Category Archives: Healthy Citizens?

Return to Oz: upcoming research and conference trip

Landing in Sydney

‘Landing in Sydney’ by Melanie Lazarow via Flickr

The flights are booked, accommodation sorted and archive ‘to do’ lists piling up… it’s almost research trip time! In a month I’ll be back on the long haul flight to Oz, keen to revisit some of the libraries, museums and archives that I worked in on my previous trip, as well as new ones in Brisbane and Sydney. This time round I’ve been able to arrange my trip to coincide with two conferences, the ‘Entangled Histories’ Australian Historical Association Conference in Newcastle, and the Australian and New Zealand Society for the History of Medicine (ANZSHM) Conference in Melbourne on the theme of ‘Health, Medicine and Society: Challenge and Change’.

This will be my first time at an ANZSHM Conference, where I’m delivering a ‘1000 words on a picture’ paper (one image, 1000 words, ten minutes, you get the idea!) I’ll be showcasing an object that will also feature in a public engagement programme launching later this year, and I’m really looking forward to hearing what others make of it (abstract below – can you guess the object?)

The AHA Conference feels like something of a return, as the last one I attended was in Adelaide in 2012, a few months before submitting my PhD thesis and shifting base to the UK. The 5 (gosh, 5!) intervening years have flown by, and with them have come some big changes, one of which will be coming along in the form of my 1 year old ‘research assistant’! I am fortunate that Australia is also ‘home’ for me, so bubs will get to enjoy time with family while I enjoy time with colleagues. The paper I’ll be presenting is based on some of my favourite sources from the project – oral histories and material culture, which together shed light on interactions between migrant patients and Australian medical professionals in the immediate post-war era (more in the abstract below).

Draft programmes for both conferences arrived in my inbox this week, and there are so many papers I am excited to hear, colleagues I’m looking forward to catching up with and others I hope to meet. The countdown has well and truly begun – see you soon Australia!

Arriving prepared: migrant health and material culture in post-war Australia

This presentation showcases a piece of medical equipment brought to Australia in 1958 by an Italian woman, and now held in the collections of the Migration Museum in Adelaide. Bound up in this one small possession are beliefs about race, culture and difference which shed new light on encounters between migrants and medical professionals in post-war Australia. At a time when images of young, healthy ‘New Australians’ were key to the acceptance of the Government’s radical immigration scheme, the actual experiences of those migrants who navigated Australia’s health systems and medical culture were, and have since been, largely overlooked. I argue that personal objects, together with oral histories and written memoirs, can reposition migrants as active agents in the maintenance of their own health and that of their loved ones, rather than the passive subjects of medical expertise and government policy.

Migrants as patients: navigating healthcare in post-war Australia

Health shapes every stage of migration. But while immigration processes such as medical screening and quarantine leave a bureaucratic cache in the archives, encounters between migrants and the medical system in primary care settings are recorded in only scattered and diffuse ways. Likewise, personal or familial efforts to maintain health and wellbeing whilst establishing working lives in a new country leave little documentary evidence. Yet health continues to be important beyond national borders, both in the early years of settlement and throughout the life course of individuals, families and communities.

To better understand the role that health plays throughout the migration experience, this paper presents emergent findings from a study of oral histories, life writing and material culture yielded by people who journeyed to Australia during the peak years of the post-war immigration programme. These personal accounts are contextualised by the contemporaneous writings of medical professionals and grey literature from government departments and social scientists concerning ‘migrant problems’. The study enhances a growing literature on the gaps between immigration and settlement policies, government rhetoric and the lived experience of migrants in the period. I argue that a focus on health can provide a unique insight into the ways migrants navigated mid-twentieth century Australian society, attitudes, institutions and cultures. Such an approach can shed new light on structures of power which shaped the ways migrant patients were perceived by medical professionals and limited their access to mainstream healthcare.

‘They checked us and they checked us and they inject us’: Reframing the post-war migrant experience

Migrant’s memories of health and illness form one of the three strands of my current research project, which focuses on the intersections between migration, health and assimilation in Australia during the immediate post-war period, 1945-1970. It is the part of the research that I have most enjoyed so far, as it gets straight to the individual, lived experience of migration – the everyday realities of dealing with layers of strange, frustrating bureaucracy, making a living and caring for oneself or family. And, as the oral history archives, collections of material culture and migrant memoirs that I’ve been drawing on attest, health experiences often remain vivid in migrants’ memories, marking moments of vulnerability, crisis, fear or relief. For instance, forty years after her migration, a mother of four, Irene, recalled round after round of medical checks in a German Displaced Persons camp, and before embarkation in Italy: ‘they checked us and they checked us and they inject us… Not only like it was in Germany, when we came to Italy they check us again. It was more frightening that way – we have some illness or something – we were very much checked. Somehow we went through’.

