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In her 2005 book, Freud in the Antipodes,, Joy Damousi writes of the visit of the American Psychiatrist, Dr Anita Muhl, to Australia from Feruary 1939 to the end of 1941, to provide education and consultation about human behaviour and relationships to professionals and lay people. Damousi’s analysis concerns Muhl’s role as a ‘listener’ as people either poured out their hearts to her sometimes in long letters, or curious, sought Muhl’s opinion on about an aspect of their lives – whether about a dream or a difficulty they were having. Damousi’s thesis, that this reflected the development of a ‘listening culture’ co inciding with the emergence of Freud’s ideas in the early decades of the twentieth century, is developed here.

Upon looking at the very rich archive of her visit, it becomes clear that Muhl’s three years living in Melbourne attracted considerable interest from groups and people who were interested in the developing mind  and were seeking ways in which to further that understanding. Muhl was not the first international expert in child development and psychology field to spend time in the country. Susan Isaac’s six week visit to Australia in 1937, as a speaker at the New Education Fellowship Conference,  had put a face to the author and magazine columnist expert on child development. And since the early 1920s psychology courses at the universities of Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland Adelaide and Western Australia, all  included a strong component of psychoanalysis in their psychology or education programs. 

Looking through the archive  the question about where  to find help for psychological distress and from whom to seek it, was a common question in the letters from the public – that have been included on the file. Some writers stated explicitly that they had found no one able to help them. Part of the the agreement made for Muhl’s visit was that she was not able to practice. Her focus was to be teach, lecturing and consultation. Muhl’s visit also intersected with the arrival of  Australia’s first training analyst, Clara Lazar Geroe, in March 1940 and the formation of the Melbourne Institute of Psychoanalysis in October that year. Geroe, too, was to find a sophisticated and receptive audience.

Muhl’s visit was at the invitation of Una Cato,  the daughter of philanthropist Frederick Cato, who had made his fortune as a grocer. The idea of a visit was developed between Una Cato and Anita Muhl during the latter’s stay at the Cato residence during the latter part of 1937. At this time she was wending her way back to the United States after a prolonged world tour. Muhl subsequently related that when Cato suggested she return for a tour of lecturing and teaching, she had replied that she would come for three years, all expenses paid. Cato had the means to enable this.

First Cato did her research, ascertaining the degree of interest in a possible visit from Muhl from amongst the medical. legal, education, medical and psychological professionals.   Amongst the people she met with during March 1938 were psychiatrist, Dr John Williams, the educators, Christine Heinig and Kenneth Cunningham, the philanthropist, Sir Herbert Brooks, British Medical Association President and paediatrician, Dr Kingsley Norris and Mrs Rapke, whom Cato listed as ‘Magistrate at the Juvenile Court’. At this time Julia Rapke, well known in feminist circles, was forming the Women Justices Association of Victoria. Some were enthusiastic, without knowing much about the subject. Others were more circumspect. Christine Heinig wondered about Muhl’s training: was she familiar with the work of Melanie Clyne (sic) she wondered? Others checked her qualifications while remarking on her good sense, sanity and tact – observations made during her short visit in 1937. Cato was able to gain support from these senior people, providing assurance Muhl would not be practising psychiatry with patients during her visit. In turn they wondered what venue would be best for her. And she met with people at the university. An honorary post meant she would work for free, one consultant noted. A university appointment would be due recognition of her qualities and skills, another noted. In the end Muhl retained her independence. She took up residence in a building called Kia-Ora, along St Kilda Road. Outside the trams rattling by her doorstep provided access to the city. Under the heading, ‘Director of the Association for the Understanding of Human Adjustments’.

Muhl made herself available for lectures to women’s auxiliaries, schools, medical people, nurses and legal practitioners.Nursing groups who invited her to speak to them more often than not chose to hear Muhl’s thoughts on the serious matter of Mental Hygiene rather than the option she provided, an account of her visits to India or Iceland. Women’s auxiliary groups fundraising for hospitals, mental institutions and welfare organizations sought her out for lectures; she lectured to social workers, psychologists, teachers and educationalists, probation officers, and held reading and discussion groups for women doctors. Members of the (male) medical fraternity also sought her opinion and invited her to lecture to them.  She provided pieces for the Women’s section on the Australian Broadcasting Commission and negotiated her way through Melbourne Society. She was able to say ‘no’ to those who wished to use her to prop up their social status; and to invitations she considered irrelevant to her purpose. At the same time she seems to have gone out of her way to oblige – for example, accepting an invitation from a newly formed mother’s group at one of Melbourne’s maternal and child health centres.

As news of her presence and knowledge spread people wrote to her about their problems. We do not know how many people wrote to her. The letters that remain are remarkable for their thoughtfulness as writers puzzled over their problems and invited Muhl to puzzle with them. One, written by Rose Currie in late 1939 provides a glimpse of the hardships and anxiety experienced by women living in isolated places. It also suggests the mental effort needed as people sought to understand their minds.

Rose Currie wrote:
I am no longer young and I am a daughter of pioneer parents, on land, in Gippsland. I wonder if your ‘Mental Hygiene’ would conquer a disability such as emotional tears?

For many years I was associated with public life. I still am associated with local affairs, and a struggle with tears is a perfect nuisance in some circumstances. It is not that I have not, and do not try to overcome this disability. It cramps one’s style greatly. I have thought it is because of the great stress of pioneer days on the land, among the tall timbers, which my mother experienced. Fear of Bushfires in summer, Storms in winter and all the anxieties associated with her young family and dangers with stock, etc.

I would appreciate greatly your opinion if fears in a mother can be transmitted to a child, and, if, even in middle age, it can be overcome by Mental Hygiene and Prayer?

Rose Currie had heard Muhl  read the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi during one of her radio broadcasts. Could she have a copy? Muhl was happy to oblige. In her letter to Currie she assured her that infants did, indeed, pick up upon and reflect mother’s moods and state of mind.

In January 1940, the author and poet Celia Albrey wrote to her:

Will you let me know if your Association deals with individual problems in psychological neurosis and maladjustment? Mine is a problem of some five years standing – a psychological ‘hold-up’ in creative work following a period of tragedy and manifesting itself in severe physical illness whenever I try to overcome it and I feel that modern knowledge and common sense should overcome it but it is beyond me unaided.

My chief difficulty in this state is that I do not know whom to consult and I know it is no job for a layman practitioner. If such individual cases are outside the scope of your distinguished work will you let me know of a specialist here (in Melbourne) whom I could consult?

Muhl replied she was unable to practice and recommended Dr Alice Barber or Dr Selby Link as possibilities.

In a sense Muhl’s visit, to educated and consult was timely. If the two letter writers are any reflection of the public at that time, both were groping towards the understanding of something within themselves, perceived, but hard to grab, was moving them. Perhaps they were aware of Freud’s theories of repression from reading and listening to radio broadcasts they felt free to admit that understanding was beyond their conscious awareness. Muhl was the expert where no other could be found.



Joy Damousi, Freud in the Antipodes: A Cultural History of Psychoanalysis in Australia, Sydney UNSW Press, 2005.

Dr Anita Muhl Correspondence 1939-41, MS 11459. State Library of Victoria.

Letter from Rose Currie, 10 October 1939, Anita Muhl Correspondence, MS 11459, Box 1765/6, State Library of Victoria.

Letter from Celia Albrey, 5 January 1940, Anita Muhl Correspondence, MS 11459, Box 1765/1, State Library of Victoria.