Eric Cunningham Dax AO

President 1964 

Dr 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.

In 1939 Dr 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 refused to accept these judgements and was also active in trying to reduce the community stigma attached to mental illness and asylums. After approaching the Red Cross to explore art therapies they were using, Dr Dax pioneered the use of art therapy in a clinical setting at Netherne Hospital. 

In 1952 he was successful in obtaining the post of inaugural Chairman of the newly established Mental Hygiene (later Mental Health) Authority of Victoria, after the publication of a deeply negative study by Professor Alexander Kennedy about the treatment of mentally ill people in institutions.

During his 16 years as Chairman of the Medical Hygiene Authority he transformed mental health services with a major shift from inpatient to community settings and made improvements to the training of health professionals working in psychiatric care.

In 1956 he established Australia’s first Mental Health Research Institute, and along with others he lobbied for the establishment of a Chair of Psychiatry within the University of Melbourne. In 1961, the publication of his book ‘Asylum to Community’ was sponsored by the World Federation for Mental Health. He continued as a Senior Fellow in Psychiatry at the Royal Melbourne Hospital until 1995.

Dr Dax joined the AAP in May 1952 and is mentioned as a Foundation Fellow of the College in 1963. During his presidency from 1963 – 1964 he is credited with finding the College a permanent home in Melbourne through his proactive efforts with the Victorian government. As the second President of the new College he was keenly involved with the establishment of formal and ceremonial aspects of the College’s status such as the coat of arms. He was also an advocate of obtaining a Royal Prefix and as early as 1960 had noted it be discussed at Council.

In 1982 he was awarded the biennial John Cade Award from the College for the most significant published contribution related to clinical psychiatry.

In 1985 Dr Eric 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.

Initially a clinical tool, his collection of artwork done by patients became a means to teach 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. The Cunningham Dax Collection holds 15,000 works and is one of the largest of its type in the world. Open to visitors it is now located within the Melbourne Brain Centre, located on the University of Melbourne Parkville campus.

More information

Obituary from Obituaries Australia
The Dax Centre
An Interview with Eric Cunningham-Dax

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