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Research Areas

The histories of childhood, education, social welfare, medicine, mental illness, eugenics and disability in late-nineteenth and twentieth century Australia.

I consider the relationship between expert understandings of these areas and popular discourses: how everyday people adapted and responded to new scientific paradigms, and positioned their own experiences in relation to changing professional knowledge.


PhD Candidate, Department of History, The University of Sydney

Submission expected 2014.

Thesis: ‘Help Us, Help Them: How Australian parents understood the problem of mental retardation and what they did about it, 1945-70.’

Supervisor: Professor Stephen Garton.

My doctoral research asks how Australian parents understood childhood disabilities in post-war Australia, and examines the measures they took to alleviate what they saw as a pressing social problem. Drawing on previously underutilised archives, the popular press, and a diverse range of private and government publications, my thesis sheds new light on questions of citizenship, welfare, and family life during and after the long 1950s.

BA (Hons), Class 1, The University of Sydney, 2007.


Thesis: ‘Caring for Their Children, Forever: Parent-run organisations for children with intellectual disabilities in New South Wales, 1950 – 1968.’

Supervisor: Professor Stephen Garton.

My honours thesis took a broadly interdisciplinary approach, examining the emergence of a group of non-government, parent-led organisations which opened schools, sheltered workshops, and other facilities for ‘mentally subnormal children’ in New South Wales after the Second World War. I considered broad changes in post-war conceptions of families, citizenship, voluntarism and the welfare state, and how these changes enabled parents and professionals to conceptualise ‘mental deficiency’ in new, often problematic, ways.

Examiners reports described the thesis as

a very original and insightful analysis of why parental groups emerged in post WWII Australia… [it] incorporates a range of approaches – welfare history, institutional history, and the social and cultural history of institutionalisation… This is an outstanding thesis, one of the best I have examined in the last 20 years.

Future Research

‘”Rehabilitation Nation”: Civilian rehabilitation in post-WW2 Australia.’

‘What is Normal? Lay understandings of deinstitutionalisation and normalisation programmes in late twentieth century Australia.’

Publications and Other Output

Publications (Peer Reviewed)

2011. Earl, Dave. ‘”A Group of Parents Game Together”: Parent advocacy groups for children with intellectual disabilities in post-WWII Australia.’ Health and History 13, no. 2: 84-103. <JStor stable url>

2009. Earl, Dave. ‘Help for Children and Their Families: Presenting “subnormal” and “spastic” children to the public in 1950s New South Wales.’ antiTHESIS 19: 148 – 61.

Publications (Other)

2010. Earl, Dave. ‘Weapons of the Boxer Uprising.’Signals no. 89, Dec 2009 – Feb 2010: 16-20. <Informit stable url>

Conference Papers

2014. “Why They Are In Children’s Homes: Explaining the Persistence of Residential Care for Unadoptable, Difficult, and otherwise Problematic Disabled Children.” Australasian Social Welfare History Workshop, University of Tasmania, Hobart, 10 – 11 February.

2013. “Transformative technology and disabled bodies in Post-WWII Australia,” Mobilities and Mobilisations in History, Australian Historical Association National Conference, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, 8 – 12 July.

2012. ‘”Habilitating the retarded”: Why sheltered workshops for “mentally retarded” Australians became “terminal”, 1945-1970,’ Connections: Australian Historical Association National Conference, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, 9 – 13th July.

2011. ‘”The Association for Aiding Educable Children Only:” Communities, power, and categories of disability in Australian voluntary organisations for disabled children, 1950 – 1965,’ Welfare and Power, Australasian Welfare History Workshop, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, 15 – 16th November.

2011. ‘”Our Tasmanian Secretary laments that some teachers in that State… think all their pupils feeble-minded”: Eugenics, rural culture and conceptions of intellectual disability in Australia, 1911 – 1928,’ History at the Edge, Australian Historical Association Regional Conference, University of Tasmania, Launceston, 4 – 8th July.

2010. ‘”A Group of Parents Came Together:” Parent advocacy groups for children with intellectual disabilities in post-WWII Australia,’ Australasian Disability Studies Symposium, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, 6 – 7th August.

