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Geroe, Clara Lazar (1900–1980)

by Anne Sanders

Born at the turn of the twentieth century into a Jewish family in the town of Pápa, in what was then Transylvania in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Clara Lazar completed her secondary schooling at the local Calvinist college. While still at school she was taken by her two elder sisters, both schoolteachers, to a series of seminars on Freud’s psychoanalytic theories given by one of the regimental doctors of the Hussars who were garrisoned in the town during World War I. One of Sigmund Freud’s closest associates, founder of the Hungarian Psychoanalytical Society and what would become known as the Budapest School of Psychoanalysis, Dr Sandor Ferenczi’s lectures and books made an indelible impression on the young Clara.

At the end of the World War 1 the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed, followed by an extended period of political turmoil in Hungary. Clara’s tertiary education was severely disrupted, however she completed her medical studies in Prague in 1923. Clara Lazar married Vilmos Gerö in Budapest in 1927.

She commenced training for the Hungarian Psychoanalytical Society in 1925, was accepted for membership in 1931 and, by 1938, was a registered training analyst of the Budapest School. Ferenczi, who died in 1933, was her mentor; she was an analysand of Michael Balint, who with his wife Alice were early converts to Freudian theories through Ferenczi’s lectures. They both returned from study in Berlin in 1924 to train at the Budapest School under Ferenczi’s direction. As Clara herself recalled: 'The atmosphere of the association was warm and friendly. We had seminars open to medical students. Geza Roheim had a seminar on psychonanalytic anthropology and Michael Balint on infantile development…You had to be a bit of a revolutionary to become interested, to think for yourself and not to be with the establishment. Amongst ourselves there was no distinction between medical and non-medical people.' Working with Alice Balint in a children’s clinic, Clara Lazar Gerö became increasingly interested in child analysis.

Along with other members of the Budapest School of Psychoanalysis, Gerö attended the 15th International Psychoanalytic Congress in Paris in 1938. British and American colleagues were increasingly concerned about virulent, anti-semitism sweeping Germany, Austria and Hungary. Dr Ernest Jones of the British Psychoanalytical Society offered to try to arrange for six members of the Budapest School to emigrate to New Zealand. Following the successful visit to New Zealand of British child psychoanalyst, Susan Isaacs, during the New Education Fellowship International Conference in 1937—an extension of the conference in the Australian states organised by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER)—many educationalists in New Zealand were interested in receiving training analysts who specialised in child analysis. The push to emigrate became more urgent with Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. However, even with the combined assistance of Ernest Jones and John Rickman of the British Society, Duncan Hall, the Colonial Secretary at the League of Nations, the Princess Marie Bonaparte and the Professor of Education at Dunedin University, the applications were twice rejected by the New Zealand authorities.

Concurrently in Melbourne, Dr Paul Dane had written to Ernest Jones stating that a group of Melbourne psychiatrists including himself, doctors Reginald Ellery, Guy Reynolds, Norman Albiston and Albert Phillips, had received a generous grant to establish a psychotherapeutic clinic and were interested in receiving a European training analyst, as none existed in Australia. When the six training analysts’ applications were refused by New Zealand, a group of Australians including Dane, Ellery, Dr Roy Coupland Winn, Bishop Burgmann and Sir Charles Moses took their case to the Australian Department of Interior. Of the six, only Clara Lazar Gerö with her husband and young son were accepted. They arrived in Melbourne on 14 March 1940; the spelling of their surname was anglicised to Geroe. While waiting for the new centre to open Dr Geroe worked with Dane and Ellery at the Alfred Hospital, as the first child psychiatrist in Australia. The Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis was launched by Judge Foster on 10 October 1940—the birthday of the benefactor, Miss Lorna Traill. In attendance were psychiatrists, ACER members, staff of the Teachers Training College and journalists. The Institute’s first meeting was held at the home of prominent Melbourne psychiatrist Dr Hal Maudsley; the new premises at 111 Collins Street would not be ready until early 1941. The inaugural directors included, from Melbourne, doctors Dane, Ellery, Albiston and Phillips, and Winn from Sydney, with Ernest Jones of the British Psychoanalytical Society in an honorary capacity.

On the advice of Michael Balint, who had analysed and worked with Clara Lazar Geroe in Budapest, Ernest Jones appointed her as Training Analyst of the British Psychoanalytical Society and authorised her to function in Melbourne as a branch of the British Society. She brought with her the openness of the Budapest School to the training of non-medical people as analysts and to presenting psychoanalytic ideas to a broad audience. Seminars frequently included psychiatrists, psychologists, probation officers, educationalists and parents. She established a child guidance clinic and worked closely with the Children’s Court in Melbourne. Although she lectured in the Department of Psychology at the University of Melbourne and served as honorary psychoanalyst to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, her medical qualifications were not recognised until 1956.

People came from New Zealand and all over Australia as patients. The first were Janet Nield who, with her husband Clive, ran the progressive Koornong School at Warrandyte, and two stipendiary magistrates at the Melbourne Children’s Court; and, as a result, staff of the Children’s Court and teachers at Koornong attended seminars where Freud’s and Ferenczi’s psychoanalytic theories were discussed.

In 1951 the Sydney Institute for Psychoanalysis, only the second of its kind in Australia, was established with an endowment provided by Dr Roy Coupland Winn, and with the Hungarian training analyst Dr Andrew Peto. Geroe attended the launch and was one of the Sydney Institute’s three interstate directors. In August 1957 she introduced to the Melbourne Institute another expatriate Hungarian training analyst, Ms Vera Roboz, who had fled the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Along with doctors Winn and Peto, Clara Lazar Geroe formed the Australian Society of Psychoanalysis as a branch of the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1952. It would become independent in 1967, being recognised as the Australian Study Group by the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA). By 1973 the Australian Psychoanalytical Society was ratified as a full member of the IPA.

Aged 79, Clara Lazar Geroe died at Royal Melbourne Hospital, Parkville on 12 February 1980 and was survived by her husband Vilmos and son George.

Original publication

  • C. Chapman (ed), Inner Worlds: Portraits & Psychology, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2011, pp 157-61

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Anne Sanders, 'Geroe, Clara Lazar (1900–1980)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/geroe-clara-lazar-10796/text24838, accessed 1 October 2016.

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