How interesting it is to see the place of women in England and the colonies during the 1930s.  As a world renowned expert on child development, London psychoanalyst Susan Isaacs, a follower of Melanie Klein, was invited to speak at the 1937 New Education Fellowship Conference, an international movement founded by Beatrice Ensor in 1914. A reaction against the  boring rote-learning styles of the nineteenth centuries it  sought to encourage children find their own path in education. On the antipodean leg of its tour from Europe via America the conference travelled first to New Zealand before embarking on a national tour of Australia in August and September 1937. There was considerable interest in Isaacs from among the women’s movement, a group whose work also supported developments in child guidance and psychology. Unlike the Australian press coverage in which there are few, if any images, New Zealand editors included photographs in their reportage. She was one of two women delegates in a band of 21 who toured Australia and New Zealand: the other was Beatrice Ensor the Fellowship’s founder. Was it possible that she was photographed with the delegates’ wives, because it fitted, somehow, with the way things were done, then. Despite these reservations it means we can images of Isaacs  very different from the studio shots featured on the 2009 biography by Philip Graham: Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children.

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Isaacs incorporated Klein’s theories of children’s phantasy life into her work on education and child development. She believed that one could not be a psychoanalyst without such an understanding. Like Melanie Klein and later, D W Winnicott, Isaacs was influenced by the observational work undertaken in the 1920s by Merrell Middlemore, an obstetrician, trained psychoanalyst and member of the British Psychoanalytical Society. Middlemore’s work. ‘The Nursing Couple’ recording closely observed interactions between newborns and their mother in hospital was published in 1941, three years after her sudden death from cardiac failure in 1938. In an interview for the Melanie Klein Trust the late Hannah Segal acknowledges Isaacs’s interpretations of Klein’s work, particularly her seminal paper, ‘The nature and function of phantasy’ published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 29, 1948, 73-97.

The New Education Fellowship Conference landed first in New Zealand on 10 July 1937. These were renowned experts, with a few professorships and knighthoods amongst them. The photograph, taken from the New Zealand Herald, 12 July 1937, p.12 is not fully annotated although the image of Susan Isaacs is clearly shown in the top left hand corner photograph. The first photograph on the top left-hand corner shows, L-R: Dr Harold Rugg, Professor of Education, Columbia University, New York;  Sir Percy Meadon, Director of Education, Lancashire, UK;  Dr Cyril Norwood,President, Sir Johns College, Oxford; Dr Susan Isaacs, Psychoanalyst and Head of Department of Child Development, University of London; Professor De S. Brunner, Professor of Education, Columbia University, Mr G.T. Hankin representing the Board of Education at the University of London; and Mr Laurin Zilliacus from Finland, Chairman of the NEF. The others show delegates doing spot of sight seeing, having lunch and generally socializing. They are rugged up in coats and hats because it was mid winter in the antipodes.

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It was the way of things  that women were treated separately to men. Delegates’ wives were a separate group. Both Susan Isaacs and Beatrice Ensor who founded the NEF in 1914 were  included amongst them. The photographs below, from top down show ‘Mrs E Salter Davies’ and ‘Mrs C.M Wilson’. Susan Isaacs is pictured on the lower photograph with ‘Mrs E. de.S. Brunner and ‘Mrs P.L Dengler’.  In the lead up to the war the Dengler’s presence created some controversy and tension amongst the delegates: they had come from Vienna in Germany.


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Isaacs’s lectures drew large audience. The Herald reported that of over 1600 attendees at the entire conference of twenty one delegates, 500 had enrolled for Isaacs’s talks on infancy and the pre-school child.( NZ Herald 6 July 1937). Likewise in Australia, Isaacs drew large audiences and, in Canberra, spoke at the Albert Hall, introduced by the Governor General’s wife, Lady Whiskard. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Adelaide. She returned to England where she became more deeply involved in the psychoanalytic movement. She died in 1948 from the cancer she had first developed in 1936.