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Janet Blake Nield (1911–1992)

by Anne Sanders

Born and raised in Rutherglen, in northeast Victoria, Janet Nield gained a scholarship to Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne (following her brother, George Plant’s scholarship to Melbourne Grammar School). She transferred to the academic University High School and matriculated first in the state for history. In 1929 she commenced a BA at the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1934 with honours in history. She completed an MA in 1936 and a Diploma of Education in 1939.

While completing her MA she became interested in psychoanalysis, especially in its applications to further the development of child psychology and education. She met (Joseph) Clive Nield, a master at Geelong Grammar School, at a conference held at the school in 1935 and they were married in 1936. Both shared a commitment to progressive, child-focused education.

Janet Nield’s interest in child psychoanalysis increased following her attendance in Melbourne at the New Education Fellowship International Conference in 1937, organised by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). One of the key speakers at the conference was leading child psychoanalyst and widely published author, Susan Isaacs, an associate member of the British Psychoanalytical Society.

Janet and Clive departed Melbourne in December 1938 for a nine-month tour to study progressive educational methods and institutions in Europe, England, Canada and the United States, meeting up with some of the leaders of the New Education Fellowship that they had met in Melbourne. They both spent time at A. S. Neill’s progressive Summerhill School in England. Following their return to Melbourne and the setting up of their own progressive Koornong School, in 1939, Janet’s interest in psychoanalysis was given further encouragement with the establishment of the Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1940, the first of its kind in Australia.

Under the influence of the Hungarian training analyst, Dr Clara Lazar Geroe, who had a particular interest in child guidance and in training non-medical people as analysts, Janet Nield underwent analysis between 1941–46. Koornong became a kind of laboratory in which the underpinning philosophy was the commitment to 'new educational techniques that made use of the ideas embedded in psychoanalysis'. The Nields encouraged staff to read Freud’s writings and other psychoanalytical texts and to attend regular lectures given by visiting psychoanalysts. Dr Geroe’s son George attended Koornong School, further cementing the close relationship between Koornong and the Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis.

Such fruitful, experimental partnerships between education, psychoanalysis and architecture could not prevent the eventual financial crisis. As Janet Nield noted in her memoir of the Russian émigré artist Danila Vassilieff: 'A small community beside a flowing…river had gathered to face a new kind of living at the exact month and day, September 3, 1939, that the aggressive, psychotic, destructive instincts of man broke their defences to destroy civilised values, and human life and the diversity of man, in the Second World War. We lived in defiance of war trying to preserve our values. The war ended and so did the experiment. War and education are expensive experiments.'

Initially viewed as a psychoanalytic pedagogue, Janet Nield’s move to Sydney opened up the possibility of a new career path as a clinical analyst. This coincided with the establishing of the Sydney Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1951, only the second institute of its kind in Australia, under the direction of Dr Andrew Peto (initially from Budapest, like Clara Lazar Geroe). Peto succeeded in introducing psychoanalytic ideas to psychiatrists, notably the child psychiatrist Dr John Kerridge. In 1953, through the auspices of Dr Kerridge, Janet Nield was appointed honorary psychotherapist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Camperdown, Sydney, the first such appointment in Australia.

Nield, who had commenced training under Dr Clara Lazar Geroe, continued under Dr Andrew Peto in Sydney. Although Peto left Australia in 1955 for New York, after the Australian Government repeatedly failed to recognise his overseas qualifications, Janet Nield finally qualified as an analyst in 1962 (when she was granted Associate Membership of the British Psychoanalytical Society and in 1965, full membership). She was a close associate of Dr Roy Coupland Winn until his retirement.

Following her husband’s death in 1977, Janet Nield decided to move to Adelaide to assist in the development of the new Adelaide Institute of Psychoanalysis, working alongside the South African émigré psychoanalyst Sam Stein. As the Adelaide psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Rick Curnow has observed: 'Sam Stein and Janet Nield added an enormous zest and intellectual rigour to the training available in Adelaide at the time.'

Nield had a wide appreciation and was a great supporter of the arts and artists, 'always believing that artists were more in touch with their unconscious, as well as having a unique ability to give social direction'. She returned to Sydney from Adelaide in the mid 1980s, and although she retired from active involvement in the Institute, she retained her deep intellectual commitment to Freud’s theories and writings, to his rationalism. Her son, the architect Lawrence Nield recalled: 'Like Freud she believed in reason. "In the long run", Freud wrote in The Future of an Illusion, "nothing can withstand reason and experience".' Janet Blake Nield died at her home in Balmain in October 1992, survived by her only son, Lawrence.

Citation details

Anne Sanders, 'Nield, Janet Blake (1911–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

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