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Conference Paper: Reviewing Dr. Benn

July 13, 2010

The Australian Historical Association’s biennial conference, “Reviewing History,” came and went last week. A wonderful event, and a great chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues, and meet some new ones. I was particularly proud of the large contingent of postgrad students from The University of Sydney, every one of whom presented an excellent paper (or two).

My turn was on Friday morning. It’s always hard to compress any argument down to twenty, presentable, minutes, especially while trying to express some nuances and complexities. For quite a while I was struggling to keep this paper to a reasonable length. Luckily, it emerged that Professor Charlie Fox had been working on a paper on the “parent’s groups” in the 1950s, which took a lot of the background work away from me. Charlie’s paper was great, and a solid introduction to my paper. The other paper on the panel, Caitlin Mahar’s discussion on the links between eugenics and euthanasia in the early 20th century, made for a wonderfully rounded discussion.

I think my paper was fairly good. I would like to have spent more time on the States Grants Act debates, and should probably have drawn more explicit links to the “home vs institution” debates and the Benn case. In retrospect, the conclusion is also a bit feeble, and could certainly be strengthed before I submit this as an article.

This is Maurice Benn, head of the German Department here at the Uni of West Australia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1951, he’d married Irene, a German, and together they’d moved to Perth to further Maurice’s career. For years they tried for a baby, but it was not until 1959 that their first son, Bernard, was born. Needless to say, they were overjoyed.

Their excitement, however, soon turned to unease. At age two, Bernard was still not toilet trained; he didn’t speak a word. Examination by paediatricians confirmed their  fears: Bernard was “physically normal, but mentally backwards.” As Bernard grew, his parents’ distress increased. In early 1964, Maurice invited a physician friend to the family home, seeking a personal opinion on Bernard. The news was bad. Bernard “would have to spend his life in an institution, at first… an institution for retarded children and later an asylum.”[1]

That Sunday, while Irene was showering, and Bernard was asleep in his cot, Maurice sat at his desk and penned a letter to his wife. “My dear Irene,” he wrote, “I didn’t dare tell you before… But the Doctor told me [Bernard would never] lead a normal, happy life… he will have to go through his whole life in a state of mental derangement… I must save him from such a terrible fate at all costs… and you from complete collapse.” Signing the letter with love, Maurice grasped the rifle he kept in his study, crept into Bernard’s bedroom, and shot his son dead.[2]

The story of the Benn family was revealed to the public two months later, when Maurice’s trial hit the headlines of every major newspaper in the country. Western Australia was one of the few states which maintained mandatory death sentences, and the nation held its breath as the jury, after just three hours deliberation, disregarded Maurice’s plea of insanity and found him guilty of murder. Over the following fortnight, as the public waited for the almost inevitable commutation of Benn’s sentence, a media storm descended. Newspapers across Australia were flooded with letters of concern.

Just days into the crisis, a commentator in The Bulletin observed four issues which drove coverage of the Benn case.[3] First, Australians were concerned the jury had acted wrongly by pronouncing their verdict without a recommendation of mercy.[4] Second, there were the related questions of mandatory sentencing and capital punishment. The majority agreed, as the editors of The West Australian put it, that “the character of the.. case, [meant]… capital punishment was not relevant in any practical sense.” Everyone knew Benn would not hang.[5] Third, some people thought the case presented a rare opportunity to re-open long-standing debates about mercy killing and euthanasia. International jurists including Glanville Williams and Norman St. John-Stevas had recently been considering these issues.[6] For a moment, it also looked as though older eugenic concerns about the social value of “mentally deficient” people would rear their ugly head.[7] In the end, however, the focus of public debate shifted decisively. As several historians have observed, but not adequately explained, the Benn killing came to highlight the appalling lack of Government services for intellectually disabled people in Australia.[8]

This was not an inevitable shift. In fact, it is rather surprising, given that studies of similar murders overseas, have shown time and time again, that public debates about similar killings usually eschew any discussion of government services whatsoever. Instead, they focus on the impairments of the murdered children, locating these “abnormalities” the root cause of the tragedy.[9] So why did debates around the Benn case follow such a different trajectory?

My suggestion is that they shifted not simply because Government services were lacking (which they were), but because of a deliberate intervention by the parent groups Charlie has just introduced. From the moment the Benn verdict was passed, parents across Australia embarked upon an orchestrated campaign to appropriate the Benn tragedy to their cause. But, despite their evident success in shifting the focus of public discussion, their campaign for Benn also reveals long running tensions within the movement. Still, their intervention highlights the growing influence parent advocacy groups held in the politics of disability in post-war Australia.