2010. ‘Revisiting Dr. Benn: The many meanings of intellectual disability in a murder,’ Reviewing History, Australian Historical Association National Conference, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia, 9th July.

2010 ‘”Homes for our Children”: The establishment of voluntary, parent-run institutions for intellectually disabled children and adults in post-WWII Australia,’ Australasian Social Welfare History Workshop, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 18th February.

2008. ‘Help for children and their families: Presenting “subnormal” and “spastic” children to the public in 1950s New South Wales,’ Exhibitionism: Representing Identities, antiTHESIS Conference, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia, 25th July.

Invited Papers & Public Talks

2013. Panellist, ‘Social and Digital Media Panel,’ Presenting the Past: A Symposium on History and the Media, Mitchell Library, Sydney, Australia, 11th September.

2013. ‘Hawkevale Farm Colony,’ A Picture and A Thousand Words, History Council NSW History Week, Sydney, Australia, 9th September.

2013. ‘The Sad Story of John Carey Guest,’ What’s Hot in History, Royal Australian Historical Society, Sydney, Australia, 17th April. <Listen online>

2011. ‘The Humanities Ph.D. at Sydney,’ Gateway: The PhD and its Future, St. Paul’s College, Sydney University, Australia, 8th August.

2009. ‘Researching Childhood Disability at the Library,’ National Library of Australia, Canberra, 23rd January.

Awards, Grants and Scholarships (Postgraduate)

2012               Australian Policy & History CAL Internship.

2011                Department of History Grant-In-Aid.

2011                AHA CAL Bursary Workshop, Launceston.

2009                Summer Scholar, The National Library of Australia.

2008 & 2009   PRSS Postgraduate Travel research Scheme.

2008                Australian Postgraduate Award.

2008                Australian Pioneer’s Club Travel Bursary.

2008                Postgraduate Master Class, University of Tasmania.

Awards, Prizes and Scholarships (Undergraduate)

2007                University of Sydney Honours Scholarship.

2006 & 2007   Walter Reid Book Prize.

2006                Venour V. Nathan Essay Prize for Australian History.

2006                Sydney University Arts Association Prize in History III.

2006                University of Sydney Continuing Undergraduate Scholarship.

2005 & 2006   Dean’s List of Meritorious Students.

2005                George Arnold Wood Memorial Prize for History II.

Other Awards

2013               Australian Historical Association Featured Blog (January).

Teaching Awards

2013               ITL Student Commendation (HSTY2677: Australia Politics and Nation).

2012               Dean’s Citation for Excellence in Teaching.

2013               ITL Student Commendation (HSTY2614: Australian Social History).

Professional Service

2013                               Convenor, A Picture and A Thousand Words, NSW History Council History week.

2013                                Co-convenor, “THATCamp #OzHA2013,” Wollongong.

2012 – Current           Book Reviewer, History Australia.

2011 – Current            Reviewer, History in the Making.

2010 – 2013                Postgraduate Representative to the Australian Historical Association.

2010                                 Co-convenor, “New Directions,” Sydney University History Postgraduate Conference.

2009 – Current            Book Reviewer, H-Disability, H-Net (

2008 – 2009                Postgraduate Representative to the History Department, University of Sydney.

Teaching Expertise

Australian social history.

Welfare history.

Social movements and protest.

Theory, method and historiography.

Transnational and international history.

Teaching Experience

Associate Lecturer, Australia: World War One to Whitlam

Semester 2, 2013.

The Koori Centre, The University of Sydney.

I was sole lecturer for this social history survey course taught in the Koori Centre, Faculty of Education and Social Work. This unit was taught as part of a Bachelor of Education (Secondary: Aboriginal Studies), which enables students of Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds to undertake study whilst living in their communities away from Sydney.

I was responsible for the preparation and delivery of all lectures and tutorials in this unit, as well as all marking and feedback for the students.

While student attendance in the final block of the unit prevented statistically significant feedback being collected, open responses to a “Teaching in Lectures” evaluation indicated that students were satisfied with the course: “Dave was very enthusiastic about the topic area,” “had a great understanding of the content,” “spoke in an engaging manner” and “Dave was able to use language that connected me to the past.”

Course Coordinator, Australia: Politics and Nation

Winter Session, 2013.

