Posted by: jkirkby8712 | November 16, 2010

Brief memory of a Dr Cunningham Dax

During tonight’s radio show, I played some tracks from a couple of recently released albums by two Australian girls – a debut EP from Charity Turner, called ‘Our Secrets’, and a second album release from Kate Rowe entitled ‘Nature’s Little Game’ – both  of a folksy nature, with Charity more ‘pop’ orientated, while Kate’s songs were of a  acoustic nature. I probably personally had a preference for the latter though enjoyed listening and playing the music of both girls. There were some great lyrics in Kate’s songs n- a couple of examples:

Coffee My Lover………………………..’They say I’m addicted/They say you’re bad for me/They say you keep me up at night/But I sense their jealousy/My caffeinated lover you make me so delighted/When your scent is in the air I get so excited’

Dragon Orchid [How David Attenborough Saved My Love Life]…………………….’The male wasp is fooled by the orchid/He tries to mate and gets the pollen stuck to his head/Next time he meets an orchid he passes pollen on/And this is how the Dragon Ochids spread………………I was watching David Attenborough explain this/Marvelling at nature’s little game/When all at once it hit me/Oh my God my love life’s just the same………….Science calls it sexual deception/But I would call it unrequited love/It cheers me up to think my failed romances/May have some greater purpose that I can’t conceive of………….’

I was driving home from the rado afterwards, and had changed the channel to the ABC parliamentary broadcast as I’m prone to do!  A lady Senator was giving a speech [in the Senate] about mental health issues, and she mentioned the name Dr Dax. That name rang a bell in my distant past – my days of working, as both a nurse, and later, in administration in Victoria’s then Mental Hygiene Authority, in Ballarat and Melbourne. Dr Cunningham Dax was a name often mentioned in those days  –  he was the head of  the Authority from 1952 to 1968 [my years in the area covered 1965 to around 1969]. He died a couple of years ago, just short of his ‘century’, having being born in England, and was described as having lived a life in two halves, the first spent in England and the second in Australia.  He arrived in Australia with his wife  in 1951, after having been successful in applying for the role of of inaugural Chairman of Victoria’s Mental Hygiene Authority (later the Mental Health Authority] after a successful career in England. Although I of course never met him personally [being right down the bottom of the employment scale at that change, what I remember about him fits in with this description I read – ‘Senior staff applauded his dynamism but quaked at his occasional autocratic outbursts’  – a very sincere ‘boss’ of sorts. In reality however, he achieved much in the field of mental hygiene, with the following just two brief comments made about his work in a Tribute Obituary written following his death in 2008.

‘His more immediate concerns were to scrub the smell and dirt from over 150 wards throughout Victoria’s mental hospitals and training centres, and curb the excesses of some of his medical officers whose enthusiasm for new drug therapies he viewed with some alarm. Working through journalists such as Bill Tipping of The Herald as well as other interest groups, he battled under-funding and political apathy, gaining unprecedented government support for upgrading the amenity of institutions and broadening the services and treatments available to patients.’

‘He was not a fighter for patients’ rights in the modern sense of the term, working in an era where psychiatrists made diagnoses and ordered treatments with little regard for recipients’ views. But he challenged many ingrained community attitudes to the mentally ill and intellectually handicapped, stimulating wide-ranging public discussion. In so doing he exposed prejudices and promoted a more optimistic outlook about the prospects for improvement or recovery of former institutional ‘inmates.’ His attitude to staff was similarly top-down and some complained that he micro-managed, even to the extent of ordering the seating in one mental hospital cafeteria to be re-arranged in a more casual way.’

Of particular interest was one aspect of his work in England before he came out here. As described in Wikipedia – ‘In 1946, while the Medical Superintendent of Netherne Hospital, Dax pioneered the use of art programs as part of mainstream psychiatric treatment. He began a collection of artworks produced by psychiatric patients. The Cunningham Dax Collection has become one of the largest collections of its type in the world, and is located in Parkville, Victoria, Australia’.  There a wide range of areas covered in the exhibition, including an  exhibition of artwork by survivors, child survivors and the children of survivors of the Holocaust. While there are apparently some quality works of art in the exhibition, they are,  along with others, supposedly better viewed as clinical records or historical artefacts, but the exhibition considers that regardless of the quality of the work in the exhibition,  there was a unity of shared of trauma. Trauma shared across generations is  well documented by this exhibition.

As to how all this reference to Dr Dax came about – well, the address I heard in Parliament this evening was obviously part of a Bill relating to additional funding for mental health work in Australia, something that arose out of the Federal Election campaign, and hearing it mentioned, reminded me of one part of my working career. That included 18 months in the then Ballarat Mental Hospital as a ‘Ward Assistant’ [my father worked there as a Psychiatric Nurse], followed by a number of years working in administrative roles, including some months in head office of the Mental Hygiene Authority, where Dr Dax was located, and in a couple of the outer suburban mental institutions – Janefield Training Centre, to the north of the city, and the Kew Children’s Cottages & Kew Mental Hospital in the ‘classy’ inner suburb of Kew. It was a few years after I left that department, that the major mental institutions as they existed, were eventually disbanded, and many of the inmates infiltrated into the broad community.  This had been one of the aims of Dr Dax, but I think in many instances, this did not prove to be very beneficial to many of the original patients who would finjd the integration process and acceptance by the broader community, extremely difficult to cope with. That’s another story. My first longterm job in Melbourne where I was able to develop friendships and relationships with staff and others, was at the Kew Cottages. These days, I find it difficult to recall all the names – I was the purchasing officer, and later, payroll officer in those days – Des Nugent [the boss – Secretary, whose young family lived in the house adjoining the office], David [the Deputy, who I drove up to Wangaratta one night to watch a car rally come through the area at midnight],  Penny [my little English ‘girlfriend’, who led me astray with my first ever drink drink of beer on my 19th birthday!! – still have that notorious photograph],  Phyllis [who religiously went to the Australian Open Tennis every year, because that was ‘the done thing’], and Eli [tall good looking European guy, who was afraid of intimacy with girls, but was still infatuated with Penny] are a few of the names I recall from those days  –  haven’t seen any of them for over 40 years, apart from Penny, whom we met on the badminton courts at Albert Park in Melbourne, one night about 30 years ago. I often wonder where they have all gone to, what has happened to them  – there we go, off wandering in the past  again………………………………………..



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