I was introduced to historian Inga Clendinnen at a conference in the 1990s when she discussed her paper :then titled ‘Writing to Rouse’ subsequently published  as ‘Fellow Sufferers: History and Imagination’  at the Australian Humanities Review site. Is history fiction? she wondered. Is it merely a recording of the facts? Some of the most boring history reads as such. Narrative is pared of meaning and depth. Subjectivity is  thrown out of the window in the quest for objectivity.’Listen to historians talking’, Clendinnen writes. ‘You do not (often) hear paranoid priests or rumbling ruminants but men and women of passion and sense talking about their respective obsessions. Neither moral sensibility nor compassion nor reconstitutive imagination is lacking—until we come to write. It is then’, she says, ‘that the dragons rear and block the path. Yet we still talk about “writing up” as if it were a routine activity approximately comparable to mopping the floor.’

I find Clendinnen’s thinking exciting. She is encouraging us historians to enter into the experience of reading and writing, to engage with personages past without hiding behind some stultifying theory in the name of objectivity. Perhaps it is about working with one’s ‘transference’ to the material. But then after the research is done something else from within takes over after the exhilaration and discovery of research. Call it as one’s critical superego if you like. It is as if we have to put on our social face, present  a ‘civilized’ version of ourselves. We are compelled to avoid, what Inga Clendinnen refers to as ‘the upright personal pronoun’ in our work. History which is about the study of people, why they do what they do when they do it is suddenly self conscious. It is as if the emotional state that underlay many actions, past and present; the interactions between people, the hatreds, loves, envies jealousies and greed should remain a secret. It is a great loss.

And so it can be with autobiography. What I have to say next may well be construed as criticism of a very significant figure in Australian psychiatry, William Andrew Dibden President of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Psychiatrists from 1965 to 1966. Dibden who took pen to paper, bought a tape recorder and collated oral histories and has published it as his autobiography. Not many people do that and of course this work should be recognised. What I really want to do is to encourage people to go back to the source , to the material recorded in the oral histories that inform this work and to see and feel the humanity of this author. In the moments of candour that emerge from the transcripts one is meeting a very thoughtful person.  His collection covers all facet of psychiatry from the discovery of the effectiveness of Cardiozol and ECT in the treatment of depressed people to psychoanalysis, child psychiatry, social work and group work.

There is  his work on human rights.  Dibden established the South Australian Association of Mental Health and, as its leader, he was largely responsible for raising public money to found a chair of mental health at Adelaide University. During his period as director of Mental Health Services in South Australia, he rewrote the mental health legislation – a body of work which foreshadowed the reforms of the civil rights movement and that of Brian Burdekin who chaired the National Inquiry into the Human Rights of People with  Mental Illness published in 1993.

I have just spent a couple of days in the South Australian State Library reading Dibden’s collection of oral history transcripts. Dibden’s intention was to write a Biography of Psychiatry. Unpublished as a book in his lifetime – he died in 1991 – it is now online. He collected interviews from key people in South Australian psychiatry during the twentieth century.These include Harry Southwood who later trained in psychoanalysis, John Cawte, Harry Kay and a host of others.

The interviews are full of the life of this man. We learn of his grief, when as a medical student he contracted Tuberculosis and realised he would never realise his dream of being a Rhodes scholar; of falling into psychiatry after a brief and disastrous stint as a country GP during WW2 when, after barely six months as an intern, he replaced the doctor who had enlisted. He speaks frankly of these, but omits them from the final version. As he also does when he glosses over the impact of his psychoanalytic experiences. It’s a pity. The final result is flat and a powerful story of the development of a man is drained of life. Autobiography can be so much more than this.

Returning to the interviews Dibden  introduces us to ‘Charlie Winter’ – a psychoanalyst to whom he owes an immense debt of gratitude. Karl Winter was a German psychoanalyst who completed his training in the 1920s. Winter arrived in Australia in the 1930s – a refugee, together with his wife who was Jewish, from Nazi persecution. A brilliant clinician and psychoanalyst  he was accepted as a psychiatrist by the Australian medical system in the early 1970s – and then after a campaign by Dibden and his colleagues. He was never accepted by the Australian Psychoanalytic Society. South Australian Psychoanalyst Harry Southwood – who was trained in Australia related that when the matter was put to its head, Clara Geroe, she insisted that he had not done the training! He was analysed by one of Freud’s Inner Circle, Hans Sachs, before falling out with Freud on the matter of infantile sexuality. I am not sure why Geroe was so implacable. Did she think she was preserving the name of Freud? Winter taught Dibden – and other South Australian doctors about psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

Dibden and his colleagues are  polite. If anything, writing from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it appears that Charlie Winter was not recognised as a psychoanalyst by the Australian Psychoanalytic Association is to its detriment.  But Winter is undoubtedly credited with awakening Dibden’s interest sufficiently for him to sell up and take his family to London in pursuit of training as a psychoanalyst in the early 1950s.  He was appointed to the Maudsley Hospital, discovered child psychiatry and applied for analytic training. But he balked at the five year committment – for financial reasons as much as any, and ended up with an analyst named in his memoir as Edna Oakshott –  for Dibden who was going to conquer the world she was, he says ironically, a student, a woman and not a doctor!!

Dibden’s time with Oakshott was life changing for him – a matter about which he talks at legnth in his interviews. But nothing in the autobiography. To be brief Dibden returned to Australia eighteen months after leaving, resumed practice – including psychotherapy – and eventually moved into leadership positions in Australian Psychiatry – including his stint as President of the Australian and New Zealand Psychiatrists Association in 1965 -66.  His psychoanalytic experience not only sustained and influenced his work but also provided an internal secure base from which he worked. For his drivenness and his ambition had dissolved on the couch.

There is much more to write on this very thoughtful and reflective man who emerges from these interview transcripts.  It takes courage to write about oneself and to defeat the shyness and the need for a public face that might come with imagining a critical audience….Dibden, who died in 1991, has left a rich legacy in these oral histories now lodged in the University of Adelaide Library and the State Library of South Australia.