Lyndal Power | NSW state representative

Margaret Topham, a Sydney social worker, was in the first intake of students at MRI in Palo Alto led by Don Jackson and is recognised as the only non-American Foundation Member of AFTA. In 1969 she returned from training in California and began offering workshops in communication and family systems therapy to interested practitioners. Heavily influenced also by the work of Virginia Satir, her teaching was experiential in focus, highly skilled and greatly enhanced by her distinctive, colourful personality.

Though encouraged by some of her medical colleagues, as a female social worker it was impossible at the time to obtain many official resources. Demand for her teaching grew rapidly, including widespread support from a groundswell of medical practitioners which in those early years helped lay a strong foundation for multi-disciplinary enquiry and collaboration. There were so many requests she left the psychiatric unit where she worked to become the first Australian social worker in full-time private practice, seeing couples and families and offering workshops and presentations throughout Australia and New Zealand. The range of audiences was immense and she inspired many people. She became the first Honorary Life Member of the NSW Family therapy Association, a co-recipient of the first Journal Award for distinguished contributions to family therapy, and was made a member of the General Division of the Order of Australia.

She was quickly supported by Peter Churven (Redbank House), Terry Colling  (Relationships Australia), Max Cornwell and June Martin (UNSW) and Anneliese Stricker (Child Psychiatry Unit, Prince of Wales Hospital) who taught both independently and with Margaret, gradually introducing a wider theoretical and practice base. In 1977-8 Max Cornwell visited many centres in North America and the UK and on return besides other teaching established the Merrylands Project with Rosemary Pearson. This was heavily influenced by structural/strategic ideas and the communication theories of Watzlawick et al. along with an emphasis on developing the emergent uses of observer teams and one-way screens. Their work was published in Family Process in 1981.

During the mid-1970s a range of informal and agency-based study groups began to meet, fostered by local presenters and then visits by Framo and Satir. In 1979 and not long before the first national family therapy conference, Peter, June and Max drafted the constitution of the NSW Family Therapy Association to enhance links between the groups and Peter was elected as its first President. For many years the Association had very active meetings at the NSW Institute of Psychiatry in its then home at Rozelle Hospital. Because of earlier links with Margaret, the Institute lent its support to family therapy.

Recognizing the need for more sustained teaching programs, in 1981 the Family Therapy Institute was launched by Margaret, June, Max, John Barrand and Don Lawrence. Meanwhile Terry worked to develop a program within Relationships Australia NSW (then Marriage Guidance NSW) and this began a few years later, with Kerrie James as Coordinator of Training after return from studying at the Family Therapy Program in Calgary. Other Calgary trainees of the 80s were Laurie MacKinnon – who had trained in the Milan Approach with Karl Tomm and brought her own rigour to issues of gender and child abuse – and Ron Perry, who started introducing family therapy perspectives into the Institute of Counselling and many auspices within the Catholic Church. In 1983, Max spent extended periods at the Institute of Juvenile Research, Chicago and Centro Milanese di Terapia della Famiglia which deeply affected his teaching. By this time a number of local therapists were beginning to engage with various learning opportunities overseas as well as in Australia and increasing numbers of international visitors started to offer workshops.

A pervasive emphasis in those early years was a strong grassroots commitment to multi-disciplinary learning along with many ground-breaking innovations in teaching formats. This democratic impulse also found expression in widespread efforts to challenge dominant hierarchies, to humanise the therapeutic role and to offer pathways for therapists to learn by direct observation and to be observed working collaboratively with others. That period fortunately coincided with the introduction of major developments in recording technologies.

Both Peter Churven and Margaret Topham were foundation members of the Board of The Australian Journal of Family Therapy and NSW members have always played a significant role in many aspects of the Journal’s life. By chance, from 1985 to 2016 its Editors have continuously been located here.

Max Cornwell