Alison Turtle (1955)

Alison Turtle (1955) attended MLC School from the late 1940s to 1955 and was awarded Dux of the school in her final year. She was well liked and made many friends, a quality she kept throughout her life. Alison went on to become a Senior Lecturer at University of Sydney and the foremost historian of Australian psychology.

The University of Sydney’s psychology museum, a collection of 19th- and 20th-century psychological artefacts – early experimental scientific apparatus, photographs, demonstration materials and cartoons – is named after Alison Turtle. After her death in 2006, her memorial service was held in the University’s Great Hall.

Intellectual life at Sydney University was particularly lively in the 1950s and 1960s, when the student ranks included Les Murray, Robert Hughes, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Bob Ellis. Alison’s mind was brilliant and probing.
‘Alison stood out intellectually as an undergraduate and not only because of her stellar performance in exams,’ Barbara Gillam, a fellow student now the Scientia Professor of Psychology at the University of NSW, said in Alison’s eulogy. ‘Alison was stimulated by the turmoil of new ideas and the interesting and odd people and was very much engaged in student life.’

She enjoyed conversation about philosophical, political and ethical issues, about films, plays and books, about people and their foibles. Gillam said Alison cared about ‘the situations and dilemmas in which people find themselves as lovers, spouses, parents, friends, carers and colleagues’.

Alison completed her arts degree with double first class Honours in Psychology and History in 1961. She took her master’s degree in 1963 with a thesis on evolution and psychology – the influence of Charles Darwin’s theories on psychology.

She was studying in London when she was offered a job back at the University of Sydney, where she became a lecturer in 1968 and remained with the Psychology department until retirement in 1999, staying on as an honorary senior lecturer until her death.

Her main area of teaching and research was the history of psychology. She developed her own third year course, ‘The Nature/Nurture Controversy in Psychology’. She served on the editorial boards of the American periodicals, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences and History of Psychology. Alison also had a broader interest in the cultural and social contexts of psychological research, which included research on HIV/AIDS education and prevention strategies in the 1990s.

Alison was a feminist and a staunch unionist. She toiled away on such issues as bringing equal superannuation rights to women academics and forming the Association of Women Employees of the University of Sydney, thinking up the acronym which could be read, AWE US. Throughout her life she stood by her strongly worked out values and was never fearful of voicing those values.

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