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Susan Isaacs’ visit to the Antipodes in July, August and September 1937, occupies little more than several pages in biographies about her life and work published so far. But for Australians and New Zealanders it was a rare opportunity. Isaacs’ visit was larger than the New Education Fellowship Conference of which she was a key lecturer even through The conference itself was one of the most significant events in interwar Australia. Throughout the press across Australia Isaacs is recorded as speaking to full houses. She is the delegate who is chosen to be photographed with a koala. Her reunion with her sister after eighteen years would have touched many people who had long left family and friends behind in England. There was something very appealing and human about Susan Isaacs.

susan isaacs 1937

The Telegraph, (Brisbane)  7 August 1937, p. 8

It is hard to write a biography, or any historical work without access to sources.  Inevitably much of the focus in Isaacs’ biographies, of course, is upon her development as a psychologist and teacher in England during the 1920s and 1930s and, from the mid 1930s, as a psychoanalyst. She had completed her initial training and gained full membership of the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1923. In 1927 after meeting Melanie Klein, she entered analysis with another analyst Joan Riviere so as to understand for herself the meaning of Kleinian thinking. Her ability to  argue for the  importance of Klein’s position during the ‘Controversial Discussions’ within the British Psychoanalytical Society during the  early 1940s, and show that unconscious phantasy influences daily life in all people, also led to her seminal paper, ‘The Nature and Function of Phantasy’, published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1943.

Isaacs visit to Australia could be said to have been a significant event in her life, if not her development. Travel was hard in the 1930s. The effort and time needed   meant that such journeys to Australia from England for short periods as several months rather than several years were rare. And Australia was so far away. Dorothy Gardner, Isaacs’ first biographer and a former student, may have suffered from lack of access to sources. Although her visit to Australia is well documented in Australian newspapers, Isaacs did not keep such press clippings for posterity. Had she done so, Gardner would have found records of her speeches, her social engagements and most significantly for Isaacs, her reunion with her younger sister, Alice, who had emigrated to Australia with her husband eighteen years earlier. Gardner’s 1969 account generally highlights the opportunity for Isaacs to renew friendships in the United States. Gardner relates that in New York Isaacs was the guest of the Child Study Association and had the opportunity to travel to Berkeley in California where research was being carried out. In New Zealand Isaacs lectured to audiences in Auckland and Wellington, and Gardner guesses, ”she certainly visited Christchurch and probably the other cities” (p. 116).She was greatly admired by Mr Campbell, the Head of Education in New Zealand, but there is little information about the issues that concerned New Zealand, and Australian, audiences that had resulted in such interest in her work.

Philip Graham, Isaacs 2013 biographer, has little more detail to add. He notes that several delegates, including Isaacs, did not hesitate to criticize the Australian education system. Their recommendations were taken up and used to reform Australian education so that it became more relevant to the two countries, he continues. An important point, also underlined by historian John Godfrey in his 2004 article on the Conference, is the very strong interest in the conference among the Australian public. One motivation for the Conference was the recognition among educators, government and politicians that Australian education was in need of revival.  In his introduction to the Conference proceedings, K S Cunningham of the Australian Council of Education Research, noted that ‘owing no doubt to our remote and somewhat sheltered situation in the world, we had failed to keep up with this forward movement that featured in other parts of the world. This stressed the liberal view of the school’s function in a democratic community, and ‘a recognition of how great a part popular education must play in promoting, not only the well being of individuals, but also the security and well being of nation as a whole’, (Cunningham, 1938, p. 1). Godfrey’s article might be ‘breathless’ in tone, as Graham caustically remarks, but for those in the Antipodes, the conference was part of a larger process of developing Australian nationhood. Rather than remaining dependent upon the old country for direction, Australian educationists sought to develop a system suited to local needs.  The critique provided by Isaacs and her colleagues was sought, if not understood to be part of the arrangement during their visit.

Isaacs was chosen for this role because she was  known to Australian audiences for her work as Principle of the Malting House School where she used the opportunity to record the children’s play and conversations – the basis of her books,  and Intellectual Growth in Young Children, were favourably reviewed in education and psychology circles. In January 1933 the West Australian newspaper published a reviews of The Nursery Years and The Children we Teach was a shorter version of Isaacs’ The Intellectual Growth of Young Children,  was reviewed by  a month later.  Although not named, the author of both items was likely to have been either Professor Cameron, Head of Education at the University of Western Australia or Professor Fowler, who led the Psychology department.  Isaacs’ book, ‘Social Development in Young Children also carefully reviewed in the West Australian, in November 1933. Isaacs’ points, that children had individual, emotional lives of their own, that all behaviour had meaning and that this could be understood in terms of children’s psychical development and internal phantasy life, were new ideas for people brought up with the notion that the task of a parent was to train and mould children into adulthood.

