some day drugs would appear with a lasting influence on mental disorders (2).  In 1952, with Pierre Deniker, he published the first articles on chlorpromazine in the treatment of psychoses in the Annales médico-psychologiques, when used alone (3, 4, 5, 6). The introduction of this first neuroleptic opened up the era of modern psychopharmacology. He was also the very first to conduct a clinical trial in  1952 to assess the antidepressant effect of isoniazide (7); and was among the firsts in 1954 to study the therapeutic effect of reserpine, a Rauwolfia alkaloid, in psychiatry (8). In his monograph, Chemotherapeutic Methods in Psychiatry, he published with Pierre Deniker in 1961 (9), there is an overview of the research in psychopharmacology that he had encouraged and directed.  His interest and achievements in psychopharmacology led him to become president of the Collegium Internationale Neuro-Psychoharmacologicum, in 1966, after having been one of its founding fathers.

In 1959, Delay became a member of the Académie Française, which thus recognized his many talents – as a scientist, a psychologist, and also as a man of letters, as he wrote a number of successful novels.  

Jean Delay had a difficult time with the May 1968 events in Paris, when students were questioning every symbol of authority in society. He decided to retire in 1970, at the age of 63.

Brilliantly intelligent, Jean Delay was an exceptionally hard-working man. He made decisive contributions to the growth of the fields of psychiatry and mental health, in France and in the world at large, by the creation of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), and by the recognition of the importance and the promotion of a systematic multidisciplinary approach in psychiatry. In recognition of this, the highest award of the WPA is named after him.

Jean Delay died in Paris in 1987, but his legacy remains strong.

1.Moussaoui D.  A biography of Jean Delay : First President of the World Psychiatric Association. Amsterdam : Elsevier; 2003.

2. Pichot P.  Jean Delay. In : Ban T, Hippius H. Psychopharmacology in Perspective. Springer : Berlin ; 1992, 11-3. 

3. Delay J, Deniker P. Le traitments de psychoses par une méthode neurolytique dérivée de l’hibernothérapie; le 4560 RP utilisée seul en cure prolongée et continue. CR Congr Méd Alién Neurol (France) 1952; 50: 497-502.

4. Delay J, Deniker P. 38 cas de psychoses traitèes par la cure prolongèe et continuè de 4560 RP.  CR Congr Méd Alién Neurol (France) 1952; 50: 503-13.

5. Delay J, Deniker P. Réactions biologiques observées au cours du traitement par l’chlorhydrate de deméthylaminopropyl-N-chlorophénothiazine. CR Congr Méd Alién Neurol (France) 1952; 50: 514-8.

6. Delay J, Deniker P, Harl JM. Utilisation  en therapeutique  psychiatrique  d’une  phenothiazine  d’action  centrale  elective  (4560  RP).  Ann med-psychol 1952 ; I10 : 112-7.

7. Delay J, Laine B, Buisson JF. Note concernant l’action de l’isonicotinylhydrazide  dans le traitement des etats depressifs. Ann med-psychol 1952 ; 110 : 689-99.

8. Delay J, Deniker P, Tardieau Y, Lemperiere Th. Premiers essais en therapeutique  psychiatrique de la reserpine alcaloide nouveau de la Rauwolfia Serpentina. CR 52 Congres des alienistes et neurol de Langue Fse  1954 ; 836 - 41.

9. Delay J, Deniker P. Methods chemiotherapiques en Psychiatrie.  Les Noveaux Medicaments psychotrops. Paris : Masson ; 1961.

Driss Moussaoui
September 26, 2013