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William Fulton Salter (1912–2006)

by Jocelyn Preece

William Fulton Salter, doctor, psychiatrist and amateur boxer, who spearheaded radical change in the management of mental illness in South Australia between 1951 and 1977, has died in an Adelaide nursing home, aged 93.

Born at Angaston on 21st September 1912, he was educated at Scotch College and the University of Adelaide where he graduated with a medical degree in 1936.

Dr William Salter’s achievements included leading the change from a custodial model of care of the mentally ill to a therapeutic model, introducing specialist training for psychiatric nurses in South Australia, the establishment of a world-class industrial therapy company in his hospital, and promotion of the then controversial idea of alcoholism as a treatable disease.

The young Doctor Salter’s appointment as Medical Officer to Parkside Hospital in 1939 was cut short by the outbreak of World War II, the full duration of which, he served in the Army Medical Corps (Psychiatric Unit, Goulburn).

In 1946 Dr Salter went straight from the army to take up an appointment as Deputy Superintendent at Northfield (later Hillcrest) Mental Hospital, and remained in this position until 1962, when he became Superintendent.

Poorly resourced and in need of reform, the management of mental defectives was archaic and presented a mighty challenge in 1946. With close to 1000 patients in his care, the doctor patrolled the sprawling hospital on a bicycle with his German Shepherd dog by his side.

Against a background of post-war shortages, backlogs of demands on government expenditure, and a difficult administrative structure above him, William Salter led what can only be described as a revolution in the care of the mentally ill in South Australia.

Aided by the introduction in the mid-fifties of the new ‘tranquilliser’ drugs, and by the moral authority of his deep Christian conviction, he was able to gradually build a community of people taking charge of their own recovery in an environment of mutual care and respect.

It began in the early 1950s, with a few doors being left unlocked, and grew steadily, as everybody, staff and patients, adjusted to the realisation that their roles had changed. The change did not come easily, especially to some of the staff, and it was in turning this opposition around that William Salter’s remarkable skill as a teacher and leader became apparent.

By 1961, when Dr Hammond, the new Director of Mental Health, issued his report to the South Australian government, condemning the archaic conditions at Parkside and Northfield, Dr Salter had already established at Northfield his ‘therapeutic community’. The physical conditions of the institution were still the same, but what was happening among the people was very different and was drawing approving comment from all over Australia and even beyond.

How news of it reached outside the walls was through the publication, with Salter’s encouragement, by the patients, of a magazine, later called Revelation. A second hand printing press had been donated in rusty pieces and brought back to life by some of the brilliant people among the staff and inmates, and this soon became the centrepiece of a burgeoning Industrial Therapy Unit. With the magazine as a means of communication among patients, community spirit grew rapidly, as did a flourishing concert party, hobby clubs of all kinds and various sports teams, while underpinning it all was the routine of regular ‘group therapy’ meetings.

These became known as ‘Recovery’ groups, and later ‘GROW’ groups, and with Dr Salter’s encouragement, were established outside the hospital by people moving back into the community. GROW is still a flourishing network of support groups Australia wide.

William Salter had also realised, ahead of most of his contemporaries, that alcoholics were not, as he put it, ‘just hopeless drunks’, but people suffering from a disease that could be treated. This was a revolutionary idea in the early 1950s. Recognising that it would need to be promoted, he called together a small group of interested people, some from Alcoholics Anonymous and some from among his own patients, to form the ‘S.A. State Committee on Alcoholism’. Twenty-five years later, in 1981 he was still President of what had by then become the ‘Foundation on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence’.

Dr William Salter will be remembered with admiration, respect, affection and gratitude by the many Adelaide families who have been and are still being touched by his outstanding work, his insight and vision, and his humility.

He retired in 1977, and in January 1978 was honoured as a Member of the Order of Australia.

Original publication

Citation details

Jocelyn Preece, 'Salter, William Fulton (1912–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 July 2024.

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