A serious, sad scandal…

In the course of a lifetime things happen that some would rather not remember. If they reach the public domain where one is the object of scandal and controversy and each prurient detail of life at the moment is published in the mainstream press, there is comfort in the idea that, in time, people will forget. Life will move on and memory will disappear into the archives.

Until recently.

Since 2010 the National Library of Australia has been digitizing its entire newspaper collection. A search engine has been developed and as a result the past is at our fingertips. Time is collapsed. So too is distance as we learn that newsmakers in one state were also celebrated in others. It is possible to see what made news sixty years ago. And despite uneasy questions about privacy, intrusion and boundaries, particularly when the subject matter concerns a well-known identity in the professional or social world, such events are all in the public domain. For historians, such as me, searching in this case for information about the psychoanalyst Clara Geroe, the possibility of stumbling upon something else of interest is increased. The question? Why is it important? Or is it all merely salacious gossip? Does writing about such matters some sixty years after the event increase understanding of the development of psychoanalysis in Australia? Certainly it is a glimpse into the culture of the day and, I suggest, into changing ideas about women, their place in the community and in marriage. And probably it also points to changing ideas and anxieties about mental illness, psychoanalysis and psychology and the power of psychiatry. For if a doctor could certify his wife, what did this mean for the rest of us?

The publicity surrounding the marital breakup of Frank and Nell Graham was the stuff of Hollywood legend where the marriages of movie stars featured on the front covers of magazines and, often enough, their divorces too. It had all the glamour of Melbourne’s elite. A handsome profile of Frank himself was published in the newspapers. It was reported in the interstate press and made it into some of the regional papers. The year was 1954. Frank Graham was a respected psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Nell, as was the custom of the day, had listed herself on the electoral roll as undertaking ‘Home Duties’. The couple had one son aged about seven. If the papers are to be believed, Nell’s version was that the marriage breakup was due to Frank’s obsession with psychoanalysis – a subject on which, she told reporters, they vehemently disagreed. Frank’s response was that he wanted to help his wife whom he genuinely considered to be mentally ill. Nell Graham did not agree with that either. Neither did her family nor it seems did Joan Rosenove, the first woman Barrister in Victoria who represented Nell Pro Bono in the ensuing court case along with Mr D M Campbell QC. It may be that Dr Richard Ramsay Webb, the Superintendent of Royal Park Hospital, where Nell Graham was admitted, and Justice Martin, the judge who heard the case, also did not agree with Dr Graham’s assessment.

At the time Frank and Nell Graham had been married for thirteen years and had had a son together.They had moved to Victoria from Sydney shortly after their marriage in 1940. Frank, a newly graduated doctor had sought psychoanalysis from Roy Coupland Winn from whom he had heard about the arrival of the Hungarian psychoanalyst Dr Clara Lazar Geroe and, in 1941, her appointment as a training analyst for the British Psychoanalytical Society. He found a job at Melbourne’s Royal Park Hospital, and asylum for the mentally ill.  The job also provided accommodation for medical staff in the  hospital grounds. In this way Frank commenced analytic training: – sessions of analysis, supervisions and seminars with Geroe. Nell was a trained nurse. But, as was the path of women of the day, she stayed at home to look after the house and, eventually, to care for their son. It is also relevant for readers to be aware that Frank Graham, who had suffered from Polio as a child, walked with the support of a stick.

By 1946 Graham had commenced practice at 110 Collins Street in Melbourne – the same address as Geroe. In 1951 Graham was an Associate Member of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He had published papers on group analysis in the Australian Medical Journal, was active as secretary of the Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis and the newly formed Psychoanalytical Society of Australia.

What follows next can be deduced from the newspapers which, for the benefit of readers, reported every skerrick about a marriage in trouble. Nell had been unwell for some time during 1950. Frank believed this was psychosomatic and wanted her to consult “Madame Geroe”. She declined. On one occasion, after she asked her husband to find a masseur he had, she said, engaged Madame Geroe who visited their home, given her a massage with the result that Nell had begun to feel better. There were arguments over Frank’s obsession with psychoanalysis, a practice Nell disliked and with which she disagreed and thought to be ‘a fad and a fetish’. Nell did not like the fact that her husband consulted with women, and in an affidavit said she “believed her husband had had improper relations with his women patients as she I had seen him at his professional rooms with lipstick all over his face”. Frank Graham had become angry with his wife’s opposition; he had threatened her with his walking stick, roared at her that he wanted to cut her throat from ear to ear and called her a witch. It appears that the couple had separated by the beginning of 1954. Nell said she believed he had ‘found a new girlfriend’, a psychologist who was also undergoing psychoanalysis. Frank, Nell said, had told her of his hope they would have the ‘perfect child’.

Matters came to a head on 27 April 1954 when, it was reported in the press, a taxi pulled up outside Nell’s home, close to the back-yard.  A woman emerged from the vehicle and went to the back door. Nell tried to flee through the front door of the house but was grabbed by the woman, forced into a taxi and taken to Royal Park Hospital. She was certified by two of her husband’s colleagues. Nell said she believed this had been instigated by her husband.

 After eight hours in the admissions unit, the superintendent moved Nell to an open ward. She was not longer a certified patient. She was able to contact her brother and also her lawyers.

A writ of Habeus Corpus was issued, requiring Nell to be brought before the court especially to secure her release unless lawful grounds were shown for her detention. In her affidavit Nell declared she was perfectly sane and had been wrongfully committed by colleagues of her husband without a proper examination. She alleged they had been sent by her husband with whom she was in dispute about the custody of their child. Evidence was given by Dr Janet Pierson Cooper. She had examined Nell in June and December 1953 and during Nell’s admission to Royal Park. She could find no evidence that she was mentally ill. The question for the judge to decide was whether Nell Graham should remain in hospital.