To re-cap Charlie’s paper, organised groups of parents with intellectually disabled children emerged in the late nineteen-forties. By 1964, every state was represented by at least one such association. Altogether, they operated over 300 schools, occupation centres, hostels, sheltered workshops, and farm colonies. Although they were still primarily funded by private donations, many of the groups had secured a limited amount of government support. Most Education Departments provided paid teachers to work at the schools and day centres. Some governments provided land grants or capital subsidies to the groups. Under certain circumstances, the Commonwealth would pay pensions to residents of privately-run hostels or farm colonies. Despite this support, waiting lists at the centres were always long, funds were always short, and statistics showed that only a small percentage of “retarded” people were being aided.[10]

Although most of the parent groups were federated under the Australian Council for the Mentally Retarded, which aimed to show a “united front” to the public, long-held tensions within the movement simmered.[11] These tensions clustered around two key concerns.

The first was an ongoing debate about whether “retarded” children should be cared for at home, or in a residential hospital, hostel, or farm colony. The movement had initially been composed of two types of parents. There were those who were unwilling to institutionalise their child on principle, but there were also parents who wanted their children admitted, but couldn’t because of lengthy waiting lists at both public and private facilities. Throughout the 1950s, these two types of parents had heatedly debated the pros and cons of institutionalising their children. At one point, a vague consensus had been reached: the groups planned to open their own residentials, which they imagined would be smaller, more homely, and better run than government wards.

But by the 1960s, new entrants to the movement, particularly Victoria’s Kew Cottages’ Parents Association, were re-opening home or institution debates. The Kew Cottages group, founded in 1957, was composed of parents who had already committed their children to state care. Perhaps understandably, they argued that institutionalization was often necessary; and that governments should expand the number of beds available, and, importantly, improve conditions inside wards. Parents such as those from Kew sometimes suggested that other groups’ small, boutique residences diverted funds from much-needed works in the public system.[12]

On the other hand, groups of younger parents, influenced by developments overseas were starting to suggest that residential facilities should be abandoned altogether, and that the movement should focus upon alternatives such as sheltered workshops, which they hoped could train their children to live, with limits, in the community.

The rise of these new outlooks led to competing claims on a limited amount government funding, as well as general disagreement on how to move their efforts forward.[13]

A second and more pressing point of contention went to the heart of the movement’s objectives. Members, though obviously aiming to help their children, also suggested that their groups needed to aid families as a whole. Members of a New South Wales’ group, for instance, boasted in 1963 that they gave “regular training” to 1,300 children. As a result, they wrote, 1,300 “families experience[d] tremendous relief.”[14] While this may sound unproblematic, pronouncements such as these could lead down a slippery slope, in which the needs of parents and siblings were played off against the difficulties retarded children were said to pose. Even in the 1960s, there were still widespread misconceptions about what intellectual disability was. Residual fears about criminality, sexual delinquency and erratic behaviour remained. Perhaps due to these, parent groups sometimes found that that public sympathy, and funding, could be more easily gained by chronicling the problems faced by parents, rather than by demonstrating the needs or rights of the children.[15] It was not unusual for publicity officers to describe how parents’ health suffered, how retarded children “kicked and scratched,” how they were an unbearable burden on their mothers.[16] In 1964, the question remained unresolved. Who needed help more: the children, or their parents?

Maurice’s defence, perhaps unwittingly, hatched into a discourse of the parent groups’ own making. His counsel constructed an elaborate portrait of two parents driven to desperation by an “uncontrollable” “retarded” child. Bernard was described as, quote, “a young animal.” The court was told that Maurice and Irene faced an “unbearable burden… hour by hour, day by day, month by month and year by year.”[17]

To the members of the parent groups, it seemed that Maurice Benn– a fine, upstanding middle-class citizen (and who could be more respectable than a university lecturer?)– would serve as a perfect example of the stresses visited upon many parents of “retarded” children. The announcement of a guilty verdict, however, constituted a direct rejection of their claim.

Facing a media prepared to accept that Maurice was not, or should not have been, under the stress he described, the parent movement leapt to action, drawing upon a decades’ worth of campaign experience.

Within hours, Ethel Temby, spokeswoman for the Kew Cottages group, announced she had circulated letters to a dozen organisations and hundreds of parents, asking them to write to the press and “outline” what she called “the emotions experienced by parents of retarded children.”[18] Spearheaded by Temby, who publicly announced she’d considered killing her own child, parents across Australia related the supposed burden of a “retarded” child to the press. A cacophony of parental accounts quickly drowned out discussions of both “mercy killing” and capital punishment. Within the week, a politician observed that “testimony… has been given in practically every newspaper of any importance in this country by parents… who have mentally retarded youngsters.”[19] Tellingly, many of these letters came from the publicity officers and executives of organised parent groups.

