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AILSA BURNS PSYCHOLOGIST 6-12-1928 26-3-2012



6-12-1928 26-3-2012

AILSA Burns slept with ABC News Radio playing at her bedside. Even when roused in the night, her overactive mind would demand to be learning.

The associate professor was a pioneer in the study of families but, despite her accomplishment and international profile, she never ceased to be a student. Burns, who has died of cancer at the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst, Sydney, aged 83, spent her waking hours cultivating her knowledge.

She collected and traded information. Even the most mundane subjects were intriguing to her and, by her later years, she could converse confidently on an astonishingly broad array of topics.

The second child born to a well-to-do family in Melbourne, her father, Jim Thompson, was the chief engineer of Nauru, and her mother was Alma (nee Clemenger). A brilliant student, she was educated at St Catherine's School Toorak, before going on to Melbourne University where she took an arts degree, majoring in French. She was captivated by the liberal, free-thinking culture that was encouraged at university and fascinated by the diverse intellectuals there.

Among those who inspired her was a former serviceman, Bob Burns, four years her senior and studying English and philosophy. She was struck by the way the working-class student viewed the world. They began a romance and married in 1952.

The relationship was volatile, but they admired each other greatly and were devoted to their three children, Lucy, Kate and Dugald.

After working as a governess on a Queensland cattle station, then as a secretary and a journalist, Burns was intellectually restless as a stay-at-home mother. Bob was working as a high school teacher and she enrolled in a master of arts in the newly emerging field of psychology. In 1965, Bob took up a lectureship at the University of New South Wales and the family moved to Sydney's eastern suburbs, living among other Melbourne expats.

She began the next chapter of her studies with a PhD in psychology, on the topic of hypnosis. Her children were her favourite test subjects and frequently volunteered to be hypnotised at the kitchen table. Her daughters recall a pet rat, Percy, who lived with them in exile from the laboratory.

The family spent 1971 in London for Bob's sabbatical year. Burns worked as a trainee therapist at Middlesex Hospital, while he developed his book on Australian literature, The Directions of Australian Fiction (1975). In between, they travelled extensively in Europe, lugging around a huge metal trunk full of correspondence work for their high-school-aged children. When they returned to Sydney, Burns rose through the ranks at Macquarie University, from senior tutor to associate professor to research associate in retirement. She taught a range of courses, concentrating on aspects of lifespan development. She was inspired by her students and loved to engage in intellectual debate, often over a glass of wine. While teaching she researched rigorously, undertaking a number of longitudinal studies in the field of family and lifespan.

Her first book, Breaking Up, was published in 1980, and discussed the benefits of divorce for women and children trapped in bitter marriages. The research was controversial and she became a target of threats by angry fathers' groups.

Inspired by observations of her own children, she wrote many articles and books about child development, childcare and the effect of changes in family structure on children. She later collaborated with her daughter, Lucy Burns, on works about inter-country adoption.

Her vigour diminished temporarily after Bob died in 1993 from a heart attack. But, after withdrawing for a few years, she emerged more energised than ever. Her life appeared to mirror her own research, which found that many women are happier in their 60s, feeling they have left the stormy seas behind them.

Despite retiring in 1998, she continued to immerse herself in countless projects. She supported remote family and children's services, mentored PhD students and became involved with the Mercy Refugee Service, often rising at dawn to collect families from the airport or accompany them on bureaucratic errands.

She lent her voice to those she believed were overlooked in policy debates and, at the age of 79, enrolled in a masters in international politics, graduating in 2010 (with honours) with a thesis on the power of the Israel lobby in Australia.

This led to an intense engagement in the Palestinian debate, which she wrote articles about for online publications such as

Her politics became increasingly radical in her later years. She campaigned for the Greens at the past few elections but thought the party, of which she was a member, was becoming too conservative. Her Paddington home was a centre of books, ideas and debate. Unwitting visitors could find themselves pressed on their views of global capitalism, Syrian politics or the state of Israel.

Despite her well-considered opinions, Burns dealt her blows with a velvet glove. She was never aggressive and rarely argumentative. With an adventurous spirit, Burns was an avid traveller. She was invited to join the first women's delegation to China in 1981, and visited the United States, Europe, south-east Asia, Scandinavia, France and the Middle East (she is pictured, right, on a donkey at Petra, in Jordan), as well as other countries.

Her own backyard was an opportunity for exploration the birds and vegetation were the subjects of her scrutiny. Centennial Park offered serenity in an endlessly dynamic life and she would stroll between the ponds, looking out for new ducklings. Until her health deteriorated, yoga, walking and swimming kept her body strong.

Burns never surrendered her pursuit to understand the world. Even in her final months she was turning up to lectures at Sydney University, suffering cancer, with a cushion in her hand, to learn about the Arab Spring.

She is survived by her children Kate, Lucy and Dugald, and her grandchildren Maxwell, Campbell, Tatch and Bee.

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