Department of History, The University of Sydney.

I was course co-ordinator and lecturer in this small (8 student) Winter School intensive course. The Winter School session allows students to complete a full semesters’ study in a turbo-charged timeframe: two lectures and one tutorial a day, four days a week, for three weeks.

I further developed the curriculum Matt Allen and I had prepared for the previous semester, replacing a small number of readings that were poorly received, and substantially re-drafting the assessment tasks.

Responses to both the “Teaching in Lectures” and “Unit of Study” evaluations were outstanding, gaining a mean score across all indicators of 4.68 and 4.58 respectively. For instance, 100 per cent. of students strongly agreed that I had great lecture slides and audio visual aids; 100 per cent of students agreed that I was enthusiastic about the topic; 100 per cent of students agreed that I stimulated their interest in the topic area; and so forth.

Open responses included: “Dave was a truly outstanding lecturer… Without a doubt Dave is one of the most committed and friendly academics I have encountered in 5 years at Sydney,” “I have never before enjoyed Australian history, [but] this is easily one of the best units of history I have studied so far,” and “What are the best aspects of this unit of study? Dave Earl.”

Tutor & Guest Lecturer, The Human Rights Revolution

Semester 1, 2013.

Department of History, The University of Sydney.

Course Coordinator: Dr. Marco Duranti.

I tutored three classes of 25 students in course, which surveyed the remarkable rise of human rights discourse in the twentieth century. I also presented a guest lecture on the history of human rights and disability, with a particular focus on the sexual sterilisation of women and girls with intellectual disabilities.

82% of students agreed or strongly agreed that I effectively supported their learning (with the majority of the remainder neutral). 94 per cent. of students agreed that I had a firm grasp of the subject matter, and 94 also agreed that I came to class well prepared. Open responses included “great tutor, really enjoyed the course,” and “Dave was a very insightful tutor, who provided interesting viewpoints which engaged my learning within tutorials.”

Guest Lecturer, Australia Politics and Nation

Semester 1, 2013.

Department of History, The University of Sydney.

Course Coordinator: Mr. Matt Allen.

Matt Allen and I substantially reworked this course, originally drafted by James Curran. We aimed to focus more on the social aspects of Australian history. Believing that the words of politicians only have purchase when embraced by “ordinary Australians,” we sought to contextualise the course’s straightforward “political” aspects with broader considerations of the Australian people, and particularly conceptions of what it has meant to “be Australian” at different times.

I presented two guest lectures to the course, which explored immigration in Australia from settlement until the present day, and considered the effect of immigration policy and practice on our conceptions of nationhood and citizenship. These lectures were well-received. A podcast of the first lecture is available at:

This course was very well received by students, gaining an average assessment feedback mean of above 4.43 out of 5. 100 per cent. of students agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the quality of the course. These results are a testament to Matt’s impressive teaching abilities, as well as to the planning and structure of the unit.

Tutor & Guest Lecturer, Australian Social History

Semester 1, 2012.

Department of History, The University of Sydney.

Course Coordinator: Associate Professor Penny Russell.

As the sole tutor to this large (150+ student) course, I am responsible for co-ordinating tutorials for five classes, and undertaking all marking for this unit. The course has allowed me to utilise (and further develop) my broad, contextual understandings of Australian history.

A summary of student feedback about my teaching during the course is available on my teaching page. I’ve also reflected on my experiments with Twitter during the course.

I presented a guest lecture to the unit entitled ‘Suburban Domesticity: A dream come true?’. The lecture situated new understandings of masculinity, femininity, and ‘the Australian way of life’ in the broader context of post-Second World War Australia.

Guest Lecturer, Australian Social History

Summer School, 2012.

Department of History, The University of Sydney.

Course Coordinator: Mr Matthew Allen.

“The Rise of the Nuclear Family in Australia.”

In this course I presented a guest lecture to the Department’s Summer School. The lecture drew a broad-brush picture of changes in Australian society which led to nuclear families being understood as a fundamental element of the ‘Australian way of life’. Areas covered included the extension of compulsory education, suburban expansion, child welfare measures, and changing understandings of masculinities and femininities, and representations of families in Australian popular culture.

Tutor, The Spanish Civil War

Semester 2, 2009.

