Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Helen Muir Bearpark (1942–1996)

by Judith Dwyer

This article was published online in 2023

Helen Muir Bearpark (1942–1996), psychologist and sleep researcher, was born on 16 April 1942 at Kilwinning, Scotland, elder child of Isabella Muir Reid, née Gray, hosiery knitter, and her husband John Reid, schoolteacher. Educated at Ochiltree Primary School, where her father was head teacher, and at Cumnock Academy, Helen left school at sixteen and worked as a laboratory technician at the Hannah Research Institute near Ayr. From an early age she was keen to travel and had a strong sense of adventure.

Reid moved to Sydney as an assisted immigrant in 1963 and worked as an air hostess. She married James David Bearpark, a laboratory technician, on 15 August 1966 at the Presbyterian Church, Double Bay. Her marriage meant the loss of her job at Trans-Australia Airlines under industry policy of the time, and she subsequently trained and worked at the Children’s Hospital in Sydney as an electroencephalogram (EEG) technician. Her two daughters were born in 1970 and 1971.

In 1977 the family moved to Silicon Valley, San Francisco, United States of America, where James had accepted a job as an information systems specialist. After settling the family, Helen found part-time work with an employment agency, and subsequently as an EEG technician. In 1979 she was recruited by Sharon Keenan, chief sleep technologist at Stanford University, whose clinic was a leader in a small and rapidly developing field. There Bearpark decided on a career in sleep research.

After a year in England for James’s work, the family returned to Sydney in 1981. Bearpark studied psychology at Macquarie University (BA, 1986) graduating with first-class honours. Her thesis focused on adolescent sleep, a topic prompted by the experience of one of her daughters. The thesis demonstrated both her rigorous approach to everything she did and her interest in the human impact of sleep disorders. During this period, she attended national and international meetings and established long-lasting friendships and collaborations in the field.

Bearpark commenced a research and clinical role at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1985. With Colin Sullivan, inventor of the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, and Ron Grunstein, she worked on the cognitive effects of CPAP treatment on memory and concentration. She made a significant contribution to setting up Australia’s first sleep clinic at RPAH, and established an annual training program for sleep technologists, regularly bringing Keenan to Sydney to teach.

In 1989 Bearpark commenced doctoral studies at the University of Sydney (PhD, 1996), supervised by Sullivan. Her research, conducted in Busselton, Western Australia, was the first epidemiological study of sleep disorders in Australia. With little money but with her characteristic enthusiasm and ability to attract others to work with her, she arranged an international research team, acquired the necessary equipment, and demonstrated that sleep testing could be done at home. She and her colleagues published part of the Busselton study in 1995, documenting the prevalence of snoring and sleep apnoea in an Australian population, particularly in men. During her doctoral candidature, she also prepared a report (1990) for the New South Wales Road Safety Bureau on the risks of road accidents caused by sleep disorders, and published a popular book, Overcoming Insomnia: What Is Causing Your Sleeplessness and What You Can Do About It (1994).

Bearpark subsequently undertook postdoctoral studies (1995–96) under the supervision of Mary Carskadon at Brown University, Rhode Island, United States, where she worked on sleep aspects of menopause and road safety. She then took up a short-term position with Keenan at Stanford. On 19 December 1996, when she was about to return to Australia, she was struck by a motor vehicle and killed at Sausalito, near San Francisco. Her husband and their two daughters survived her. Her early death ‘shocked the sleep community worldwide’ (Wright and Lack 2015, 71) and cut short the career of ‘one of the most influential Australian figures in the world of sleep medicine’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1996, 54).

Bearpark’s significance was both as a researcher and as a leader. Known by her friends in the field as ‘the mother of sleep medicine’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1996, 54), she is remembered as a dedicated researcher with an incisive mind, who loved to travel, to connect people, and to have fun. She was a founding member (1988) and the first secretary of the Australasian Sleep Association and a founding member (1995) of the Australasian Sleep Technologists Association. The ASA honoured her enduring contribution with a travel scholarship for sleep researchers and a plenary session at its annual conference.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Bartlett, Delwyn. Interview by author, 20 May 2022
  • Bearpark, Anna. Interview by author, 14 June 2022
  • Bearpark, Ruth. Interview by author, 20 June 2022
  • Carskadon, Mary. Interview by author, 1 July 2022
  • Grunstein, Ron. Interview by author, 15 June 2022
  • Guilleminault, Christian. ‘In Memoriam: Helen Muir Bearpark.’ Sleep 20, no. 3 (1997): 240
  • Keenan, Sharon. Interview by author, 29 June 2022
  • Sullivan, Colin. Interview by author, 1 August 2022
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Helen Bearpark: 1942–1996.’ 28 December 1996, 54
  • Wright, Helen R., and Leon C Lack. How to Sleep Better: The Secrets of Sleep from the World’s Leading Sleep Experts. Re-Time Pty Ltd, 2015. Accessed 5 August 2021. https://www.re-timer.com/how-to-sleep-better.pdf. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

Citation details

Judith Dwyer, 'Bearpark, Helen Muir (1942–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bearpark-helen-muir-32751/text40718, published online 2023, accessed online 16 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Reid, Helen Muir
Birth

16 April, 1942
Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland

Death

19 December, 1996 (aged 54)
Sausalito, California, United States of America

Cause of Death

motor vehicle accident

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