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Myth, Magic, and Denial: The Treacherous Allies

University of St. Andrews

David Stafford-Clark (1916–1999), one of Britain's foremost psychiatrists, delivered his Gifford Lectures – "Magic, Myth, and Denial: The Treacherous Allies" – at the University of St Andrews in 1977.  Never published, we have access to the substance of his lectures through his papers which have been archived at the Wellcome Library in London (Closed stores Arch. & MSS in PP/DSC/C/2:Box 8).  In addition to a number of letters and working notes, this box contains a note book which, according to a note in the front cover, was “one of several note books compiled in connection with The Gifford Lectures”.  Stafford-Clark’s notes are difficult to read, much of the text having been scratched out and reworked – this is no manuscript – but a final note provides insight into why these lectures were never published.  He wrote: “Last comment on The Gifford Lectures.  They were a great success.  As such the sponsors wanted me to publish them in book form.  As I was still in very active practice and teaching at Guy’s and The Maudsley I knew I just hadn’t the time. Nor had they the money to sponsor me. So that was that.”


The leaflet (available in Box 8) for the lectures provides the following detail:


Lecture titles:


1. Forty years back: Man on his Nature

2. Science vindicated: Nature Retaliates

3. Rationalisation through Myths

4. Myths of Men, Women, and Medicine

5. Myths of Scientific Infallibility 

6. Myths of Racial Supremacy

7. Myths of the Market Place

8. Myths of Magic and Denial

9. An Alternative to Omniscience

10. Forty years on


The Introductory Lecture includes a retrospective reflection upon one of the most outstanding series in the history of The Gifford Lectures: those for 1937 given by Sir Charles Sherrington, F.R.S., O.M., at the University of Edinburgh. These first fired the present lecturer’s imagination when he read them during the Second World War; and exemplify the theme of constant ongoing communication between generations, which must surely have underlain the Founder’s intention.


But now, forty year’s later, new and ominous themes demand attention. The second lecture outlines and further pursues some of them, while the third selects and considers an especially classic defence which the human mind is tempted to embrace, when threatened by apparently apocalyptic omens.


The particular sense in which the Concept of Myth will be treated in these lectures, emerges in the fourth; together with a number of specific examples: some life enhancing, others as treacherous and self-destructive as the main title implies.


The fifth lecture attempts a confrontation between the proper concerns of science and its inescapable obligation to deal imaginatively with the seemingly impossible. Only thus has science advanced into the present: only thus can it continue into the future.


In the second half of the present series, the sixth, seventh and eighth lectures address themselves to some of the most powerful and pernicious current cultural and psychological misconceptions.


The ninth and penultimate lecture offers what its title proposes; while the tenth and final lecture ventures (as fully and humbly cognisant of the vulnerability of human prediction as was Sherrington forty years ago) a possibility for the future, hopefully less disastrous than the present state of the world seems inexorably to threaten.

  • Christopher R. Brewer
  • University of St Andrews