Clara Campbell 1915 - 2009

Dr Clara Campbell was part of a revolution in Australia in the treatment of the mentally ill. Her working life followed the progress of psychiatry in this country from "lock-up" mental asylums transformed by the arrival of psychotropic drugs, through Freudian psychoanalytic theory and towards a post-Freudian world.

She was also one of the European migrants who helped change the face of Australia after World War II. She graduated in medicine and came to Australia, requalified and went on to do the work she loved best: helping people in psychiatric need.

Her therapeutic work extended into her 80s. After specialising in child guidance, Campbell continued to treat people of all ages following her retirement from the public system.

Clara Csernal was born on March 1, 1915, in Romania, the daughter of Dr Jeno Csernal and his wife, Dr Erna Strampf. Jeno, a distinguished bacteriologist, died in the influenza epidemic that followed World War I and Erna worked to support her daughter.

In 1931, at 16, Erna told Clara she expected her to become a doctor, like her parents, and Clara declared: "Only if I can become a psychiatrist."

Erna remarried, and in 1934 Clara married Leslie Cseh, a solicitor-in-training with her stepfather. In 1937, she graduated in medicine from Budapest University (where the intake of women into medicine was restricted to 10 per cent). Although the professor of pathology was unsympathetic to women, Csernal came first in pathology, her identity masked by the examination format.

With war looming, the Csehs fled Hungary, not knowing which country would accept them or if they would see their families again. On board the ship to Australia they met a Mr Campbell and, wanting to fit into their new country, changed their surname to his to mark his friendship. They arrived in Sydney in December, 1939.

As Australia did not recognise "foreign" degrees, the new Campbells moved to Brisbane, where the medical course was shortest and she fought prejudice against ''new Australians'' and women doctors. She graduated again in 1943 and Leslie went into the army.

Campbell's stepfather died in the war, but her mother emigrated in 1947 and went to work for the Melbourne Red Cross. By 1948, when her in-laws arrived in Australia as well, Campbell had started a general practice in Coramba, a small town near Coffs Harbour, while Leslie, fresh from the army, farmed bananas. The practice and the health of the town flourished, but she still dreamed of studying psychiatry. However, the health department gave her no hope, telling her to stay put.

Never one to give up, Campbell went to Sydney and visited the department. The secretary-in-charge said a woman doctor at Stockton Mental Hospital, in Newcastle, had just resigned, he needed a replacement urgently and ''God must have sent'' her.

So the family moved to Stockton. With a supportive medical superintendent, Campbell brought care and new mobility to patients who were, at that time, confined to an asylum, possibly for life, and kept in bed, developing bedsores. By the time Campbell went to Sydney for specialist training three years later, the patients were mobile, without bedsores, and receiving antibiotics for the first time.

At Gladesville Mental Hospital, Campbell was given the lowest job: administering electric-shock treatment twice a week, mostly to chronic patients. Eventually, the advent of modern drugs brought change, shorter stays and brief, early shock treatment. Previously institutionalised patients were discharged.

Campbell faced prejudice again in her oral psychiatry exams but she passed her diploma in psychological medicine in 1956. Leslie died suddenly in 1957 and in 1958, Campbell moved from Gladesville, first to Camperdown, then to the Brisbane St Child Guidance Clinics in inner Sydney. There she helped families referred from schools and the courts. She was honorary consultant at the Prince Henry and Concord Repatriation hospitals and, in 1966, won a six-month public service overseas scholarship to investigate the growing speciality of child guidance in Europe and America.

In 1975, Campbell retired from the clinics but continued seeing patients privately for 25 years. In 1995, she attended a ceremony to mark 50 years as a member of the Australian Medical Association.

Many of the people Campbell helped achieved success and kept in touch, as did grateful families of people she had helped to free from long-term asylum care.

Clara Campbell is survived by her daughter Lesley, son-in-law John Charlesworth, granddaughters Kate and Vanessa and great-granddaughter Emma.

Lesley Campbell and Graham Macdonald
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald