What did Australian medical pracitioners think of psychoanalysis in the 1920s? Dr Reg Ellery, one of the upcoming young turks of the profession chafed at the conservatism of his elders and, apparently, did not hesitate to call them on it. In 1928 he published an article in The Medical Journal of Australia on the subject.
Reg Ellery, was born in Adelaide in 1897 completed his medical training at the University of Melbourne and in 1923 was appointed to the Victorian Lunacy Department as junior medical officer at Kew Hospital for the Insane. Next year, says his biographer, he was ’embroiled in public controversy. In retaliation against his hastily imposed reforms to their negligent routines, the general medical staff made a series of accusations against him. The affair culminated in a royal commission (1924) which found the allegations to be unfounded. For his part in stirring up trouble, the Lunacy Department authorities transferred Ellery to Sunbury Hospital for the Insane’. He also became interested in Freud’s work. It did not add to his popularity amongst the extremely conservative medical establishment…
Still, Ellery continued to speak his mind, seeking ways to provide better treatment for mentally distressed people other than the asylum. Freud’s theory and clinical practice he believed, could be practised in outpatient clinics. To his mind patients could recover from their psychological malaise through the talking cure. The opposition of older colleagues to such new ideas was Ellery’s major frustration. Ellery wrote:
“ Upon the dauntless head of Sigmund Freud, a man as full of wisdom as of years, whose nearest neighbour is now death, has fallen the manifold objurgations of many. But those who decry psychoanalysis , seem in mnay respects like the ancient Hebrew prophets who, when the children of Israel made molten images and worshipped in the house of Baal, the phallic god, rent thier garments and put ashes on their heads and sought out the idolators with their swords. Their cries were loud in the land and their zeal was hardly abated. And so it is with the modern traducers of Freud. For the Jewish doctor appears to have taken the place of the older deity and certain idolatrous physicians have become learned in his ways, substituting the consulting room for the ‘grove’ and using the ritual of ‘free association’. Their symbols are the symbols of sex. The libido is their lord. So our modern Elijahs and Jehus gird up their loins and light the torches of their indignation with fiery words and call down the ridicule and the wrath of outraged righteousness upon all who bow down before Baal-Freud.
Psychoanalysis, Ellery explains to those who survived the reading of his first paragraphs, ‘is primarily a technique for the investigation of the human mind. It is a key to the boudoir of the subconscious, unlocking the door on desires which had ever been secret and on motives which have lain hidden in the innermost closets of the mind, the discovery of which are necessary for the development of the individual. it is thus the basis for the new philosophy and already has transformed the the moribund body of academic psychology into a freshs and living organism. As Ferenczi puts it, “Psychiatry which whas formerly a museum of abnormalities nefore which we stood in uncomprehending amazement, has become through Freud’s discovery a fertile field of scientific research, susceptible of coherent comprehension”. It is secondarily a form of therapy’.
Not only has psychoanalysis reoriented our knowledge of psychiatry, Ellery continues, it can be used to treat the milder psychoses as conduct and behaviour is explained on the basis of the unconscious. ‘Truth has never been acceptable in its nakedness’, Ellery continues. Darwin’s doctrine had a similar effect, challenging the idea of human proximity to the angels with the notions of simian ancestry. Freud has added further to our discomfort, Ellery adds. And indeed while he does not assert the truth of all of Freud’s doctrines, ‘his penetrating views on all the important questions of belief and behaviour have given us an insight into herd history and sociology, the value of which is scarcely realized….Each year the domains of psychiatry broaden, linking up with those of social hygiene, and education, and sociology’.
Psychoanalysis is here to stay – despite the catcalls of the brotherhood, Ellery concludes. ‘Though Freud’s followers be still regarded as the priests of Baal, the cat-calls of the callow minded clerics and all the shouts of tin-horn psychologists will not succeed in demolishing that which is primarily a technique for the investigation of the human mind, and with it that immense study in psycho-pathology which they so proudly call civilization”.
Ellery, Reg (1928), Psychoanalysis and the worship of Baal, The Medical Journal of Australia, September 8, 1928, pp. 303-304.