Dr Eric Cunningham Dax (1908 – 2008) became head of Victoria’s Mental Hygiene Authority in 1952 and continued in this position until 1968. He had graduated from London University in Medicine in 1932 and had undertaken broad and relevant psychiatric training in the U.K. In 1935 he married Katie and they had four children. When he moved them all to Melbourne, they took up residence near Kew Mental Hospital in Princes Street.
Dr Cunningham Dax in the Victorian Mental Health Department
Dr Cunningham Dax visited the Victorian mental health facilities and met the patients and considered that the whole enterprise was sadly neglected. He recommended that the patients receive much more compassionate treatment. He organised the de-commissioning of padded rooms and stopped the mandatory seclusion applied to some of the psychiatric patients. Dr Dax facilitated the important contribution of nurses by chairing a Mental Health sub-committee with the Victorian Nurses Board from 1952. He worked alongside Muriel Yarrington, appreciating her roles and contribution https://www.montparktospringthorpe.com/muriel-yarrington-pioneer-in-mental-health-nursing/ He did not support harsh or brutal physical treatments for mentally disturbed patients but fostered outside exercise and occupational therapy, especially artistic activities, to help in treating and healing these people.
Art Therapy as Mental Health Treatment
In 1959 Dr Dax organised an exhibition of the artworks of mental health patients, to publicise the value of art therapy as treatment. Being cognisant of the merit of Occupational Therapists in treatments he extended their work at Mont Park and Larundel, (see https://www.montparktospringthorpe.com/1410-2/ ) to sessions with the children at Janefield https://www.montparktospringthorpe.com/janefield-a-legacy-of-caring/
Following Dax’s model of utilizing the arts, Dr David Barlow encouraged the successful production of Pantomimes at Larundel in the late 1960s https://www.montparktospringthorpe.com/hansel-and-gretel-pantomime-by-the-hoddle-music-group/
Music therapy flourished in the 1970s at Larundel under the auspices of Dr Daniel Kahans https://www.montparktospringthorpe.com/dr-daniel-kahans-psychiatrist-and-musical-therapist-at-larundel/
Therapy involving any of the arts is encouraged now with various groups including those with disabilities, hospital patients, military veterans with post traumatic stress disorder and people in aged care facilities.
Dr Cunningham Dax had a great appreciation of all artistic pursuits and was a pioneering advocate of their use in therapy.
Dr Dax moved to Tasmania in 1969 as Coordinator in Community Health, worked in private practice and then returned to Melbourne again in 1989.
The original Cunningham Dax Collection of artworks of psychiatric patients is located at the University of Melbourne. The collection showcases and maintains the history of and relationship between mental health rehabilitation and artistic pursuits. The University provides educational resources and exhibitions in memory of Dr Cunningham Dax and his philosophy. A further collection of visual art works from Larundel Hospital (1987 – 1997) is curated by La Trobe University at Bendigo https://www.latrobe.edu.au/art-institute/collections
By Kathy Andrewartha
2018, updated March 2021
Arts in health care 20120619_deeble_institute_evidence_brief_arts_and_health.pdf (ahha.asn.au)
Art Therapy in mental health recovery https://www.latrobe.edu.au/nest/meet-art-therapist-unlocks-emotions-images/
Bircanin, I. and Short, A. (1995) Glimpses of the past: Mont Park, Larundel, Plenty, The Authors, Melbourne
Cunningham Dax Collection http://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/22993/download-report
Dr Eric Cunningham Dax Obituary http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/dax-eric-cunningham-13941
Robson, B. (2000) The making of a distinguished English psychiatrist: Eric Cunningham Dax and the mythology of heroism in psychiatry 1951 to 1969. Ph. D Thesis, University of Melbourne, Parkville.