Their letters all told a remarkably similar story. Yes, they began, “retarded” children were a difficult burden for parents. Yes, they wrote, we sympathise with Benn’s plight. But no, we don’t condone the killing. The problem, they almost all argued, was that the government did so little. Our organisations, they often continued, were taking up slack. We need more money, they wrote, more help. They usually concluded by arguing that “the problem” needed to be tackled on a national level.[20]

This was a strong and co-ordinated line. While it co-opted the useful parts of the Benn defence—the burden on parents and families—it carefully shifted debates in other directions. In first instance, it inserted their work into the picture. Benn’s counsel had presented just two futures for Bernard: he could be institutionalised– a terrible fate–, or he could be kept at home, only to drive Maurice and Irene mad.

From the perspective of the movement, a vital third option was missing: help for the Benns at one of the many centres operated by parent groups. Several writers observed that the Benns had refused assistance from The Slow Learning Children’s Group, the major West Australian body.[21] It was revealed that Bernard been referred to a diagnostic centre which they operated, but Irene, from shame, had refused to take him.[22] The implication, of course, was that the parent movement could have solved the Benn “problem.”

But others argued that the movements’ promise of help for parents was a chimera. A handful of parents, especially those associated with state hospitals, claimed that if conditions in government wards were better, then Maurice wouldn’t have feared “putting Bernard away.”[23] Controversially, the secretary of one branch of the Slow Learning Children’s Group, which generally opposed institutionalization, proposed in several newspapers that all “mongol” children should be taken from their parents at birth. “Release these unfortunate parents from their burden by law,” he wrote, “and we should never have a crime like the Benn case… again.”[24] Under a cloud of controversy, he was quickly relieved of his office.[25]

While the movement’s members all agreed that parents needed help, they were divided as how to best provide it.

Their united pleas for national action were more successful. These were so consistent, and compelling, that the editors of several major newspapers threw their support behind the proposal.[26]

The parents insistence on national action was hardly coincidental. Because, just days after Benn was tried, Federal Parliament was due to debate a bill which would extend federal funding for State-run mental hospitals. The State Grant’s (Mental Health Institutions) Bill was well known to the parent movement, and for several months beforehand, parents had been petitioning politicians to extend the bill’s scope, and to make voluntary organisations eligible for funding. Even before Benn was tried, every member of Parliament had been contacted.[27]

The blaze of publicity which surrounded the Benn case provided another opportunity to petition for the bill’s extension. New letters were penned to parliamentarians. The links were explicit. At the Bill’s second reading, every single member who spoke brought up the Benn case. Reference was made to letter after letter from parents “in a similar position;” correspondence in the press was constantly cited.[28] All agreed, as a West Australian member put it, that “we must assist in every possible way not only the individual but also the mother, the father and the rest of the family… events of the past month or two in my home state… have proved beyond a shadow of doubt how important this.. is.”[29]

Typically, the agreement stopped there. Taking cue from the parents who had written them, members related dozens of stories of families who had, like the Benns, struggled with the “burden” of a “retarded” child. Each family, however, had found a different solution. A family from Canberra had found relief at Koomarri, a day school for children. Parents from Victoria had found relief in state asylums such as Kew. In New South Wales, sheltered workshops accompanied by residential hostels were helping some parents. An observer noted, pointedly, that “not one single Member of Parliament denied that mental retardation was a grave problem… [but] members often differed in their opinion on how that support should be given.”[30] One member argued that the Bill, in its current form, “perpetuate[d] the denial of the voluntary bodies. There[‘s]… no provision at all for a voluntary body… under the terms of the legislation.”[31] Others said that the state hospitals targeted in the Bill should be the primary way of “solving retardation.” In the end, the plethora competing claims became moot; the government despatched them with the observation that mental health was traditionally a state matter, and they could either pass the Bill in its limited form, or abandon it altogether [32]

