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Late in 1938 the American psychiatrist Dr Anita Muhl arrived  in Melbourne for a three year contract to teach and lecture about child development and children’s problems. It created something of a stir amongst Melbourne’s auxiliary ladies fundraising groups and the medical, teaching and welfare fraternities.  Her appointment was  something of a coup for her sponsor Una Cato, who undertook to fund Muhl for the entire period of her stay. Cato, whose father had made his fortune as a grocer, was dedicating her philanthropic effort to the psychiatric field.She later trained as a psychiatrist. Too.

Under the terms of her agreement and in accordance with legalities concerning the registration of overseas trained medical doctors, Muhl was not able to practise as a psychiatrist. Instead she took over the directorship of the “Association for the Understanding of Human Adjustments’ founded by Cato. She brought a library of books and journals  especially for her visit – even though war had been declared. Australian customs officials  confiscated these books  pending further inquiry. They were returned  after representations were made through the United States Embassy in Canberra.

Over the next three years Muhl’s  lectures and tutorials on human development were given to interested groups – legal, medical, nursing, teaching professionals; hospital auxiliaries, medical students and welfare professionals.  She was available to the general public through radio broadcasts, letters, newspaper reportage and, not surprisingly through the very well known women’s paper The Australian Women’s Weekly. The ‘Weekly,’ now part the National Library’s digitsied, online newspaper collection, TROVE provides a rich insight into contemporary issues about Australian family life. Amongst its reportage were items on child development, psychology and education, as well as broader political and social commentary on the issues of the day. It is not surprising that Muhl was profiled in an illustrated article published in November 1938.

What is surprising is the choice of author.To twentyfirst century readers the  journalist Cyril Pearl  seems an unlikely choice for a subject of this nature. His leftist views were known even then. He was about to  take up an appointment as the Editor of the Sydney Daily Telegraph and in this capacity  challenged the government on its censorship laws in 1942. His radicalism subsequently matured into membership of the Communist Party and, amongst other things the production of a body of writing about working class Australian culture. After his resignation from the Telegraph he pursued a career as a historian and writer. Pearl’s 1970 biographical study, Morrison of Peking, about The Times Peking correspondent and, from 1912 later political advisor to the newly formed Chinese Government, drew considerable controversy and the attention of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ( ASIO). Pearl’s ASIO file reveals little other than the opinion of his comrades that he drank too much.

Pearl’s interst  may have been Muhl’s views on psychology as a tool for social change and, perhaps, the question about how it was that a ‘well bred’ American girl could come to hold the views she did and travel as widely as she did. Framing Muhl’s professional identity as a medical practitioner and psychiatrist  with contemporary notions of femininity: she was once a ‘little blue-eyed girl who  wanted to know how things worked’, he highlighted her own version of advocacy for social change. She became an adult woman with a distinguished career who, despite her achievements was’ still curious’ and ‘whose eyes were still blue’. It is the kind of stuff that would hardly go down well with feminists these days even though Muhl typified the ‘new woman’ of the twentieth century American middle classes. Like many of her contemporaries in the social columns of the daily papers, her life as a single woman, was centred upon home with her parents. She was educated, had travelled to exotic places about which she was prepared to lecture, but her identity and moral conduct also rested in this family circle. But her views resonated with Pearl’s vision for a better, and more just society. Pearl’s interest was in her committment to the  the use of psychology and psychiatry as part of a broader response to emerging social dislocation amongst young people in industrialised societies such as America and Australia.

Unlike a newspaper with a life of a day, the Weekly was distributed Australia wide with a potential life of more than a week as it was passed between family members, friends and relatives for reading. By the 1930s psychology was well established as a subject at university and teaching training colleges. Almost everyone had heard of Freud and the idea of the unconscious and whether they were conscious of it or not, the recasting of the child in psychological terms was well established. During 1937 the New Education Fellowship Conference had traversed the continent. The twentyone delegates had presented lectures in each of the capital cities. One of them, Susan Isaacs, the British Psychoanalyst and Educationalist, had been a key speaker, drawing large audiences to her lectures as well as a multitude of listeners to her radio broadcasts. Her message, that child behaviour is to be understood as a communication at an emotional level, was part of a broader psychological recasting of the nature of childhood and the responsibilities of education and parenthood. Anita Muhl’s visit, following so soon after this event, was important enough for wider reportage than the local metropolitan press. Perhaps Pearl held the view that Muhl’s Australian sojourn was part of this process of enlightenment.


Anita Muhl, Correspondence, 1938-1942, State Library of Victoria, MS MS 11459

WORLD’S No. 1 School TO MEET. (1937, April 17). The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), p. 24. Retrieved May 26, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article52246132

Youth Saved From Life of Crime. (1939, January 28). The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), p. 14. Retrieved May 9, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article51591527

Cyril Pearl ( 1970) Morrison of Peking, Penguin Books.