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Dax, Eric Cunningham (1908–2008)

by Anne Sanders

Eric Cunningham Dax graduated from London University in 1932 with honours in medicine. He studied psychiatry at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, and gained clinical and research experience in a number of private and public psychiatric clinics and hospitals in Britain.

Dax entered the psychiatric profession at a time of profound change in Britain. The 1930 British Mental Treatment Act made provision for voluntary treatment and significantly encouraged community-based, psychiatric treatments, thereby shifting the emphasis away from locking the mentally ill away in asylums and towards providing services that aimed at integration into the community. It was a time also when new treatments such as insulin coma therapy, malaria treatment, electro-convulsive therapy and psycho-surgical techniques were being introduced. These brought with them a change in the professional culture to one that emphasised curative approaches to treatment. In 1939 Dax was appointed Deputy Superintendent and, in 1941, Superintendent of Netherne Hospital in Surrey, a large institution where most of the patients were regarded as having chronic and incurable mental illnesses. He set about revolutionising the approach to mental illness through the active endorsement of new treatments as cures, and treating the patients humanely rather than as incarcerated criminals. He was active also in trying to reduce the community stigma attached to mental illness and asylums.

In the mid 1940s Dax sought advice from the Red Cross, an organisation that was interested in trialling art therapy as a therapeutic option for hospitalised war casualties. He was aware of the paper by Viennese psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris (a close associate of Sigmund Freud), ‘Comments on spontaneous artistic creations by psychotics’, which established a theoretical premise that enabled art to be analysed in a similar way to dreams. In 1946 he visited an art therapy program at the Northfield Military Hospital in Birmingham that was part of a rehabilitation program for returned British prisoners of war. He was sufficiently impressed to begin a similar program at Netherne and within two years, following his report to the hospital’s management committee that ‘the pursuit of art therapy was becoming increasingly important in the work of mental hospitals’, he had a studio built out of a modified army hut and an art master appointed.

At Netherne art therapy was offered to the patients only on the advice of their psychiatrist, as part of their clinical treatment. The artworks produced were regarded as significant case sheets and kept in the patients’ files. As he saw it, art therapy was an adjunct to psychotherapy: ‘The paintings can be treated as dreams…In this way, it is believed that painting provides a definite aid to psychotherapy, and that in some cases the length of time may be appreciably reduced by its use.’ The first premise for Dax in establishing a collection of psychiatric art was that it was strictly for clinical purposes; and, in order to demonstrate the clinical diagnostic uses of the paintings, an exhibition of the art collection was held in 1948 at the International Congress of Mental Health in London. Dax’s art therapy research at Netherne was recorded in his book, Experimental Studies in Psychiatric Art (1953).

In 1950 the Victorian Health Department commissioned a study by Professor Alexander Kennedy of Durham University into the treatment of the institutionalised mentally ill in Victoria. The resultant Kennedy Report was scathing of the conditions within the antiquated asylum system; and, in response, the department advertised the position of inaugural Chairman of the newly established Mental Hygiene Authority of Victoria. Dax applied, having read the report and corresponded with Kennedy, and was successful in gaining the position, which he held from 1952 to 1968.

In Melbourne there were tensions between public and private mental health services and some psychiatrists, particularly Dr Guy Springthorpe (son of Dr J.W. Springthorpe) and Dr Alex Sinclair, who ‘did not support Dax and his work with the Mental Hygiene Authority’. As Belinda Robson has observed, although Dax’s use of art as a clinical treatment was influenced to some extent by psychoanalytic theories, ‘he was not part of the psychoanalytic movement’.

During his 16 years as Chairman of the Medical Hygiene (later Mental Health) Authority, Dax improved the professional recognition of art therapists, introduced a two-year hospital-based training course for nurses working in psychiatric care, improved doctor training and increased mental health funding and staffing levels. In 1956 he established Australia’s first Mental Health Research Institute in Melbourne, and he lobbied, with other advocates, for the setting up of a Chair of Psychiatry within the University of Melbourne. Through the establishment of a network of community mental health clinics and mental hospital auxiliaries, he not only transformed the treatment of psychiatric patients but also challenged the silence and stigma that surrounded mental illness. In 1961 the World Federation for Mental Health sponsored the publication of Dax’s book Asylum to Community. By the time he left the position in 1968 Dr Dax had established a national and international reputation with consultancies in Australia and overseas, including the World Health Organisation.

Dax exhibited works from the psychiatric art collection in 1959 at Gallery A, in Flinders Lane Melbourne, where he gave lunchtime lectures about mental illness and his use of art therapy as treatment. The works in the collection were drawn from patients attending the art studio at the Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital, Melbourne, and the Larundel Mental Asylum in Bundoora, Victoria. Works from the collection were exhibited again in 1969 at the World Psychiatric Association congress held in Melbourne.

From 1969 to 1984 Dax lived in Tasmania, firstly as Coordinator in Community Health and then, from 1978 till 1984, he continued in private practice. It was while he was in Tasmania that he was made aware that his extensive art collection, stored at the Royal Park Hospital, was under threat of being destroyed. He briefly returned to Melbourne, sorted through the collection and retained 3,000 works. When he retired to Melbourne these rescued works formed the basis of what would become the Cunningham Dax Collection, and the purpose of the collection changed from being primarily clinical case studies to perform an educative role aimed at teaching people about the experience of mental illness. The collection also performs an historical function, reflecting the changes in mental health policies and treatment since 1946.

In 1985 Dax was awarded an AO for services to psychiatry and was appointed a Senior Associate in Medical History at the University of Melbourne, as well as being admitted to the degree of Doctor of Medicine honoris causa. He continued as a Senior Fellow in Psychiatry at the Royal Melbourne Hospital until 1995. Eric Cunningham Dax died just short of his 100th birthday in 2008 and was survived by his sister Phyllis Hale (born 1912) and four children: Judith, Richard, Elizabeth and Susannah.

The Cunningham Dax Collection holds 15,000 works and is one of the largest of its type in the world. In 2011 it will be relocated within the new Melbourne Brain Centre, located on the University of Melbourne Parkville campus.

Original publication

  • C. Chapman (ed), Inner Worlds: Portraits & Psychology, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2011, pp 182-85

Additional Resources

Citation details

Anne Sanders, 'Dax, Eric Cunningham (1908–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/dax-eric-cunningham-13941/text24835, accessed 25 November 2017.

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