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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McLeod, Neil (1909–1993)

by Katherine Beard

This article was published online in 2019

This is a shared entry with Audrie Lillian McLeod

Neil McLeod (1909–1993) and Audrie Lillian McLeod (1912–1992), co-founders of the Spastic Centre of New South Wales (later the Cerebral Palsy Alliance), were husband and wife. Neil was born on 8 July 1909 at Rupertswood, Pinjarra, Western Australia, fourth of six children of New South Wales-born Herbert Augustus McLeod, farmer, and his Victorian-born wife Clarice, née Bowden. Brought up by his aunt and uncle following the early death of his parents, Neil left home aged twelve to work in the wheat fields. He later studied accounting, and sold and installed accounting machines in Perth.

On 23 November 1932 at the Congregational Church, Claremont, Perth, McLeod married Audrie, a trained nurse then working in a solicitor’s office. She was born on 6 October 1912 at Claremont, sixth child of New Zealand-born Alfred Mell, carpenter, and his Western Australian-born wife Henrietta May, née Pass. On 9 August 1938 their first child, Jennifer, was born with cerebral palsy. A paediatrician advised them to ‘put her in a home and forget her’ (McLeod 2007, 13). The couple were convinced that there had to be another option.

Having been ruled medically unfit for military service in World War II, in 1943 Neil accepted a role in Sydney as a liaison officer in the Department of War Organisation of Industry. This brought the young family to Gladesville. At a time when little was known about ‘spastic paralysis’ (as cerebral palsy was then called), they had begun conducting their own research into how best to assist their daughter. Their ‘breakthrough’ (McLeod 2007, 19) came with the discovery that Jennifer was actively engaging with the Australian Broadcasting Commission Kindergarten of the Air radio program as she listened from her high chair. They contacted the program presenter, Ruth Fenner, who featured Jennifer in an article in the ABC Weekly. The consequent exposure put the McLeods in contact with other parents of children with cerebral palsy who could not find services to meet the children’s developmental requirements. Building on this groundswell of support, and with the donation of part of a house in Mosman by the wealthy local merchant Arthur Sullivan, the McLeods founded the Spastic Centre to provide much-needed educational and medical services for children with cerebral palsy.

The Spastic Centre opened on 30 January 1945 with fifteen children. With the support of the minister for education, Robert Heffron, and working together with a small number of therapy and teaching staff, the parents provided outpatient services, treatment, and schooling. Audrie took on the role of honorary superintendent, with Neil as chairman of the board and honorary treasurer. By the end of 1945, the number of children attending the centre had increased to forty. No fees were charged for their treatment and the cost to run the facility in the first year was $14,000. As there was no government funding or private endowment, the McLeods principally relied on fund-raising to provide services.

From 1948 Neil worked as a branch manager for Burroughs Ltd, while remaining in his roles at the Spastic Centre. The Australian Cerebral Palsy Association was established in 1952, and in 1955 Audrie was elected president. The demand for cerebral palsy service provision continued to grow and in 1958 a facility for country-based children, later known as McLeod House, was opened. Neil’s aim of creating a facility where people with and without disabilities could work together was realised with the formation in 1961 of Centre Industries, a factory that, by 1974, employed around three hundred people with disabilities who worked side by side with two hundred able-bodied people. Jennifer was one of its employees. Resigning from the Spastic Centre in 1974, Neil became the full-time managing director of Centre Industries.

The Miss Australia Quest (later Miss Australia Awards) became the major fund-raising activity for the national network of Spastic Centres from 1954. The Australian Cerebral Palsy Association ran it until 1995, when the Miss Australia Company took over its management. Between 1954 and 2000 when it closed, the Miss Australia competition raised around $90 million nationwide for services for people with cerebral palsy.

Audrie was appointed MBE in 1959, and elevated to CBE in 1977, while Neil was appointed OBE in 1969 and selected as New South Wales Father of the Year in 1979. The McLeod Society of Japan, which had adopted many of the methods developed in Australia, was named in their honour. Having retired as honorary superintendent in 1982, Audrie remained a director of the Spastic Centre until 1988; Neil had left Centre Industries in 1986. Audrie died on 5 October 1992 at Seaforth, and Neil died on 31 October 1993 at Chatswood. They were both cremated. Their second daughter, Robyn, survived them; Jennifer had died in 1986. Based on their motto ‘Nothing is impossible,’ Neil’s and Audrie’s work and world-leading vision for people with cerebral palsy continued in the twenty-first century. Their legacy was in human capital as well as institutional, with Robyn (by then Robyn Way), her son Jeremy, and her daughter Melissa, all working in the field of disability services.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Beard, Katherine. Miss Australia: A Retrospective 1908–2008. Hindmarsh, SA: Crawford House Publishing, 2001
  • Cerebral Palsy Alliance. ‘The McLeods.’ Accessed 28 February 2018. Copy held on ADB file
  • McLeod, Neil. Nothing Is Impossible: Adventures in Cerebral Palsy. Allambie Heights, NSW: The Spastic Centre, 2007

Citation details

Katherine Beard, 'McLeod, Neil (1909–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 29 October 2020.

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