The AAHPSSS Dyason Lectures

Diana Dyason

The Dyason Lectures are presented by a distinguished speaker at each year’s AAHPSSS conference, in memory of Diana “Ding” Dyason (pictured above). The following éloge for Diana Dyason by Rod Home is reproduced, with the permission of the author, from Metascience 1990; 8(1): 6-10.

Eloge: Diana Joan Dyason, 1919-1989

With the death of ‘Ding’ Dyason on 30 September 1989, the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science lost its founding President and the community the Association represents lost one of its best loved and most widely respected members.

Ding was born in Melbourne on 10 July 1919. By her own later account,1 she was brought up in an environment where reading and discussion were actively promoted, children were treated as rational creatures, and it was simply assumed that women had the same rights as men: ‘I was never told’, she recalled, ‘that I wasn’t to do something just because it “wasn’t the proper thing for a girl”. I was free to do anything my elder brother did, provided I’d reached the requisite size and muscle power’. Thus encouraged, Ding grew up with an open and inquiring mind and a sturdy sense of independence that never left her. She was given unfettered access to her parents’ large library and it was doubtless there that she developed her love of books.

Much of Ding’s childhood was spent in boarding school, chiefly at Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, which she attended from 1928 to 1937 and which provided perhaps the best academic education available at the time for girls in Australia. The school moulded Ding in other ways, too. It was there, she recalled, that she developed her life-long love of poetry, helped by numerous hours spent in detention where she was required to memorize assigned poetry or prose passages but also had time to explore the rest of the relevant anthology. Later in life she took to writing poetry herself, full of wit and characteristically dry good humour. Painting and painters were also part of her life from early childhood. Her parents had an extensive collection of works by contemporary Australian artists, and Ding knew the painters as well as their work. In due course, she herself took up painting and discovered a considerable talent. Watercolour was her favourite medium, and over the years her work appeared in several exhibitions.

Ding’s family was a wealthy one – her father, Edward C. Dyason, a successful mining engineer and stockbroker, had accumulated a large fortune – and one that also had close connections with the University of Melbourne. Her father lectured to the Commerce students, her uncle Ernest (later Sir Ernest) Scott was professor of history, and several other professors – Skeats (Geology), Wadham (Agriculture), Giblin (Commerce), Priestley (Vice-Chancellor) – were close family friends. ‘At a very tender age’, Ding records, ‘I was taught poker by two professors and a vice-chancellor in the old stone hotel at Donnybrook’. At the end of school, she proceeded to University as a matter of course and eventually, as she puts it, ‘wafted into an academic career without thinking of it as anything unusual’.

Ding became a resident of University Women’s College (now University College) from the commencement of her undergraduate course in 1938, in only the second year of the College’s existence. She remained in the College throughout her student days and afterwards served for a number of years as a representative of former students on the College Council. Later in life she served another extended term on the Council during a particularly difficult period in the College’s history, fighting long and hard for the welfare of an institution to which she was deeply attached. Eventually she became a Governor of the College.

At university, Ding enrolled for the B.Sc. course, majoring in physiology where she came under the influence of the new professor, R.D. Wright, who was to become her long-term mentor in University affairs. Her course was interrupted by a trip overseas, to the United States, in 1940, and it was 1942 before she finished the degree. In those more relaxed days, it did not matter that she failed to pass Pure Mathematics I, even at the third attempt! She obtained honours in Physiology and Biochemistry and in 1943 was hired as a demonstrator in the Department of Physiology while she pursued the M.Sc. degree. The research for this was connected with the war-time drive for local self-sufficiency in pharmacological agents, and dealt with avian and mammalian malaria. Years later, Ding could still sometimes be persuaded to regale groups of friends with amusing accounts of her adventures (and misadventures) with the ecolonies of bats, canaries, ducks and various other beasts that she sought, usually unsuccessfully, to infect with malaria. She completed her thesis, entitled ‘Some aspects of plasmodial behaviour’, in early 1945, obtaining for it first class honours and the exhibition in physiology for that year. Afterwards, she continued on at the University, at first as research assistant to Professor Wright and then, from 1947, as Senior Demonstrator in Physiology.