It is not as if Isaacs’ ideas about education were unknown, generally. When South Australian psychologist and educationist, Lois Allen returned in 1928 after nine years in England, her experience as a teacher at Malting House for two terms  was impressed upon readers of the Adelaide News. Allen stressed the recognition and enablement of the differing abilities of each of the children.  Perhaps this idea was not as ‘taken for granted’ in 1928 where rote learning was the norm, as it is in the twentyfirst century.  Malting House, Allen explained,

was a small experimental school for research and the children were between three and eight years of age. The object was to study the problems of children with a view to making better use of the natural curiosity with which those this age are endowed. They were allowed to investigate the realities of nature and had a little laboratory where they experimented with crucibles, bunsen burners, and so on, so that knowledge of scientific phenomena might be instilled in the early years. Among the children was a grandson of Sir Ernest Rutherford, the noted physicist. It was most interesting to notice the extreme difference between the children, and to observe the trend of each mind towards artistic or scientific subjects.

Isaacs had her own reasons for accepting the invitation to visit Australia from the Australian Council of Education Research. Professionally she was interested in Aboriginal culture and what might be learned about the human mind. She was deeply familiar with the work of Geza Roheim and later lectured on this to students of psychoanalysis. A second, more personal reason was the opportunity to see her younger sister Alice who had emigrated to Australia shortly after her marriage eighteen years earlier. The two travelled together for part of the tour, at least and in Brisbane stayed together in accommodation at the Women’s College at Kangaroo Point. Isaacs had been ill with cancer during 1935 and 1936. It was a rare opportunity to see her beloved sister and to take time from her psychoanalytic  work.

There were opportunities for Isaacs, too. She had the opportunity to broacast several of her talks to people living in remote rural areas – the outback. At the end of her Brisbane stay Isaacs reflected that

In England, there Is not such a thing as a woman radio announcer, and one- of the ‘moat pleasant recollections I will take away from Queensland will be of a broadcast talk I gave from the national station to the Country Women’s Association last Thursday, during which I had how wisely the Influence of the women’s session was being used to benefit the women of Queensland.

There were further opportunities for radio broadcasting, in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Universty of Adelaide. Perhaps Isaacs’ appeal, along with the intellectual integrity she brought to her work, was that she spoke to people about the very real concern of raising children. Her efforts to translate complex psychological ideas into plain English, the research which underpinned her analyses and her preparedness to communicate in a variety of ways contributed to peoples’ desire to learn more about thinking, human development and relationships. She spoke about infant development, telling audiences about the investigations that were occurring into the mental life of infants. Her concern, to help people to think about children’s behavior, found audiences in unexpected places.


BOOK REVIEWS. PSYCHOLOGY OF CHILDREN. “The Children We Teach,” by Susan Isaacs, M.A., D.Sc. University of London Press.The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954) Saturday 21 January 1933 p 4 Article

BOOK REVIEWS. (1933, February 25). The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), p. 4. Retrieved June 4, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32488480

BOOK REVIEWS. (1933, November 25). The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – Preview Post1954), p. 4. Retrieved June 4, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32774408

Psychology of Infants. (1937, August 4). The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), p. 9 Edition: CITY FINAL LAST NEWS. Retrieved June 4, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article184565332

When a Child Is Obstinate And Defiant. (1937, August 5). The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), p. 10 Edition: CITY FINAL LAST MINUTE NEWS. Retrieved June 4, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article184565910

The Telegraph, ( Brisbane, Qld: 1872-1947) Saturday 7 August 1937, page 8, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article184564179 accessed 3 June 2015.

Cunningham, K S, ed; (1938), Education for Complete Living: The Challenge of Today – The Proceedings of the New Education Fellowship Conference held in Australia August 1, 1937 – Setpember 20, 1937, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1938.

Gardner, D E M ( 1969), Susan Isaacs: The First Biography, London, Methuen Educational Ltd.

Godfrey, Johm (2004), Perhaps the most important and certainly the most exciting event in the whole history of education in Australia. History of Education Review, 33, 45-58.

Graham, Philip,( 2013) Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children, London, Karnac