Her Story: Rushall Park resident Alison Campbell – Australia’s first Chief Physiotherapist

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Her Story: Rushall Park resident Alison Campbell – Australia’s first Chief Physiotherapist

March 2, 2020

Alison Campbell, who lived in 21 Coppin Avenue from 1976 until she left for palliative care, was a woman who liked to keep busy, enjoyed the company of animals, and loved to travel. She was also a leader in her professional field, physiotherapy.

By all accounts, the former Rushall Park resident was a woman who liked to grab life by both lapels and give it a good shake. She also liked to bend the rules.

Indeed, as Anne Jeffery, the Association’s indefatigable executive assistant to the then Manager, recalled that Alison owned a ginger-white and black cat who ‘stalked in her wake to where her car was parked, waited, tail stiffly erect, until the car door was opened, then jumped in the passenger seat and looked about with a superior air while waiting to go shopping.”

Cats then, like now, were not permitted in the village.

Born in Geelong and of Scottish heritage, Alison studied physiotherapy in Melbourne from 1922 to 1924, becoming an honorary physiotherapist at the Royal Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital when she finished studying.

In 1926, she left for England returning two years later to become the first physiotherapist to set up a clinic in Melbourne’ Collins Street. It was a bold departure from the norms of physiotherapy practice in those days but as far Alison was concerned, physiotherapy had a role to play outside the hospital walls.

Continuing her pioneering streak, she lectured in remedial gymnastics (now called exercise gymnastics) where her students, according to Australian Physiotherapist Association member Pat Cosh, recalled her requiring high standards in return for well-deserved praise.

Many of the patients were children with scoliosis, and Alison began to specialise in this area, not least because there were few treatments for the condition. She began writing a thesis on the subject while travelling to England by freighter in late 1948. Two years later her thesis was accepted for a fellowship of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (formerly CSMMG). Her theory, innovative for the time, was that scoliosis was containable through the application of a rigid exercise regime. While abroad she lectured on the subject in the United Kingdom and United States of America. Her principles became standard practice, and continue to this day.

Alison was one of the first physiotherapists to enlist at the outbreak of World War 2, where according to Pat Cosh, she may even have lied about her age to meet eligibility criteria.

She served in military general hospitals in Egypt, Libya, and Palestine from February 1941 to January 1943. In Egypt, her love of animals was well known throughout the troops: she kept a pet goat called Daffodil, a much-spoiled bovine. Her focus was on treating thoracic patients, including re-education soldiers how to breathe after chest wounds.

Throughout her army career, Alison was a staunch supporter for women’s rights. As Chief Physiotherapist, she reorganised the service and fought equal pay for men and women.

Variously described as ‘jolly, optimistic’ and ‘a great raconteur’ Alison was known for her determination and forthright opinions, and for having ‘a tremendous empathy for her fellows, particularly those physically disadvantaged’ (Herald Sun 1995, 69).

She identified strongly with her Scottish heritage, helping to found the Victorian branch of the Clan Campbell and she was a long-time member of the Presbyterian Scots Church in Collins Street, Melbourne.


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