Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Reginald Spencer (Reg) Ellery (1897–1955)

by Sebastian Gurciullo

This article was published:

Reginald Spencer (Reg) Ellery (1897-1955), psychiatrist and author, was born on 12 August 1897 at Rose Park, Adelaide, son of Torrington George Ellery, secretary to the city's mayor, and later town clerk in Melbourne (1914-24), and his wife Mabel Alice, née Wood. Educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Reg studied medicine at the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1923; M.D., 1930). Most of his energies went into writing critical articles for daily newspapers and periodicals. Arthur Phillips, a fellow student, remembered Ellery cultivating an outdated bohemian pose which, despite its elegance, was slightly ludicrous, 'nearer to Oxonian practice than to the no-nonsensicality of Melbourne'. Ellery's style was partly derived from his mentor Professor W. A. Osborne whose flamboyant mix of physiology and poetry appealed to the aspiring young writer. These literary ambitions were at odds with the wishes of his domineering father who was determined to see his son enter a respectable profession. In 1921 Ellery edited the medical student's journal, Speculum, and sparked public outrage over the lewd material it contained.

On 26 June 1918 Ellery suspended his studies to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. He was discharged at his own request on 20 November. Shortly after receiving his first professional appointment with the Victorian Lunacy Department as junior medical officer at Kew Hospital for the Insane, on 22 June 1923 at Holy Trinity Church, Kew, he married with Anglican rites Mancell Flo Kirby, a pianist and music teacher. Next year he was again embroiled in public controversy. In retaliation against his hastily imposed reforms to their negligent routines, the general medical staff made a series of accusations against him. The affair culminated in a royal commission (1924) which found the allegations to be unfounded. For his part in stirring up trouble, the Lunacy Department authorities transferred Ellery to Sunbury Hospital for the Insane.

Under Dr J. K. Adey's supervision at Sunbury, Ellery developed a greater understanding of psychiatry; together they were responsible in 1925 for the first successful application in Australia of Wagner-Jauregg's malarial-fever treatment for general paralysis of the insane. With this work Ellery firmly established his reputation. He became assistant to the psychiatrist at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital's out-patient clinic, and, as such, was the first asylum officer in the State attached to a teaching hospital. Ellery began contributing to the Medical Journal of Australia, discussing such innovations as Sigmund Freud's avant-garde practices. In 1928 he was appointed medical officer of the new Mont Park mental hospital and was invited to deliver the annual (William) Beattie Smith lecture.

Constrained by the Lunacy Department's regulations, Ellery resigned in 1931; he set up a Collins Street practice as a psychiatrist and was honorary consultant psychiatrist at the Alfred Hospital. He defied the department's monopoly on mental health care by opening at Malvern in 1933 'the first private psychopathic hospital in Victoria'. In 1936-37 he visited the Soviet Union and Europe, ostensibly to investigate treatments for schizophrenia, and was entertained by Freud's daughter Anna at their home in Vienna. A member of the British Psychological Society, from 1938 Ellery allied himself with a group of progressive psychiatrists led by Dr Paul Dane. In establishing the Melbourne Institute for Psycho-Analysis in October 1940, the group encountered opposition from both the Federal government and the local branch of the British Medical Association.

Although he never became a party member, Ellery was attracted to communism. During the early 1940s he published several pamphlets and books which prescribed communism as a panacea for mental and social ills. This stand led to some professional isolation and, Ellery believed, to his failure to be reappointed to the Alfred Hospital in 1946. His enthusiasm for communism waned, but he continued to advocate a radical restructuring of society based on scientific planning and a greater use of psychiatric tools. An essayist and writer of poetry, Ellery was also a peripheral figure in the Angry Penguins movement. He provided the artist (Sir) Sidney Nolan with examples of drawings by psychotic patients which influenced his work, in particular a series of 'heads' exhibited in 1943. Ellery used one of them on the cover of his book, Psychiatric Aspects of Modern Warfare (1945), published by John Reed and Max Harris.

After suffering from rheumatoid arthritis for eighteen years, Ellery died of cancer on 27 December 1955 at Prahran and was cremated. He had just completed The Cow Jumped Over the Moon (1956), a mannered and eccentric autobiography which, through its compassionate but uncompromising account of the care of the mentally ill, made a significant contribution to medical history. His wife, who had continued to pursue her musical career, winning recognition as a harpsichordist, survived him, as did their son.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Semmler and D. Whitelock (eds), Literary Australia (Melb, 1966)
  • R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors (Melb, 1981)
  • H. Dow (ed), Memories of Melbourne University (Melb, 1983)
  • B. Head and J. Walter (eds), Intellectual Movements and Australian Society (Melb, 1988)
  • Melbourne University Magazine, 1946-47, p 20
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 21 Apr 1956
  • Quadrant, 7, no 1, Sept 1963, p 5
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 26, no 3, Spring 1967, p 313
  • S. Gold, 'The Early History of Psychoanalysis in Australia' (address to the Freud Conference, Lorne, Victoria, Apr 1982
  • Ellery collection (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sebastian Gurciullo, 'Ellery, Reginald Spencer (Reg) (1897–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024