Dax was fun & bought us gifts

Childhood memories of visits from Dr Eric Cunningham Dax.

In 1956 Dr Donnan and his family moved to Beechworth to take up the position of Chief Superintendent Psychiatrist at the Beechworth Mental Hospital. Together with his wife and two daughters, they set up family life in a home provided to them on the grounds of the 11-hectare mental hospital. Previously, Dr Donnan had worked at Mont Park Mental Hospital, located in Mcloud, Melbourne, where a patient, Ada, worked as a domestic servant in their home.

In an interview with one of Dr Donnans daughters, Karen recalls:

Ada became attached to my Dad, because I remember Mum saying how upset she was that we were leaving to go to Beechworth Mental Hospital. So the decision was made for Ada to come with us.

There were five of us, including my elder sister, driving up to Beechworth in Dad’s Alvis vintage car with lots of luggage. It got dark and none of us were that comfortable being in the middle of the bush at night. The car conked out at a river crossing, water was running over the road, in the dark. Ada was sitting between us two kids in the back, gripping our hands. Anyway we got going again, though Idon’t remember the rest of the trip (interview 2013).

It was common for senior staff, such as medical officers and the chief superintendents, to have female patients work in their homes as domestic servants and housekeepers. (Further research about Ada can be found here: A life in institutions and Family Discoveries )

Karen recalls Dax’s visits with fondness:

Karen remembers Dr Eric Cunnningham Dax visiting her parents’ home at Beechworth Mental Hospital. Dr Dax was the new chairman of the Victorian Mental Hygiene Authority and a highly respected expert who had been bought from England to manage and reform the public mental hospitals in Victoria (1952-1968). As part of his chairman duties, Dax would regularly inspect each mental hospital in Victoria and meet with the Superintendent.

I can remember Mum would light up when Dax was coming. The best bottle of wine would come out, the best dinner cooked and candles. So there was a lot to do. Dr Dax would get on the floor with me and my sister and draw with us. He brought both of us presents every visit, glass and ceramic ornaments of animals. He would put the presents behind his back and get us to choose which one (interview 2013).

Karen has carefully preserved her and her sisters’ childhood gifts from Dax and gave permission for some items to be displayed in Collections from the Asylum exhibition at Albury Library Museum in 2020. See Karen’s items in the Collections from the Asylum Exhibition here.

Karen continues:

Dax was fun and enjoyed himself with us. Mum said she would come in and be surprised to find Dr Dax on the floor playing and drawing funny pictures with us and she didn’t know what to do. My sister remembers getting horse rides around the room. Dax always appreciated Mum’s cooking. He was chatty, whereas my Dad was quiet. Mum enjoyed it; he had a very natural manner when playing with kids. He was tall, imposing and impeccably dressed. After dinner Dax and Dad would go off to the hospital (interview 2013).

Many thanks to Karen (nee Donnan) for sharing her story and photographs

Written by Dr Alison Watts, Adjunct Lecturer at Southern Cross University. See Alison’s full bio here

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