After an initial hearing in his Chambers, Justice Smith referred the matter to Justice Martin whose careful consideration of the events set aside the emotional war raging between the couple. His question was whether the requirements under the Mental Hygiene Act had been followed.

He deduced the following: Nell been admitted to Royal Park, and as was the procedure for certified patients, placed in the reception unit gazetted for such purposes.  She remained there for eight hours. She was then removed, on the instructions of the Superintendent of Royal Park, Dr Ramsay Webb, to another part of the hospital which, ‘it so happened, was not gazetted under the act’. Was she still under certificate? Did she have to remain in hospital?  Rosenove  and Campbell argued that she was not. The Superintendent left it to the court to decide.

Counsel for Dr Graham argued that there had been little or no opportunity for his client to reply. Allegations had been made which were not true, he said.  There was also the question about whether Nell should be required to remain in hospital for a month pending further examination. Justice Martin declined. The matter before the court was whether Nell Graham was ‘improperly detained or not’. After more argument from Dr Graham’s Counsel, that she should be retained in hospital because it was believed she was mentally disturbed, Justice Martin found that as Nell had not been kept in the receiving house at Royal Park the entire basis of her being kept in hospital ‘had fallen to the ground’. By moving her from the receiving house the Superintendent had nullified her certification under the Act. Nell was released.

Nell Graham was far from mad, I think.  She was certainly distressed. And so was her husband whose belief and commitment to psychoanalysis his wife bitterly resented. They were a couple at war whose battles, momentarily, had reached the front pages. The fact that Frank Graham was a doctor who had tried to certify his wife was part of the interest.

After the court case was over the press, Hollywood style, waited for a statement from Frank Graham. It was finally released on 5th April, 1954. He tried to make light of the events. After all he loved his wife and Nell had always been ‘only girl for me’, he said. But he remained true to his belief in his diagnosis which was recorded in affidavits that would not be released to the press. There was the matter of their son’s custody to consider and, quite sensibly, he declared the matter closed.

By the end of 1954 Nell Graham took her husband to court again. Her complaint was that he had not provided sufficient means of support. It is was decided between the pair, with the assistance of legal representatives, that Nell would be paid 13 pounds a week. Graham was ordered to pay costs.

So why is this very sad and tragic tale of a marital breakup important?

First there is the sensationalism of the reportage. From 1940 Frank Graham had pursued a new professional identity as the first Australian trained psychoanalyst under the new arrangement with the British Psychoanalytical Society. Together with Clara Lazar Geroe and several other colleagues he was involved in the dissemination of new ideas about the mind – involved in holding psychoanalytic conferences and lectures and seeing patients. This might have created uneasiness in the broader community. Perhaps Nell Graham reflected this unease. For most people, maybe, psychoanalysis was for Hollywood movie stars; about Freud, the Oedipus complex and dream interpretation – if it was thought about at all.

Secondly there was the sober and serious question about the rights of patients and the power of doctors to decide whether a person was insane or not. Justice Martin’s concern was whether Nell was being wrongfully treated when she arrived at Royal Park. The Superintendent, Dr Ramsay Webb, appeared to have concluded that there was no reason for Nell to remain in the gazetted unit after eight hours. Was he also signalling that he did not agree with his colleague’s certification of her?  It seemed that Dr Graham had certified his wife because he thought she was ill. Was she not protesting about her treatment from him in the only way she could? She thought him to be violent at this stage. She had been spurned and faced losing custody of her child. There was little support for single parents let alone women stigmatized by divorce in those days. But in the intensity of a marital dispute, if not breakup, emotions run high and words uttered that should not be. The matter needs more investigation.

Then there is the question of the woman’s place in marriage. One interpretation is that Nell was failing to support her husband in his chosen work. By not remaining silent she was bringing him and his profession into disrepute. But she was also challenging his assumed power over her. By speaking up against the accusation she was insane, gaining the support of two respected legal professionasl and also perhaps, through the act of removing her from the locked ward at Royal Park the judgement thrust upon her by her husband, the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, was in dispute.

Nell Graham had refused to co operate.

Finally there is the story of psychoanalytic training in Australia. It was still new, a little more than thirteen years since its commencement in Melbourne. A new branch had begun in Sydney in 1951 and they were working together to form an Australian group. When the Graham’s marital brawl reached the front pages the consulting room door was opened and humanity appeared at its most raw. It was packed away quickly when Graham made the statement that there would be no statment. But in the longer term?


Release from mental home sought ‘I was grabbed, forced in taxi’ (1954, March 31). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 3. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26600200

WIFE’S CHARGES AGAINST DOCTOR HUSBAND (1954, March 31). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 3. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205701697

Now in mental home Doctor’s wife asks court: ‘Set me free’ (1954, March 31). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 1. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26600132

Charge Against Doctor (1954, March 31). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 1. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205701569

BASIS Or HOMES HOLD FALLS TO GROUND—JUDGE Royal Park told to let doctor s wife go (1954, April 3). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 5. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26601016

COURT ORDERS RELEASE OF MRS. GRAHAM (1954, April 3). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 4. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205712093

Dr. Graham releases his statement (1954, April 5). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 5. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26601204

Judge Ends Order on Mrs. Graham (1954, April 6). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 3. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205701464

He wants his son (1954, May 29). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 3. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23422437

Doctor Seeks Son’s Custody (1954, May 29). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 3. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205390299

Doctor to Pay Wife’s Maintenance (1954, December 10). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 10. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205732277