Scholar led way in strengthening the profile of occupational therapists

PROFESSOR SUSAN ESDAILE Occupational therapy educator 5-2-1938 - 11-5-2013


Occupational therapy educator

5-2-1938 - 11-5-2013

Professor Susan Esdaile has died peacefully near her home in Melbourne after a long illness that reduced her physical energy, but never her intellectual curiosity, creative enthusiasm or desire to support and promote her friends and colleagues. She was 75.

A woman ahead of her time and a true scholar, Professor Esdaile inspired and encouraged an era of practitioner and academic occupational therapists. As one of the first occupational therapists in Australia to obtain a PhD, she led the way in establishing occupational therapy as a serious academic profession in Australia.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Susan Koves and her parents migrated to Australia in 1948, one of the last wave of migrants before the communists closed the borders to the West. They settled in Sydney, where Susan attended a Catholic boarding school while her parents worked to establish a new life in their adopted country.

A bright child from a long line of well-educated working women, Susan excelled at school, matriculating in the top 5 per cent in New South Wales and obtaining a Commonwealth Scholarship to study any course of her choosing at the University of Sydney. In something of a pragmatic move, she opted for occupational therapy (OT) over medicine, knowing that her convent education (where botany was the only science on offer) left her woefully underprepared to tackle the syllabus of a medical degree. Also, the shorter course in OT offered a faster route to financial independence and the chance to start saving for the boat passage to England.

In London, Susan worked predominantly as a locum OT. However, it was during this time that she also had the only job from which she was fired. Employed to sell sewing machines in the deprived area of east London, she instead showed working mothers how to fix their existing machines and was let go by her employer after not making a single sale. It was this early exposure to the condition of working mothers in poor neighbourhoods and the challenges they faced in bringing up their children that no doubt laid the foundation for her later research on mothering occupations.

Returning to Australia in 1960, Susan worked in the cardiothoracic unit at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. Her observations of the significant challenges faced by women with heart disease in managing their daily tasks as wives and mothers led her to apply for a research grant with the Heart Foundation. She was successful, becoming the first occupational therapist in Australia to receive a research grant of any description - the first stepping stone in a long and distinguished academic career.

In 1966, Susan married Roderick Esdaile, a Melbourne-based CSIRO research scientist she met while skiing at Thredbo. They settled in north Carlton, renovating a terrace house, and had two daughters. During the 1970s, they spent three years in Scotland, where Roderick completed his PhD in electrical engineering and Susan taught at the Glasgow School of Occupational Therapy.

Returning to Australia in 1979, Susan became a lecturer in occupational therapy at Lincoln Institute of Health Sciences (later to become part of La Trobe University). During the 15 years she spent at Lincoln, Susan was heavily involved in curriculum review and inspired in her colleagues that you could contribute to community wellbeing in a broader way than simply teaching. She led by example via her research, publications and in all the voluntary professional activities in which she was engaged. It was during this time that she worked with mothers of young children in the western suburbs of Melbourne and completed her PhD in education and behavioural health sciences at La Trobe University. Her publications from this time are still widely used by early-childhood educators.

Susan developed an international reputation for her research on mothering occupations, and mothering and disability, and in 1995 was appointed professor and chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She remained at Wayne State until her "retirement" in 2003. During her time at Wayne State, Susan was responsible for bringing more focus to evidence-based practice and established a number of important collaborations that strengthened the role of occupational therapists in the community.

On returning to Australia, Susan was appointed honorary professor in occupational therapy at both Monash University and the University of Sydney. She was also appointed professor emerita at Wayne State, acknowledging her significant contribution to that institution and to the development of research and scholarship in occupational therapy during her tenure.

During her professional career, Susan published extensively. She also served on the editorial board of several academic journals and edited two books that have made a major contribution to the critique and future development of occupational therapy as a profession. Many of her colleagues recall her role as a valuable mentor to faculty, her enthusiasm for life and support on both a personal and professional level.

"Susan was a unique, creative individual who always was thinking of others before herself. She will be greatly missed as a friend and colleague," said Professor David Bassett, from Wayne State University's School of Medicine.

Susan's elder daughter, Anna, pre-deceased her in 1993, and her husband, Roderick, passed away in 2008. She is survived by daughter Lucy.

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