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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dibden, William Andrew (Bill) (1914–1993)

by Maureen Bell

This article was published online in 2017

William Andrew Dibden (1914–1993), psychiatrist, was born on 22 March 1914 in Sydney, elder son of Frederick Samuel Dibden, printer’s clerk, and his wife Ann, née Andrew. When Bill was eleven the family moved to Adelaide; he attended Prince Alfred College, where he excelled scholastically and participated in debating, cadets, and tennis. He became school captain in 1932. Having won a government bursary, in 1933 he enrolled in medicine at the University of Adelaide (MBBS, 1939). His studies were interrupted in 1934 when he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis; the illness precluded an application for a Rhodes scholarship, to which he aspired. In later years he was convinced that his experience as a patient during the long road to recovery left him with a heightened empathy for the weak and dependent.

Being considered unfit for active service in World War II, Dibden entered general practice in 1940 at Murray Bridge. On 20 July at St John’s Church, Adelaide, he married Shirley Newsome Barton, who later championed the cause of children with specific learning difficulties. On 1 October 1941 he began full-time service as a captain in the Citizen Military Forces. He initially performed general medical duties at Woodside. In November he attended a twelve-week course in neurology and psychiatry in Melbourne, after which he was deployed as the psychiatrist at the 105th Australian Military Hospital, Adelaide.

On his discharge in March 1943 Dibden worked at Parkside Mental Hospital. He also established a psychiatric outpatient department at the Repatriation General Hospital, Keswick, in June the same year, and in 1945 he relieved as administrator at Enfield Receiving House, gaining his first experience of running a hospital. The following year he entered private practice as a psychiatrist and was a founding member of the Australasian Association of Psychiatrists (AAP). Seeking further training, he studied at the University of Melbourne (DPM, 1948) and the next year he took his family to England, where he studied at the Maudsley Hospital in London under (Sir) Aubrey Lewis. There he came to appreciate that the complexities of mental disorder made diagnosis ‘difficult and treatment uncertain … causation complex and solutions rarely simple’ (Dibden n.d., 75–76).

Returning to Adelaide in 1951 Dibden resumed private practice, as well as taking on honorary roles (later paid) at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital. In 1954 he was chairman of a standing committee of the South Australian Council of Social Service on Mental Health. The South Australian Association for Mental Health was formed in 1956 to raise public awareness of the plight of the mentally ill, and to improve training for professionals. Strongly supporting the association’s emphasis on mental health over mental illness, and prevention over treatment, he became executive chairman, and later president (1956–66). The association successfully launched an appeal in 1960 to establish a chair in mental health at the University of Adelaide; the first professor was appointed two years later.

The AAP was reformed as the Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists in 1964, and in 1965 and 1966 Dibden was president. In his presidential address he noted the change that was underway in psychiatry; ‘the walls have been lowered round our hospitals and the doors opened without public protest’ (Dibden 1967, 13). He was appointed director of Mental Health Services on 7 December 1967.

During 1975 Dibden chaired a ministerial committee to review the existing mental health legislation for the State, and was actively involved in its revision. A new Mental Health Act was assented to on 12 May 1977. It included provision for a Guardianship Board, and a Medical Review Tribunal to safeguard the interests of patients and allow external scrutiny of medical decisions. Becoming director-general of medical services later that year, he considered his greatest administrative achievement to be ‘an education programme for psychiatrists in training and the evolution of a new mental health act’ (Dibden n.d., 159).  He was appointed AO in 1978. After retiring in March 1979 he wrote a biographical history of psychiatry in South Australia. His empathy, energy, warmth, and integrity endeared him to many, and enabled him to achieve ground-breaking changes in mental health, to advance the rights of the mentally ill, and to foster significant improvements in psychiatric training. Survived by his wife, four daughters, and son, he died on 17 October 1993 at his home in Adelaide, and was cremated.

Research edited by Kylie Carman-Brown

Select Bibliography

  • Dibden, William Andrew. ‘In the Looking Glass.’ Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 1 (1967): 713

  • Dibden, William Andrew. ‘A Biography of Psychiatry.’ Unpublished manuscript. University of Adelaide Library. Accessed 30 March 2017. Excerpts held on ADB file

  • Forbes, Ian L. D.  From Colonial Surgeon to Health Commission: The Government Provision of Health Services in South Australia, 18361995. Myrtle Bank, SA: Ian L.D. Forbes, 1996

  • Holt, Averil G. Hillcrest Hospital: The First Fifty Years. Victoria: The Hillcrest Hospital Heritage Committee, 1999

  • Kay, Henry T. 18701970: Commemorating the Centenary of Glenside Hospital. Netley, SA: Griffin Press, 1970

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Maureen Bell, 'Dibden, William Andrew (Bill) (1914–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 19 September 2020.

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