Professor Joan McMeeken at the launch of her book, 2018. Photograph: University of Melbourne, Faculty Of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences via Flickr

A Historical View on Physiotherapy at the University of Melbourne

Since retiring from a distinguished career in physiotherapy, Professor Joan McMeeken AM has devoted much time to researching the history of physiotherapy at the University of Melbourne – the first university to teach it in Australia.

While formal studies began in 1906, the university only formed a dedicated School of Physiotherapy in 1991 after energetic campaigning by students and practitioners. Joan was the school’s Founding Professor and Head of School, as well as Associate Dean for the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences from 1991 to 2007.

Wanting to conduct rigorous historical research, Joan took up a PhD within the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) Program after her retirement. This research is published in her book Science in Our Hands: Physiotherapy at the University of Melbourne, 1895–2010. In this interview, Joan was kind enough to discuss her work with current HPS PhD candidate, Samara Greenwood.

After such a full career in physiotherapy, what led you to take up a PhD in history and philosophy of science?

I always had a PhD on my agenda, but my work life was very busy.

In 1991 I was invited to establish the School of Physiotherapy at the University of Melbourne. I was only the second professor in health sciences and only the eighth female professor in the university. A lot of the time I was representing women, as well as doing my day job. As a third generation feminist, I felt that was important to do.

Most days I left home at about seven o’clock in the morning and left work at seven o’clock in the evening. At night, I was still reading committee papers as well. There was no way I could take time off to do a PhD. It wasn’t until I retired that it became feasible.

While I was working, I had kept a research program going but it was either laboratory or clinical work. When I retired, I decided to research the history of physiotherapy at Melbourne University. This mattered as it was the first place in Australia to teach physiotherapy, beginning formally in 1906.

I wanted to do the investigation in a properly disciplined way, so I talked to some colleagues in history. Professor Janet McCalman suggested she could co-supervise if Dr James Bradley joined her. And, so, I returned to study. The privilege of exploring new ideas and discussing them with Janet and James was immensely satisfying.

Could you briefly describe your thesis?

In my thesis, titled ‘Science in our Hands’, I investigated the history of physiotherapy at the University of Melbourne from 1895 to 2010. In 1989 I had marched with fellow physiotherapists to campaign for physiotherapy education at the University of Melbourne. While the university had contributed to educating physiotherapists since 1906, it was only in 1991 that it took full responsibility for a School of Physiotherapy.

Through my research, I wanted to document the largely unknown history of physiotherapy education and practice in Victoria. I focused on the identity development and professionalisation of physiotherapists through those decades.

There was always a high percentage of women involved from the earliest days. In many ways, the development of physiotherapy paralleled, even preceded, feminism. For example, physiotherapy pioneered registration for female-dominant health professions. The only health groups registered beforehand were medicine, dentistry and pharmacy. Physiotherapy preceded nursing and many others. Also, female physiotherapists were in such demand that they were allowed to continue working after marriage, unlike teachers, nurses and others employed in the public service who had to resign. In physiotherapy, groundbreaking work on equality occurred quite early.

I hadn’t realised there was such an interesting pioneering element for women in physiotherapy. Was there an early influence of strong women?

That appears to be part of it. For example, there was the celebrated physiotherapist Eliza McCauley, who surreptitiously undertook studies in the anatomy school at the University of Melbourne in the late 1890s. Eliza then became the first formally appointed clinical teacher in the physiotherapy course when it began in 1906. After retiring from 20 years in teaching and practice, Eliza set up a guest house in Healesville and continued to treat important patients, including the governor of Victoria, who went on to become the governor of Australia. There is a large Victorian volume, called the Cyclopedia of Victoria, that documents eminent people of the time and Eliza was the only female profiled. Pioneering women like Eliza made connections and used them to benefit physiotherapy.

What did you enjoy most about your PhD experience?

The privilege of being able to spend time reading widely, which I may not have done if I was writing independently.

I was also lucky enough to interview some early practitioners, who were then in their 90s. They were able to expand on details which I hadn’t known about. As people get older, they are also franker. Some of the things I learned would not be appropriate to write about but they were fascinating to learn about! I deliberately interviewed people across a wide range of ages, from recent graduates to the oldest living members of the profession.

In the interviews, I would begin with a few trigger questions, but we often went off track. I found I learnt more by going off track than staying strictly to the questions. I did around 60 interviews altogether, each of around two hours. My typing is not super-fast, so transcribing was not fun, but I did like going back through the material and remembering what we had talked about.

I was also privileged to be awarded the Stella Mary Langford Scholarship. I didn’t expect that, and I made sure I found out about Stella. She was a single woman who was a teacher and left all her money to the university. I found it important to find out about her and her heritage.

As well as oral history, you also did a lot of work in the archives, did you enjoy that?

I loved it. I absolutely loved ferreting around the Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) archives, which were housed in a Wilson’s storage facility. It was dusty and dirty, and the light was on a timer switch and so would continually go off. A lot of the material was stored up high, so it was relatively dangerous and difficult to get, but every now and again you found a treasure.

In the late 1980s, some APA members had decided it was important to do a history project and took oral histories. Unfortunately, the interviews were recorded on tape and, when I found them, I discovered they were no longer readable. It would have been fantastic if they had been properly transcribed but they weren’t, they had only been summarised. Luckily, they were very good summaries and provided me with a wealth of information.

Of course, the University of Melbourne Archives were a totally different story. They were wonderfully organised and made available in a specially designed room in the Baillieu. However, it did mean you couldn’t ferret around and find things you didn’t expect. I also went overseas to the Wellcome Library in London. It was a fabulous place to go. The archives were just fantastic.

What are you working on next?

Pre-COVID I had been investigating the story of polio and physiotherapy. I have done interviews with people who survived polio and I have written a little on that for Pursuit.

Until recently, physiotherapy hasn’t been particularly engaged in its history. It is only since I finished the PhD that an international [physiotherapy] history association has developed. So, one of my post-retirement projects has been to strongly advocate for looking after our history, respecting it and using it.

Professor Joan McMeeken AM (second from left) at the launch of her book with (L to R) Head of the Department of Physiotherapy, Professor Jenny McGinley; Professor Shitij Kapur, then Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Science; and Professor Janet McCalman AC, 2018. Photograph: University of Melbourne, Faculty Of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences via Flickr

Any final words?

I don’t think you’re ever too old to do a PhD. If you have a topic you’re quite passionate about and would like to follow up in more detail, it is a great, disciplined way of completing it.

Professor Joan McMeeken is a Professorial Fellow of the University of Melbourne. Her previous research and interests included physiotherapy education and accreditation, health promotion and health management. Her historical work has also included work under the Australian Research Council grant, Diggers to Veterans: Risk, Resilience and Recovery in the First Australian Imperial Force. Professor McMeeken has also discussed her book in an interview with Dr Dave Nicholls for the International Physiotherapy History Association and has been interviewed several times on the ABC.

Feature Image: Professor Joan McMeeken at the launch of her book, 2018. Photograph: University of Melbourne, Faculty Of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences via Flickr