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Biographical entry Dax, Eric Cunningham (1908 - 2008)

18 May 1908
29 January 2008


Eric Cunningham Dax revolutionised the treatment of the mentally ill - he believed they should be treated humanely and with respect. Having turned the Netherne Hospital in England into a first-class mental facility, Dax was asked to become the inaugural Chairman of the Victorian Mental Hygiene Authority (MHA) in 1952. The Authority was formed because the post war mental health system in Victoria was in total disarray and had been highly criticised.

Upon arriving in Victoria Dax admitted that he had never seen mental hospitals so neglected. Over the next seventeen years he totally reformed Victoria's public mental health system. He introduced all the measures he had implemented in Netherne including community mental health facilities and art programs for patients. Dax, through the MHA also introduced a two year hospital based training course for nurses working in psychiatric care, improved doctor training and increased mental health funding and staff levels. By the time he left Victoria for Tasmania in 1969 he had developed an international reputation and held consultancy posts in the USA, British, Europe Asia and the Pacific. In Tasmania Dax was Coordinator of Community Health for fifteen years then returned to Victoria as Senior Associate of Medical History at the University of Melbourne.


After completing a Bachelor of Science at the University of London, Eric Cunningham Dax decided to take up medical studies at St Mary's Hospital Medical School. Upon graduating he worked as a resident in several hospitals and in 1939 joined Netherne Hospital. By the time he was appointed Superintendent in 1941 Dax had realised how antiquated and flawed psychiatric treatment was. He endeavoured to rectify this and by introducing new techniques such as art therapy, 'physical' treatments and community based treatments turned the Netherne Hospital in to one of Britain's best mental hospitals.

Upon arriving in Victoria Dax was shocked and appalled at the treatment of the mentally ill and at the state of the mental hospitals. He was especially concerned about the infamous Kew Hospital where patients were exposed to open drains and primitive lavatories. His first statement to the Victorian press was the need to "foster a new attitude to mental illness" and that "the prejudice against mental patients" needed to be broken down.

Eric Dax set about doing this by introducing community-based psychiatric care rather than asylum-based care, improved treatment regimes, rehabilitation projects, an increase in the number of psychiatric superintendents in Victoria's hospitals from nine (1951) to seventeen (1960), and improved local training for both psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses. One of Dax's greatest legacies was his art therapy programs. The Cunningham Dax Collection is a tribute to this work.

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Published resources


  • Dax, Eric Cunningham, Experimental studies in psychiatric art (London: Faber & Faber, 1953), 100 pp. Details
  • Dax, Eric Cunningham, Asylum to community : the development of the mental hygiene service in Victoria, Australia (Melbourne: F.W. Cheshire, for the World Federation for Mental Health, 1961), 230 pp. Details

Journal Articles

  • Robson, B., 'An English psychiatrist in Australia: memories of Eric Cunningham Dax and the Victorian Mental Hygiene Authority, 1951-1969', History of Psychiatry, 13 (49 Pt 1) (2002), 69-87. Details
  • Robson, Belinda, 'Eric Cunningham Dax', Australasian Science, 21 (1) (2000), 46. Details


Annette Alafaci