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Diana Joan (Ding) Dyason (1919–1989)

by Monica MacCallum

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Diana Joan (Ding) Dyason (1919-1989), university lecturer and historian of medicine, was born on 10 July 1919 at Sandringham, Melbourne, second child of Victorian-born parents Edward Clarence Evelyn Dyason and his wife Anne Elizabeth, née McClure. Her family was wealthy and her parents were, she recalled, `sophisticated, free-thinking and rather unusual people’. Her childhood was shaped by her father’s trust in the power of reason and was often spent in diverse company, including that of several professors of the University of Melbourne; (Sir) Ernest Scott was an uncle by marriage. `Ding’ appreciated the academic rigour of her education (particularly in science) at Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. However, her lack of respect for authority was regularly reported, and was a characteristic she never entirely lost.

At the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1943; M.Sc., 1945), Dyason majored in physiology and bacteriology. She entered into life at the recently established University Women’s College with enduring enthusiasm (she was to be a member of its council in 1945-52 and a governor in 1961). Her postgraduate research in the physiology department (completed with first-class honours and an exhibition) was on malaria as a problem in general physiology. Through it she began to work closely with Professor (Sir) Douglas Wright, as his research assistant and, from 1947, as senior demonstrator in physiology. Wright’s strong belief that students should understand the history of their subject and the elements of scientific method led to the establishment of a department of general science in 1946. In 1950 Dyason became a lecturer in the renamed department of history and methods of science. The remainder of her career was devoted to the development of this pioneering Australian venture in a relatively new academic field.

Dyason began by lecturing to first-year medical students, leaving a memorable impression on many despite her frustration that the subject was compulsory but unexamined. Feeling under-equipped in both history and philosophy, she applied for leave to investigate teaching and research overseas. In Britain and the United States of America (1952-53), she attended relevant lectures and seminars wherever she could find them, including those by Karl Popper at the London School of Economics and Political Science. When she returned (after extended absence due to a skiing injury), the department had begun to grow: in 1954 Stephen Toulmin, on exchange from the University of Oxford, noted the vigour of cross-faculty discussions and, in an influential memorandum, recommended an expansion of staff, teaching and resources. In 1957 the department was renamed history and philosophy of science, and Dyason, now a senior lecturer, succeeded Gerd Buchdahl as its head.

Under Dyason’s leadership, student numbers increased, new courses were established and the department’s position within the university was consolidated. Her major teaching and research interests were in public health and germ theory, as displayed, for example, in her article on William Gillbee in the Journal of Australian Studies, 1984. While her publications were few, she was an inspiring teacher, innovative in her extensive and energetic use of primary sources, as in her resoundingly popular continuing education course `Glorious Smelbourne’, in which she collaborated with the folk singer Danny Spooner. Although she often seemed to be acting amid barely controlled chaos, students appreciated Dyason’s dedication and generosity. Determined, forceful and outspoken, she could seem formidable but nobody could be kinder to someone in trouble. Her wit and hospitable nature fostered a sociable, collegial atmosphere in HPS.

Beyond the department, Dyason was active in national and international scholarship, giving papers at conferences in Australia and overseas, and providing leadership in securing the professionalism she sought for her field. She was foundation president (1967) of the Australasian Association for the History and Philosophy of Science, a founding member of the Australian Academy of Science’s national committee for history and philosophy of science, and a delegate to the general assemblies (Tokyo, 1974; Edinburgh, 1977) of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science. As her successor Professor R. W. Home noted, `more than anyone else in the country’, Dyason `helped bridge the gap’ between the `untutored enthusiasm of medicos’ for the history of their discipline and the `illiteracy, scientifically speaking, of most social historians’.

Appointed reader in 1965, Dyason continued as head of department until 1975. She published an autobiographical piece in P. Grimshaw and L. Strahan (eds), The Half-Open Door (1982). Retiring in 1984, she was awarded an honorary D.Litt. (1985) by Deakin University. Outside the university, she wrote poetry, painted in watercolours and enjoyed bush-walking. She died of myocardial infarction on 30 September 1989 at Heidelberg and was buried in Andersons Creek cemetery. A portrait by Wes Walters hangs in the departmental library, which is named after her.

Select Bibliography

  • Metascience, vol 8, no 1, 1990, p 6
  • Diana Dyason papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Monica MacCallum, 'Dyason, Diana Joan (Ding) (1919–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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