Doctors Who: Dr Eric Dark and Writing

by Michelle

I have just put out a load of washing on a sun-filled, late-summer’s day. All morning the water dragon and the feral rabbit have been playfully posturing in the grass. I have a day away from the surgery, when it it is possible to read, maybe write, in between the interruptions of housework and school. I enjoy this indulgence, of course, and yet the practice of medicine permits me to focus, to view problems, primarily physical, but with social and psychic elements, microscopically. 

In preparation for a fundraising dinner to honour the legacy of Dr Eric Payten Dark, husband of the novelist Eleanor Dark, I’ve been thinking about his life and work. His biographies suggest an extraordinarily, gifted man, a rock-climber, a lover of nature, a practising GP for 57 years, a pioneer of diathermy, new tuberculosis treatments, a socialist writer and activist, whose concerns were with health, progress, modernity. Despite his significant writing achievements, Eric Dark’s life was that of a committed and dedicated general practitioner, a man who was devoted to support his wife’s innovative and illustrious literary career.

Eric and Eleanor’s lives embodied the beautiful collaborations of medicine and literature, the public and the private, the practical and the abstract. Many of Eleanor Dark’s novels reference medical themes from feminist and socially progressive perspectives. Her novel Prelude to Christopher challenges a prevailing national resistance to scientific enquiry with its themes of biology, eugenics, culture. Like novels by Christina Stead and HG Wells, its utopian narrative hybridises genre. Clearly there were psychological pressures for the Darks, living as they did during a time of censorship, gender and race repression but both Eric and Eleanor appreciated that medicine was a discourse of colonialism and nation. Their beautifully complex lives attest as much to the power of silence as to the power of words, to the need to preserve the environment, to live in harmony with Nature’s laws, as well as to defend social justice.

Eleanor Dark once told an interviewer  “My books have been written at intervals snatched from years as a housewife . . . it is impossible to keep a home going in Australia unless one is busy most of the time”. Busy, yes, but sustainable and complex.  I should leave this piece now, and have lunch and pick my daughter up from school soon. But I’ll be thinking more about the Darks over the next few weeks, and I feel deeply privileged to participate in honouring their contributions to literature and social medicine.