In this latter position, one of Ding’s major responsibilities was to design and teach an introductory course in General Science for Speech Therapy students, most of whom had not previously been exposed to science in any formal way. This experience helped, I believe, to focus Ding’s thinking on the historical and methodological foundations of science, a subject in which the University of Melbourne had initiated teaching in 1946, one of the first universities anywhere to do so. Certainly Ding took an immediate interest in the new teaching programme, being doubtless encouraged in this by Professor Wright, who was one of the leading spirits behind its creation. At the end of 1949 she transferred to the new Department of History and Philosophy of Science as Lecturer, with special responsibility for teaching a course in Scientific Method that the department offered in those days for medical students.

That course, in which attendance at the lecture was compulsory but in which there was no assessment, was a very difficult one to teach, and few but Ding could have pulled it off. Attendance was subsequently made optional but, as Ding later recalled, ‘the five lecturers who at one time or another were involved in the course found the experience totally frustrating’.2 She herself was conscious of her lack of systematic knowledge of the subject she was required to impart, and so at the earliest opportunity she took a year’s leave – which eventually stretched to two – to visit and learn from the few overseas centres where similar work was being done. Harvard University, where J.B. Conant’s courses based on the famous Harvard Case Histories series had been introduced not long before, was a principal port of call, it being, according to Ding, ‘hard to overestimate the influence of Conant’s works on the courses for arts students developed by the H.P.S. department at Melbourne during its formative period.3 But she spent most of her time in London, sitting in on some of the courses being given at University College and at L.S.E. and also taking in a varied diet of seminars and colloquia. Ding returned home feeling confident, as a result of these experiences, about the approach being taken by the Melbourne department.

In 1957 Ding was promoted to Senior Lecturer. At almost the same moment she suffered serious head and other injuries in a car accident, some of the damage from which plagued her for the rest of her life. Scarcely was she back at work then Gerd Buchdahl, head of the Melbourne HPS programme for almost all its existence until then, resigned to take up a position at Cambridge. Ding became acting head of department and then, in mid-1958, was appointed Senior Lecturer-in-Charge. Promoted to Reader in 1965, she retained the headship of the department until 1974, when a new university statute that provided for elected chairmen of departments gave her the opportunity, which she seized at once, to abdicate. A year later, the University at last yielded to her long campaign to have a chair established in the discipline. She did not herself however apply for the position, choosing instead to be a member of the selection committee. She remained a Reader in the department until her retirement on 31 December 1984.

During her seventeen years as head of department, Ding worked ceaselessly to consolidate the department’s position within the university. In the process, the department was transformed from one with a largely service-teaching function into one which, while still providing a range of general educational courses for Arts and Science students, also had an active Honours and postgraduate school in which the discipline was pursued at an advanced level for its own sake. As the discipline gradually became established in other parts of Australia as well, Ding assumed a wider leadership role, at first informally, later in a more formal way. As noted earlier, she was elected foundation President of what was then called the Australasian Association of the History and Philosophy of Science at its establishment in 1967. She was also a founding member of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for History and Philosophy of Science when this was formed soon afterwards – indeed, she played a leading role in the discussions that led to the setting up of this Committee. Subsequently, she was an Australian delegate at two general assemblies of the Division of History of Science of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science, at Tokyo in 1974 and at Edinburgh in 1977.

In her teaching and research, Ding concentrated on the history of medicine, especially in relation to questions of public health. In her classes, she always insisted that students come directly in contact with the original historical sources and learn to read them carefully and critically. Her enthusiasm for these materials was contagious. The collections of documents that she issued to her classes each year became a by-word in the University for the fascinating materials they contained, while the class discussions based on them regularly stretched the minds of those involved. She also laboured long and hard to build up the University’s library resources to support the Department’s work, to such good effect that in this field the collection now rivals that of major libraries overseas.

Ding was a member of the audience on the famous occasion at Oxford in 1961 when T.S. Kuhn made his first public presentation of his controversial ideas about the mechanisms of theory change in science. In contrast to many of the others present, she found herself very much in sympathy with Kuhn’s emphasis on the significance of social factors in the process of scientific change. Thereafter, in her own work she turned increasingly to the social aspects of science. She took a close interest in parallel developments in Britain, especially the work of the inter-institutional SISCON (‘Science in Social Context’) group, and she was later, in the 1970s, instrumental in seeing teaching in Science, Technology and Society introduced at Melbourne.

