Yeomans, Neville Thomas

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BSc 1948 MB BS 1955 DPM 1958 DS (UNSW) LLB (UNSW)

Neville Thomas Yeomans established Fraser House in Sydney in 1959. This was Australia’s first family-based centre for alcohol and drug addiction and associated neurosis. He also played a pivotal role in the instigation of many other humanitarian organisations during the ‘60s and ‘70s and was an advocate of multicultural and indigenous rights in Australia.

Neville was born in Sydney in 1928, but his father was a mining engineer and took his family all around northern Australia to try their luck at prospecting. These were important years for Neville, during which many aspects of his character were moulded. Not least, Neville believed that his life was saved by an aborigine when he was lost in the bush at four years old and as this was the basis of his life-long concern with the plight of Aboriginal people.

Completing his schooling at Scott’s College in Sydney, he went to the University of Sydney to graduate with a Bachelor of Science (Biology) in 1948, and a Bachelor in Medicine and Surgery in 1955. It being people’s minds that fascinated him most, however, he completed a Diploma in Psychological Medicine in 1959. That same year, he won an overseas scholarship enabling him to meet some of the world’s leading psychiatrists.

He was appalled to observe the methods used at the time to treat psychiatric disease (especially shock treatment, which he regarded as a crime) and on his return from overseas he established and became the Director of Fraser House at North Ryde Psychiatric Clinic. The centre housed Australia’s first family therapeutic community with accommodation for some 86 adults and children. Yeomans had a revolutionary contextual approach that treated psychiatric disease on a family and community basis instead of treating just the individual. Patients were able to be rehabilitated to return to society rather than being locked away out of sight and restrained with drugs and straight-jackets. Many of his peers did not understand this radical approach to treatment, and Neville was frequently vilified for being out of step with the main stream of things. It is interesting to note that 40 years later, his approach to psychiatric treatment has become the norm rather than the exception.

During the period from 1959 to 1972, he ran ‘healing community’ courses for Indigenous people in Sydney, in country New South Wales and at Alice Springs in Central Australia. He was the Coordinator of Community Mental Health for the New South Wales Health Department from 1965 to 1970. As his interest in community work developed, he undertook a Diploma in Sociology at the University of New South Wales, to better understand the social aspects of human responses, completing it in 1963. He also broadened his study interests to other cultures and their values and, passionate about multiculturalism, joined the Australia Eurasian Association in the late 1960s. (He met his second wife Lien, through the Asia Club at the University of New South Wales.)

He went on to complete a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of New South Wales in 1975 and was admitted to the Bar. However, his own experience of divorce led him to be more interested in mediation than litigation. Finding the Western legal system inadequate he chose to study the mediation systems used in China. He studied Japanese and Chinese languages and travelled to Asia, Europe and the Americas on several occasions over the years.

In 1975 he moved back to North Queensland, where he became engrossed in working with Aboriginal people. He conducted a private psychiatric counselling and family therapy practice, facilitated community support for Aboriginal and Ethnic groups, established ‘Healing Haven’ houses in North Queensland, and assisted in the creation of a black women’s shelter in Cairns.

In the early 1980s he became interested in and a keen qualified practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), which was a revolutionary way of treating emotional disorders and of helping people overcome psychiatric illness and addictions. He and a friend, Terry Widders, set up NLP Centres in Cairns, Townsville in Queensland, and in Bondi Junction, Sydney.

In 1987 he was a Consultant to Petford Aboriginal Training Farm in far North Queensland and from 1989 to 1994, facilitated ‘camp-outs’ Intercultural Healing Training Festivals in the Atherton Tablelands and at the Petford Aboriginal Training Farm. In 1990 he was an Adviser to the Australian South Sea Islander United Council. In 1992 he organised and attended (with his son) the Alternative World Environment Summit in Brazil, at which the world aborigines conducted a parallel environmental summit. In 1994 he was on a Steering Committee for Training on Torture and Trauma in 1994.[1]

Neville died in 2000 and left the bulk of his estate to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities of North Queensland. He also left “three unpublished volumes of poems, a small professional library and a giant bundle of keys and address stamps in Brisbane”. According to Lien:

Whenever he settled down even for a short period he would buy a place, usually run down and out of the fashionable area, to set up his consultation room. He would have a new set of keys and a new address stamp made. When he moved to the next place he would use the old place as a half way house for his patients and he would return to visit them regularly.

We used to call him the travelling soul salesman.[1]

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Yeomans, Neville Thomas. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.