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Reginald Spencer (Reg) Ellery (1897–1955)

by Anne Sanders

After his school education in Adelaide, Reginald Spencer Ellery studied medicine at the University of Melbourne graduating with his MB and BS in 1923 and completing his MD in 1930. His literary ambitions were nurtured by his professor of physiology, W. A. Osborne, who had an extensive knowledge of literature, coupled with a command of several languages, as well as being a broadcaster and writer for several newspapers and journals. Courting controversy in a conservative establishment marked Ellery’s career from early on. While in his first official position in Melbourne as junior medical officer at Kew Hospital for the Insane, his criticism of the Lunacy Department’s resistance to much needed reform in its treatment of patients branded him a troublemaker. He was charged with maladministration and cruelty to patients and, in 1924, was the subject of a Royal Commission. However the Commission established that the charges against him were unfounded.

Ellery was transferred to Sunbury Hospital for the Insane where he worked under the productive direction of Dr John K. Adey. In 1925 Ellery and Adey successfully pioneered in Australia the application of Wagner Jauregg’s malarial fever treatment for general paralysis of the insane (GPI). This groundbreaking work established his reputation and, on this basis, he was invited to deliver the Beattie-Smith lecture in 1928, in which he drew upon some of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. He wrote for the Medical Journal of Australia and was appointed medical officer of the new Mont Park Hospital for the Insane. However, by 1931 he resigned rather than endure the institutional restrictions placed upon him by the Lunacy Department. He set up a private psychiatric practice in Collins Street, Melbourne, and accepted the position of honorary consultant psychiatrist at the Alfred Hospital. In 1933 he established Australia’s first private psychopathic hospital at Malvern, which aimed to provide an alternative to the institutional, conservative monopoly of the Lunacy Department. Ellery’s approach was to provide a more personal approach that also avoided the stigma of having been placed in an asylum.

Ellery was influenced by Freud’s publication Civilisation and Its Discontents, which elucidated Freud’s concern with the tensions between individual freedom of expression and society’s need for conformity and repression. Ellery was concerned that the modern world had ‘introduced an element of haste and feverish unrest into human life which amounts to a disease’. For him, the respectful, concentrated listening of psychoanalytic practice provided much needed contemplation as an antidote to the perceived disintegration within a complex civilisation.

During 1937 Ellery travelled overseas, visiting the Soviet Union and Europe and researching new treatments for schizophrenia. He met Wagner Jauregg and discussed the success of the malarial fever therapy he had undertaken in Melbourne. Although he was not able to meet Sigmund Freud, he did have an audience with Anna Freud and he travelled to Budapest to meet Dr Ladislaus von Meduna (at the Royal Hungarian State Psychiatric Institute), who had just published his findings on the radical new cardiazole shock therapy for the treatment of catatonic schizophrenia. On his return to Australia, Ellery introduced this new therapy in his private practice. He was part of a group of progressive Melbourne doctors and other prominent leaders who supported Dr Paul Dane in establishing the Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1940.

A prolific poet and writer, Ellery published several articles and booklets in support of improved social life and health in the Soviet Union (although he was not a member of the Communist Party), including Health in the Soviet Union (1941) and Eyes Left! The Soviet Union and the Post-War World (1943). He was associated with the circle of artists and writers who frequented Heide, the home of Melbourne art patrons John and Sunday Reed—the group known as Angry Penguins after the title of the journal published by John Reed and the poet Max Harris. Ellery supplied the young artist Sidney Nolan with drawings by some of his psychotic patients—works which influenced Nolan’s series of ‘heads’ paintings. In 1941 he published a highly informative booklet entitled Schizophrenia: The Cinderella of Psychiatry, which was favourably reviewed in both the Journal of the American Medical Association and the British Medical Journal.

However it was Ellery’s publishing success with Reed and Harris that brought his ideas into wider circulation. Their first printing of Eyes Left! of 10,000 copies sold out in weeks and was quickly followed by a second print run of 20,000. The book’s commercial success probably underwrote the reprint of Schizophrenia in 1944, with Reed and Harris acting as agents. They published Ellery’s Psychiatric Aspects of Modern Warfare in 1945, with a reproduction of Nolan’s painting Head of Soldier 1942 on the cover, as well as images within the text from Francisco de Goya’s print series, The Disasters of War (1810–20). Ellery believed that it was conservative reaction to this publication that prevented his reappointment as honorary psychiatrist at the Alfred Hospital, a position he had held since 1930. Ellery married the gifted pianist and later Melbourne’s first concert harpsichordist, Mancell Flo Kirby (1897 – 1996) in 1923 and they established themselves in a grand mansion in Hawthorn, which they renamed 'High Wycombe'. Ellery continued working in his private practice, and he completed his autobiography, The Cow Jumped over the Moon, just before his death from cancer in December 1955. He was survived by his wife and only son, John Mancell Kirby (1924 – 2007).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Anne Sanders, 'Ellery, Reginald Spencer (Reg) (1897–1955)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

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