Ding came to be widely known and highly respected throughout Australia for her work on the social history of Australian medicine. More than anyone else in the country, she helped bridge the gap between the lively but often untutored enthusiasm of medicos taking up the history of their discipline and the illiteracy, scientifically speaking, of most social historians. She had a profound knowledge of the practice of medicine in 19th-century Australia, and a remarkable familiarity with the relevant documentary sources; and these she freely shared with anyone who evinced a serious interest in these matters. At the time of her retirement, one day of the Second National Congress on Australian Medical History was dedicated to her, as were the subsequently published proceedings. Inevitably, she was elected to the steering committee set up during that congress as the first step in the formation of a national Medical History Society, and she later became the new Society’s foundation Vice-president. It had been anticipated that she would succeed as President, but the severe stroke she suffered eighteen months before her death put paid to that.

Ding did not have an extensive list of publications to her credit – indeed, she published only one item prior to giving up being head of department. Thereafter, however, she did produce a number of papers, together with a massive two-volume compilation of source material known as ‘Glorious Smelbourne’. She also produced, for distribution on microfiche to interested libraries and individuals, a comprehensive bibliographical register of doctors who practised in 19th-century Victoria, an extraordinary resource for future researchers. Even late in life, she remained diffident about publishing and, as those caught up in the maelstrom that tended to surround here when she was writing can testify, she never found it easy to bring into order the vast amounts of information she had at her disposal. However, she had a fine sense for the English language as well as a deep historical sensitivity, so that the end product was always well worth reading. Among her writings on medical history, the most outstanding in my view is her sensitive account of William Gillbee and the problem of erysipelas at the Melbourne Hospital (Journal of Australian Studies. [1984]), in which she displays in the manner of a Greek tragedy the way in which social factors – here, the personal and professional rivalries between doctors at the hospital – determined the impact of a new theory of disease, the germ theory, in setting styles of patient care. Ding was also persuaded to write two autobiographical pieces, one describing her childhood and youth, the other her period as an undergraduate at Melbourne University.4 In these, both her wisdom and her sense of fun and enjoyment of life are everywhere manifest.

Ding was a highly respected figure in all manner of activities. At the University, her wise counsel and her fearless habit of asking penetrating questions when they most needed to be asked made her, over the years, an invaluable member of both the Arts and Science faculties, as well as of bodies such as the Melbourne University Staff Association, University House, and the University Assembly. Her office was always open and countless individuals sought her advice on matters both personal and academic. Countless others enjoyed her generous, indeed legendary, hospitality. She was a great believer in, among other things, the beneficial effects on frayed nerves or damaged psyche of a bowl of nuts and a tumbler-full of Scotch whisky.

Both within and outside the University, if she felt something needed to be said, she said it. The directness of her approach is well captured in a letter she wrote in 1959 in response to some neo-fascist material she had received in the mail:


I do not appreciate your action in disseminating scurrilous invective with an antisemitic bias, nor do I appreciate your dissemination of ridiculous propaganda. This sort of activity is the work of an irresponsible moron. Be so good as to remove my name from your mailing list.


Diana Dyason

It was also manifest, most colourfully, in her astonished response to an ASIO operative who dared to express the expectation that ‘someone like her’ would wish to assist them in their inquiries. Only later did she regret the opportunity she may thereby have lost to become a ‘mole’ within the organization!

Shortly after her retirement in December 1984, Ding was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by Deakin University. At the University of Melbourne, the departmental library she had done so much to build up was named the Diana Dyason Library in her honour, and the portrait of her that was commissioned by her friends was hung there. She retained close links with her old department as a Senior Associate until disabled by her stroke. Life for her was never the same after that. The courage with which she battled her affliction was astonishing but surprised no-one who knew her. She was widely loved and is greatly missed.



1. D. Dyason, “Preludes”, in P. Grimshaw and L. Strahan (eds.). The Half-Open Door (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982), pp. 305-307.

2. D. Dyason, “After Thirty Years: History and Philosophy of Science in Australia, 1946-1976”, in Stephen Murray-Smith (ed.). Melbourne Studies in Education 1977 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1977). p. 56.

3. Ibid., p. 50.

4. Op. cit. (ref. 1); and in Hume Dow (ed.), Memories of Melbourne University: Undergraduate Life in the Years since 1917 (Melbourne: Hutchinson, 1983).

R.W. Home is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne.

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