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Erica Reid Underwood (1907–1992)

by Bobbie Oliver

This article was published:

Erica Reid Underwood (1907–1992), psychologist, broadcaster, education administrator and community worker, was born on 25 June 1907 at Albany, Western Australia, second child of Queensland-born William Jenkins Chandler, teacher, and his Scottish-born wife Jessie Reid, née Clough. She attended country schools and Highgate State School, Perth. Despite contracting typhoid fever in 1919, she won a scholarship next year to Perth Modern School, where she studied literature, languages, and history, and, ‘fascinated by the uniqueness of individual personalities, decided to become a psychologist’ (Lawson 1999, 96).

In order to finance her studies, Chandler spent two years (1925–26) as a school monitor while enrolled part-time at the University of Western Australia (UWA) (BA, 1929; Dip Ed, 1930). She became a full-time student in 1927 and took psychology subjects offered by the faculty of arts, the only training in the discipline then available in Western Australia. Although she obtained a cadetship at the State Psychological Clinic, she was not offered a position, due to government budgetary constraints. She completed her diploma of education and taught at Collie (1930–33) and in Perth at Claremont (1933-34). On 23 June 1934 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Perth, she married Eric John Underwood (1905–1980), an agricultural scientist.

The Underwoods had two sons and two daughters and, as the children became more independent, Erica accompanied her husband on trips abroad and found new fields of endeavour. In 1948 she was one of three women appointed as members of the children’s courts in Perth, Fremantle, and Midland Junction; they advised the magistrate on a range of matters including child custody and maintenance. On a trip with her husband to the United States of America in 1957, she visited children’s courts and studied juvenile delinquency. She found that Australian rehabilitation programs compared favourably with those in America.

In the 1940s Underwood had begun working in radio, assisting her friend Catherine King with the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Women’s Session, on which she gave talks and occasionally relieved as presenter. She and King were well known and valued by women throughout Western Australia, as a result of their broadcasting and visits to country areas. Underwood also tutored in psychology at UWA and lectured on juvenile delinquency; this work gained her membership of the British Psychological Society.

In 1974 Underwood was the first woman appointed to the council of the Western Australian Institute of Technology (later Curtin University), becoming the first woman deputy-chairman (1977–82). She served on numerous committees of the council, and was a director of the institute’s theatre company and a founder (1976) of its community radio station, 6NR. The institute awarded her an honorary doctorate of technology in 1981, the first woman to be so distinguished. She had been appointed MBE (1977) for her community work, which included membership (1973–81) of the Western Australian Arts Council.

Underwood spoke out on behalf of working wives. Addressing a Rotary luncheon in Perth in 1964, she advocated retraining, part-time work and ‘some acknowledgement of home duties’ by employers. She drew attention to the irony of society’s blessing married women for undertaking voluntary work while not approving of working wives, and she noted that research in many countries had ‘produced no evidence that working mothers affected family relationships’ (West Australian 1964, 22).

Erica Underwood was petite, with a neat, upright figure, hazel eyes, and a beautiful olive complexion. To the end of her life, she was proud of that fact that she looked younger than her age. She continued to work until her death and took an active part in the lives of her fifteen grandchildren. She believed that genuine satisfaction in life ‘comes from feeling that you are a useful person. Everyone needs to find her own feeling of identity and worth’ (Lawson 1999, 96). Survived by her children, she died on 1 February 1992 at Shenton Park and was cremated. Curtin University established Erica Underwood House in her honour.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Farmers’ Weekly. ‘Another Voice at the Mike.’ 21 February 1957, 20
  • James, Dawn. ‘This Trip to America Was Spent in Court.’ Australian Women’s Weekly (Western Australian edition), 12 February 1958, page number not known. Copy of article held on ADB file
  • Lawson, Jill. ‘Erica Underwood.’ In Material Women ’99: Quilts That Tell Stories, edited by Katie Hill and Margaret Ross, 96. Perth: Curtin University of Technology, 1999
  • Lawson, Jill. Personal communication
  • Reporter (Curtin University). 'Obituary Dr Erica Underwood.’ March 1992, 12
  • West Australian. ‘Special Terms Urged for Working Wives.’ 31 October 1964, 22.

Citation details

Bobbie Oliver, 'Underwood, Erica Reid (1907–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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