As federal parliament was debating the Bill, the Western Australian government announced, as everyone had anticipated, that Benn’s death sentence would be commuted to ten years imprisonment.[33] Inevitably, this took the wind from the sails of the debates. But, for a brief period, the “problem” of “mental retardation” had been catapulted into the fore of public discussion. As The Bulletin put it, “Dr Benn may draw some consolation from the fact that he has focused attention on the gross… deficiencies in the provisions… [of] care… [for societies’] weakest and most vulnerable members.”[34] I very much doubt that Maurice Benn had this even in the back of his mind when he carried out the killing. But other parents were able to seize the day, and, I suppose, consolidate their growing role as de-facto spokespeople on all things “disabled.” They were able to claim, by their family situations, a level of personal authority as “the ones who knew” what Benn felt and why he acted as he did. Still, it’s important to acknowledge the tensions between these parents and the complexities of the movement. Reflecting on the Benn case a few months later, one parent rather cynically wrote: “we all agree that the public… must be educated… [and] that this must be done urgently, but here our agreement stops. . . and we do nothing!”[35]

 On a side note, I was suprised after the conference when Jean Chetkovitch, the convenor, contacted me and pointed out that my abstract had said that Bernard Benn was two years old when he died. Terrible that no one picked that error up earlier! Thanks, Jean.


[1] “Father Feared for Future,” The Daily Telegraph and Daily News, 2nd April 1964, 3.

[2] “Father Killed Retarded Son,” The Age, 4th March 1964, 3.

[3] Gordon Hawkins, “Forum: Mercy Killings. After the Benn Verdict…” The Bulletin, 18th April 1964, 15.

[4] “Some Jurors ‘Confused’ in Murder Trial: Behind the Scenes Drama,” The Sun, 12th April 1964, 2. Just one of many examples of public surprise is: Mary Durack Miller, “Letters: Verdict by Jury,” The West Australian, 7th April 1964, 7.

[5] “Editorial: Mercy for Maurice Benn,” The West Australian, 16th April 1964, 6.

[6] Norman St. John-Stevas, Life, Death and the Law: Law and Christian Morals in England and the United States (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961); Glanville Williams, The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law (London: Faber & Faber, 1958).

[7] See, for instance: A. M. F. Clarke, “Letters: Principle of Euthanasia,” The West Australian, 10th April 1964, 7; W. A. Fitter, “Letters: Mercy Killing,” The West Australian, 6th April 1964, 6; Margaret Forrest, “Letters,” SMH, 13th April 1964, 2.

[8] Most recently: Christina Gillgren, “‘Once a Defective, Always a Defective:’ Public Sector Residential Care 1900 – 1965,” in Under Blue Skies: The Social Construction of Intellectual Disability in Western Australia, ed. Errol Cocks, et al. (Perth: Centre for Disability Research and Development, Faculty of Health and Human Sciences, Edith Cowan University, 1996), 86.

[9] Janice A. Brockley, “Martyred Mothers and Merciful Fathers: Exploring Disability and Motherhood in the Lives of Jerome Greenfield and Raymond Repouille,” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 293 – 312; Janice A. Brockley, “Rearing the Child That Never Grew: Parents, Professionals and Children with Intellectual Disabilities, 1910 – 1965” (PhD, Rutgers University, 2001), 169; Ian Dowbiggin, A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God, and Medicine, ed. Donald T. Critchlow (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 86 – 87.

[10] Dave Earl, “Caring for Their Children, Forever: Parent-Run Organisations for Children with Intellectual Disabilities in New South Wales, 1950 – 1968.” (BA (Hons) Thesis, The University of Sydney, 2007), 69 – 73.

[11] Founded in 1952, this organisation was initially known as the Australian Council of Organisations for Sub-Normal Children (“Subnormal Children to Be Aided,” SMH, 16th June 1952, 2.), and later changed its title to the Australian Council for Mentally Retarded Children, briefly to the Australian Council for the Mentally Handicapped, and finally to the Australian Council for the Mentally Retarded (ACMH, Recent Developments in the Field of Mental Retardation: Record of a Conference Held at Crowle Home, Ryde, N.S.W., 19th September 1961 (NSWCMH, 1961).).

[12] For a general history of the Kew Group see: Louise Godwin and Catherine Wade, Kew Cottages Parents’ Association: The First Fifty Years: 1957 to 2007 (Kew, Vic.: Kew Cottages Parents’ Association, 2007). For how the Kew group conceived their role, see: Ethel Temby, “The Role of the Voluntary Organisation as It Applies to a State Residential Training Centre,” Our Children 9, no. 6 (December 1963): 67 – 71.

[13] “Institutions Urged for Sub-Normal,” Our Children 10, no. 5 (December 1964): 66 – 71; Helen and David Craven, “Parents Feature: Home or Institution?,” ACL, no. 3 (1962): 103 – 05; Rev. Br. Denis Hodgins, “Home or Institution?,” Caritas  (Autumn 1961): 29 – 32; West Perth Irrabeena Centre, “Letters to the Editor: Home or Institution?,” ACL  (July 1962): 59; [Rev. Br.] Matthew O’Donnell, “Not Home ‘or’ Institution but Home ‘and’ Institution,” ACL, no. 5 (April 1963): 215.