Department of History, The University of Sydney.

Course Coordinator: Associate Professor Judith Keene.

My duties in this position included tutoring three classes and marking approximately half of the unit’s assessments. This was a challenging, but fulfilling, unit to teach as it was outside my major area of expertise. Open-format feedback showed that my students were overwhelmingly pleased with the quality of my teaching and the course as a whole.

Professional Development

2009                  Tutor’s Development Course, Faculty of Arts, The University of Sydney.

2008 – 2009    Intern, Curatorial Department, Australian National Maritime Museum.

Professional Memberships

2008 – Current            Australian Historical Association.

2009 – Current            Disability Historians’ Association.

2010 – Current            History Council NSW.

2011 – Current            Australia and New Zealand Society for the History of Medicine.

Last updated October 2013.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. HPMW permalink
    February 5, 2011 11:13

    Hey Dave,

    I’ve recently stumbled across your blog after joining the Australian Historical Association.
    I must concede that your literary footprint is astounding, and the grounds for your Honours thesis incredibly moving considering the sensitive nature of intellectual disabilities in the period you have written about.

    As a fledgling History/Politics student of UNSW I have long aspired for the same career you seem seem adeptly and confidently striding towards.

    From what I’ve read so far (excuse the blog stalking) you appear to be very conscientious and admittedly these qualities are inspiring for a young student wishing to culminate his studies with a Doctorate in History.

    Presently I am looking to the University of Sydney as a place to transfer soon to continue my BA. If I can successfully do this perhaps our paths may cross. Who knows?


    • March 28, 2011 13:40

      Thanks very much, I’m flattered! Best of luck with your studies.

  2. Brydan permalink
    September 29, 2011 11:15

    Hi Dave,

    I am also a PhD candidate at USYD in the department of sociology & social policy – I am examining the use of standardised tools by clinicians in the diagnosis/assessment of autism spectrum disorders. I just stumbled upon your blog in my attempts to find out more about the Benn case (a substantial part of my thesis is putting together a history of autism within the Australian context, and this has led me down the path of reading about the institutionalisation of children).

    I am very interested in your research, and I am also curious if you have come across many references to autism in your historical research? Perhaps if you have any free time and you are at main campus we could meet to discuss?


    • September 29, 2011 12:14

      Hello Brydan,

      I’d be more than happy to discuss this with you, and will send an email to arrange this.

      The short answer is no. As far as I am aware no one ever discusses autism during the period which I focus upon. As you’re probably aware, the concept of Autism was not popularised in Australia until well into the 1970s. The parents and professionals that I deal with had little or no knowledge of autism, and, as far as I can see, the category simply didn’t exist.

      That is not to say that children who would today be classified as autistic were not cared for by the parent groups that I research. They probably were included in the category of mentally subnormal children. But as a historian I don’t think it is my role to attempt to retrospectively diagnose children using current classifications.

      I’ve actually been working on a blog post that deals with some of these issues, it should be up over the next couple of days.

  3. Linda permalink
    May 16, 2012 06:13

    Hi Dave, I’m writing the history of Achieve Australia, am sure you know it, a kind of history/marketing document, so not exactly university text book stuff. I wonder if I could have a look at your thesis (A group of parents came together…). Also perhaps a chat sometime, to get the nuances right. I’m not an historian, however am trained in science so am a bit particular about the facts, and a writer by trade now, fascinated by the human story, so this book will be very personable too, which is what they want. Anyhow, look forward to hearing from you, though these posts are rather old… Linda

    • May 16, 2012 08:04

      Hello Linda, Yes, I’m very familiar with Achieve. I’d be more than happy to chat. I’ve sent you an email.

  4. Rebecca Kummerfeld permalink
    August 13, 2013 16:56

    Hi Dave, we met at the AHA conference last year – not sure if you remember me. I am also a PhD student at Sydney. I am just in the process of applying for the Dean’s citation for excellence in tutorials. I noticed you won it last year (congrats!) and was wondering whether you’d be willing to share your application with me, so I can get an idea of what is expected? I’d be very grateful if you could help out!

    • August 14, 2013 10:09

      Hi Rebecca,

      I’d be more than happy to share the application with you– I’ve emailed it.


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