Elspeth Pearson – Occupational Therapist from Larundel honoured by the Queen in 1990
Contributed by Kathy Andrewartha 2018
Some truly dedicated professionals worked at Larundel and Mont Park mental hospitals. Elspeth Pearson (1925 – 2015) was one of the first group of Occupational Therapists trained in Australia. She came to specialise in the care and rehabilitation of psychiatric patients and spent the last 25 years of her working life at the Bundoora hospital site. She was much admired by the staff and patients for her significant and compassionate work.
Elspeth Pearson was born in Sydney in 1925 and moved with her family to Newcastle in 1930 during the years of the Depression. She left Newcastle Girls High School at an early age to take up a clerical position in the steel industry. In March 1943, on her 18th birthday, she enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service where she was trained as a cipher specialist. On discharge in 1946, the Army subsidised her further study. She matriculated in 1948 and received her Diploma in Occupational Therapy from the Australian Occupational Therapy Association in Sydney in 1951. Elspeth then worked as an Occupational Therapist at Royal Newcastle Hospital.
In 1953 Elspeth went overseas and gained experience in hospitals in the United Kingdom and Canada. She was employed first at Ashludie Hospital Dundee, a tuberculosis sanatorium, then at Napsbury Hospital, a psychiatric hospital near St Albans, north of London, and then at Whitby Psychiatric Hospital on the shores of Lake Ontario. She enjoyed being a tourist especially in Europe, a pastime she relished for the rest of her life. While overseas she met Pauline Urban another Australian Occupational Therapist. Pauline became the Senior Occupational Therapist at Mont Park Hospital in Bundoora. Later in life they became neighbours and travelled together often.
Elspeth returned from the UK in 1958 and was posted to Morisset Psychiatric Hospital. Morisset is located approximately 30 kilometres south of Newcastle, near the southern shores of Lake Macquarie.
Elspeth then transferred to Melbourne to work at Larundel Psychiatric Hospital. She took up the position of Senior Occupational Therapist at Larundel. In the mid-1960s Elspeth was invited by the Victorian government to accept a secondment to go to Hong Kong to develop Occupational Therapy training there. She spent several months learning to read, write and speak the Cantonese language before commencing her two year Hong Kong secondment. This experience was reduced to 18 months due to political unrest in China at that time.
Elspeth was at Larundel for 25 years until she retired in 1985. At Larundel she helped develop programs to transition mental health patients back into the community. Practical and social skills were necessary to modify certain behaviours acquired due to long periods of institutional living. A shop was set up so that patients could purchase small items and learn again to manage their own finances.
Elspeth supported the use of art as therapy for the patients, as promoted by Dr Eric Cunningham Dax at Larundel and Mont Park. In the 1990s she took on a voluntary role as an assistant curator of the Cunningham Dax Art Collection, having recognised how the patients at Larundel enjoyed and benefitted from their participation in art therapy. She had first appreciated the value of this therapy 40 years before while working in the UK.
Elspeth Pearson received the Victorian Public Service Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 1990. This award was to acknowledge her pioneering work for the public of Victoria in psychiatric services. Prior to her death in 2015, she arranged to contribute an annual Award through Occupational Therapy Australia to help newly qualified Occupational Therapists broaden their knowledge. She was a quiet achiever who truly advanced the Occupational Therapy profession and cemented its valuable role in psychiatric facilities.
Barbara Hooks. (1997). Pictures from the edge. The Age, Good Weekend Magazine, 15 March 1997, pp. 34-39.
Elspeth Pearson Award on OTA website: https://www.otaus.com.au/sitebuilder/about/knowledge/asset/files/143/elspethpearsonaward-informationandeligibilitycriteria_2017.pdf
Thanks to Occupational Therapy Australia and Elspeth’s family and friends for help putting together this Biography.