[14] NSWSCWA, Annual Report: June, 1962 to June, 1963 (Sydney: NSWSCWA, 1963), 4.

[15] Dave Earl, “Help for Children and Their Families: Presenting ‘Subnormal’ and ‘Spastic’ Children to the Public in 1950s New South Wales,” antiTHESIS 19 (2009): 154 – 55.

[16] Just one of many examples is: Mrs. R. V. McCulloch, “Sub-Normal Children– an Appeal,” SMH, 13th November 1958, 2.

[17] “Mother’s Agony, at the End of Her Tether,” The Daily Mirror, 3rd April 1964, 1.

[18] “Vic. Parents Launch Move to Save Benn,” The West Australian, 7th April 1964, 2; “W.A. Case Moves,” SMH, 7th April 1964, 4.

[19] Leonard Reynolds (ALP, Barton), House of Representatives (HR), Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (CPD), Vols. 41 & 42, 21st April 1964, 1240.

[20] Just a handful of examples: N. E. Anderton, “Letters: Aid for the Retarded: Obstacles to Be Overcome,” SMH, 16th April 1964, 2; Currell. Mrs. Betty, “Letters: Retarded Children,” The West Australian, 8th April 1964, 7; Mrs. M. A. Broun, “Letters: The Retarded Child,” The West Australian, 18th April 1964, 6; Mrs O. Davidson, “Letters,” The Daily Telegraph and Daily News, 6th April 1964, 2; Ann Gruen, “Letters: The Benn Case,” The Bulletin, 25th April 1964, 3 – 4; J. W. Jackson, “Letters: Children Who Are Retarded: ‘Shameful’ Lack of State Help,” SMH, 4th April 1964, 2; Parent, “Letters: Protest on Benn Case,” The Age, 14th April 1964, 2.

[21] Philippa E. Dale, “Letters: Problem of Mentally Retarded Children,” The West Australian, 9th April 1964, 7.

[22] “The Dr. Benn Case,” ACL August 1964, 119.

[23] (Mrs.) O. Davidson, “Letters: The Retarded and Society: Public Attitude Must Change,” SMH, 6th April 1964, 2.

[24] Alan Pettit, “Letters: The Mentally Retarded,” The West Australian, 16th April 1964, 6.

[25] “The Bunbury Affair,” Our Children 10, no. 3 (July 1964): 8 – 9; Broun, “Letters: The Retarded Child,” 6.

[26] For instance: “Editorial: Action Needed Urgently for Retarded Children,” The West Australian, 22nd April 1964, 6; “Editorial: Tragedy and the Sub-Normal,” SMH, 4th April 1964, 2.

[27] Leonard Reynolds (ALP, Barton), HR, CPD, Vols. 41 & 42, 21st April 1964, 1241.

[28] Some examples: Leslie Johnson (ALP, Hughes), HR, CPD, Vols. 41 & 42, 16th April 1964, 1172; John Cockle, (Lib., Warringah) HR, CPD, Vols. 41 & 42, 16th April 1964, 1197; James Fraser (ALP, ACT), HR, CPD, Vols. 41 & 42, 16th April 1964, 1204; Leonard Reynolds (ALP, Barton), HR, CPD, Vols. 41 & 42, 21st April 1964, p. 1240.

[29] John Hallet, (Country, Canning), HR, CPD, Vols. 41 & 42, 16th April 1964, 1204.

[30] J. D. van Pelt, “The States Grants (Mental Health Institutions) Act, 1964,” ACL  (August 1964): 143.

[31] Leslie Johnson (ALP, Hughes), HR, CPD, Vols. 41 & 42, 21st April 1964, 1235.

[32] Winton Turnbull, (Country, Mallee), HR, CPD, Vols. 41 & 42, 21st April 1964, p. 1261 – 62; J. D. van Pelt, “Editorial: A National Inquiry into Mental Retardation,” ACL  (August 1964).

[33] “Benn Sentence Commuted; Gaol for Ten Years,” The West Australian, 16th April 1964, 1, 8.

[34] Hawkins, “Forum: Mercy Killings,” 15.

[35] Ed. [J. D. Van Pelt], “Letters to the Editor: The Dr. Benn Case,” ACL  (October 1964): 180. Emphasis in original.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Linda Mann permalink
    January 17, 2012 10:37

    A useful reflection of public and government sentiment not that long ago.Thanks for this
    Linda mann

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