The activist life of Dr Janet Irwin and my activist response in researching and writing her story
thesisposted on 06.12.2017, 00:00 by Susan Currie
My PhD thesis, entitled ‘The activist life of Dr Janet Irwin, and my activist response in researching and writing her story consists of a biography, ‘A Prescription for Action: the life of Dr Janet Irwin, and an exegesis, ‘Biography, motivation and writing the life of Dr Janet Irwin’. My research question led me to investigate how a woman born in 1923, who grew up in a remote area of New Zealand, came to be a leader in the provision of university health services in Australasia, and a successful activist on social justice issues, particularly those involving women. It also led me to explore the link between my subject’s activism and my own activism in researching and writing about her life, and, from this, the importance of motivation for biographers. The biography describes the influence of Janet’s father, who set up a healthcare service which even today is viewed as innovative, and the impact of the early death of her brother. It recounts how she completed her medical degree in her forties when her children were teenagers, and how she discovered she had siblings in Scotland. In Edinburgh, Janet worked with children with psychological problems, and was influenced by the new school of thinking on psychosocial development. Offered a position at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, she carried out original research which challenged conventional thinking on a range of issues relevant to student health, came to view the doctor-patient relationship as the focus of medical practice, took part in her first political rally, and declared herself a feminist. 1974 saw her relocate to Australia and take up the role of Director of Student Health Services at the University of Queensland where she focused on the importance of teamwork, again carried out relevant research, played a role in changing the nature of medical education and practice, and was appointed to the National Better Health Commission. She mentored female students and general practitioners, ensured that the university developed a broad view of occupational health and safety, and played a major role in improving the status of women staff and students. She was an activist on health and women’s issues at the community level and the national level as well as at the university. Her retirement from the university saw her take up an active role on the Criminal Justice Commission, charged with the reform of a corrupt system. She continued to speak out on issues of social justice and campaigned for A Woman’s Place to honour the achievements of women. The exegesis validates the disciplinary context of my work as practice-led research within the field of creative non-fiction in the creative arts. It outlines the evolution of biography; how both literature and history have, at various times, both claimed biography and rejected it from their domains; and the impact of this research on my biography. It explores the context of Virginia Woolf’s stance that biography is not an art, and suggests that her problems with the form related to her problems with motivation in writing one. It claims that motivation is a significant factor for biographers, and that novelists hold biographers in low esteem for reasons related to motivation. It details my own motivation in wanting to understand what made Janet such an unusual woman for her time and how she achieved what she did; wanting to honour her life as a fellow feminist; and seeing her as a role model for others wanting to make a difference to society. It also describes the process of writing the biography, including my experimentation with biographical form before returning to a fundamentally narrative, chronological approach.