Skip to main content

The first black child psychotherapist? - Marie Battle Singer

For Black History Month, we have been trying to explore the lives of some of the earliest black ACP members. This has not been easy to find, but thanks to Lydia Tischler, we believe Marie Battle Singer was the first black ACP member, who qualified in 1954. We have republished her obituary, which was written by Pauline Cohen. It was first published in the Bulletin of the Anna Freud Centre 1985 8, (3) 213 -215 and is re-published here with kind permission from the Anna Freud Centre. It tells of her very interesting path to train as a child psychotherapist and how she became established in her career.

Marie Singer who died on 27 May 1985 was a remarkable figure in the world of British psychotherapy. As a clinician, lecturer and writer, her career was varied and distinguished, her wide-ranging activities taking her from the Hampstead Clinic where she trained, to Cambridge University where she lectured; from offering psychotherapy at the Middlesex Hospital to counselling at Eton.

Born in the American south in 1910, Marie came to Europe as a psychiatric social worker, having graduated from Smith in Massachusetts. While assisting refugees in post-war Germany, she heard of the work of Anna Freud and wrote to her about the Hampstead Course, then in its second year. In 1950 she joined the Course and qualified in 1954. While working towards her PhD which she obtained from London University she stayed on as a therapist at the Hampstead Clinic for some years. In 1960 her Important paper ‘Fantasies of a borderline patient’ was published in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. This recorded her eight-year treatment of a latency boy who had been referred to the Clinic with the alarming symptom of walking along the tracks in the underground tunnels. Its publication was preceded by a rich contribution to the Hampstead Psychoanalytic Index, documented as: Ego Disturbance in a Latency Boy: the Case of Albert.

Marie was familiar with racial prejudice, and she needed all her gritty resilience to combat it. When arriving in London as a student, wanting to live near Harley Street, she found that advertised rooms, available when she telephoned, were unaccountably taken when she appeared in person. Years later I heard her tease her husband, ‘I won't tell anyone you are Jewish if you don't tell anyone I am black.’ She met her husband, James Burns Singer, the poet, literary critic and marine biologist, through Karin Stephen, the psychiatrist (who was of the Bloomsbury set), in whose house she lived.

From London Marie moved to Cambridge where at that time she was almost alone in practising psychotherapy. Her ability to apply psychoanalytic concepts to various related fields was extraordinary and she was soon invited to teach a course of psychoanalysis to psychology undergraduates at Cambridge University which delighted Anna Freud. In addition, for many years she ran a group seminar for Cambridge doctors which brought recruits to psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

In private practice she quickly established her reputation. Charismatic and courageous, as a therapist she accepted all who sought her help, supporting many lives and careers through crises, especially during examination time. She used a variety of techniques and never lost a patient through suicide which was remarkable for someone who treated so many desperate young students. She was known to generations of undergraduates, lecturers and professors as teacher, analyst and friend, and she liked to complain that she could hardly go anywhere in Cambridge without meeting people who had been or were in treatment with her. Her achievements were numerous and were recognized when she was made a Fellow of Clare Hall, an honour of which she was justly proud.

In between her work at Cambridge she counselled and lectured pupils at Eton, and made weekly visits to London both to see private patients and to attend the Middlesex Hospital where her contributions in the Department of Child Psychiatry were highly valued by Dr Anne Bolton and her colleagues. In this busy life she also managed to find time for writing. Of her journalism David Astor writes:

Sometime in the ‘fifties, Marie Singer wrote a set of articles for the Observer on adolescence. They were an outstanding success in several ways. Firstly, they were beautifully written—lively, direct and entertaining. Secondly, to judge from the letters they drew, they interested not only the professionals in the field but also adolescents themselves. Thirdly, they were well received by the analytical profession which usually looks askance at lively journalism.

David Astor adds:

I got to know her as a friend through these articles and found her most engaging. She trusted her own intuition and had a capacity to express herself that resembled someone belonging to the arts rather than to science. She was also splendidly downright in her opinions and would call a pretentious humbug just that if she felt the need.

Marie had many intellectual and artistic interests. A self-taught painter, she began ‘to play with paints’ as a student here at the Centre when visiting Dorothy Burlingham, herself a painter. It was during these years that she built a more personal relationship with Dorothy Burlingham and Anna Freud. Marie painted vivid portraits and had an exhibition in London and in Paris. Heide Schwartz, her first supervisor and later close friend, writes of this period:

She wrote to Kokoshka and asked him to accept her for one of his summer courses in Austria. Kokoshka saw her work and wrote that he had nothing to teach her; that she should not go to anyone but should keep her freshness and individual approach.

Over the years Marie's interests shifted from pathology to creativity and sublimation and in later life she ran a discussion group with PhD students and other scholars to consider the factors interfering with the completion of their work.

Despite her rapidly deteriorating health, she managed to continue writing up her research project on Child Heroes. This project had been initiated as a result of Anna Freud's interest in children who perform acts of bravery without regard for their own safety.

Marie was a brave and spirited fighter.

The JCP also marked her death with an obituary.   JCP 1985  vol 11,(2). They commented:

She was the first person to lecture to undergraduates in this way to Psychology course in the Moral Sciences Tripos and this was in a primarily behaviourally orientated psychology school. She conducted ongoing group seminars for doctors in Cambridge which resulted in a number of recruits to psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

She was made a fellow of Clare Hall, a distinction which she took enormous pride and pleasure.

For many years she was a child psychotherapist at the Department of Child Psychiatry at the Middlesex Hospital. Her willingness to accept the most difficult cases and her ready and generous discussion of therapeutic difficulties of other members of staff was invaluable.