Medical checks Vienna

Medical checks for prospective immigrant children, Australian Migration Mission Vienna, 1956. National Archives of Australia, A12111, 1/1956/14/89

Next Wednesday I will be presenting a paper on this research at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies Seminar at King’s College, London, following a paper by Daniel Vaughan from Macquarie University, titled ‘A Queer Sense of Home: Australian Sexiles in London, 1945 – 1978’.

I’ve been a regular attendee of this series since I first relocated to the UK in 2012, and am very much looking forward to sharing where my current research is at in such a stimulating, friendly and collegial atmosphere (which often extends to the pub afterwards!) The abstract and details for the talk are below. Do come along if you are in London and interested in either paper, no bookings necessary – the more the merrier!

WHEN/WHERE: Wednesday 27th January 2016, 18.15 – 19.30, Council Room (K2.29), King’s Building, Strand Campus, King’s College London.


Re-framing the post-war migrant experience in Australia through health, illness and the body

Australia wants, and will welcome, new healthy citizens who are determined to become good Australians by adoption – Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, 2 August 1945.

The experiences of those who migrated to Australia in the years following the Second World War have, since the 1980s, gained increasing historical attention, yet the centrality of health to the promotion, implementation and lived-experience of migration and settlement is an aspect of this history that remains to be written. This talk will report on the preliminary findings of a research project which foregrounds migrants’ own narratives of health and ill-health, gleaned through a vast and scattered archive of oral histories, material culture and life writing held in the collections of  libraries, galleries and museums in Australia and the UK. Ranging across experiences of childbirth, hospitalisation, childhood illness, ageing and work-related injuries, these sources offer precious and sometimes painful windows into the lives of individuals and families caught up in Australia’s post-war migration programme. Rather than merely the objects of government policies of selection, work assignment and assimilation, migrants emerge in these sources as subjects encountering and negotiating an Australia that was, quite often, far from the one they had imagined.

Dr Eureka Henrich is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Medical Humanities at the University of Leicester, where she is researching the intertwining histories of migration, health, assimilation and identity in post-war Australia. Before coming to Leicester she was a Visiting Research Associate (2013) and Rydon Fellow in Australian Politics and Political History (2014) at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London. Eureka originally hails from Sydney, where she was awarded her PhD in 2012 at the University of New South Wales.



Sorting the stuff: how do historians organise their research material?

Digging around in archives is one of the great joys of historical research – you just never know what you are going to find. On my last research trip for my project Healthy Citizens? Migrant Identity and Constructions of Health in Post-War Australia, a pile of migrant guidebooks c.1950 appeared in a box of oral history transcripts. Searching in a museum collection database turned up surgical dressings brought by a Dutch migrant to Australia for the birth of her child. And a mystery file in the National Archives in Canberra ended up being a huge photograph album, compiled by the Department of Immigration in the late 1940s. These and many more discoveries, some more surprising than others, saw me return from six weeks of research with hundreds of jpeg files, PDF scans, photocopies, and two A4 books of messily scrawled handwritten notes. That’s when the hard work began.

Transforming a haphazard trove of research material into an accessible, searchable and well-organised resource requires a set of skills that I don’t remember being formally taught as a history student. It seemed to be more a process of trial and error. Of course, since my undergraduate years a whole array of software has been developed to help sort and catalogue research material – I’ve used Endnote and Zotero in the past, but mainly for books, book chapters, journal articles and newspaper articles. For primary research, my tendency is to want material in hard copy, in folders that can be rifled through and physically sorted on a desk. But with a large volume of material of different formats and types, this approach can become unmanageable quite quickly.

The system that has developed from my first haul of ‘stuff’ is a combination of Endnote records, Excel spreadsheets and transcriptions in Word documents. Excel allows me to build databases of information which offer a more ‘macro’ picture of two types of sources – objects, or material culture; and oral histories. Each of these spreadsheets breaks down the source into comparable attributes – for instance, age, gender, country/region of origin, pre and post-migration health-related experiences – and a comments field allows for a little more detail. I type up transcriptions of interviews in Word documents, and link them to an ‘associated material’ field in the spreadsheet. Dropbox enables me to store all my jpegs in corresponding folders, and I add these file names to the master sheet where they relate to particular objects or people. Another chunk of my research material is published articles in medical journals, and these lend themselves easily to Endnote, where I attach any scans and keep my notes. Working through the government archival material is my next challenge.

In The Historian’s Craft Marc Bloch noted that ‘one of the most difficult tasks of the historian is that of assembling those documents which he considers necessary… He could hardly succeed without the help of various guides: archival or library catalogues, museum indexes, and bibliographies of every kind’. This is of course absolutely true. But once the material is assembled, it remains in many cases a veiled mystery what historians actually do with it. We don’t tend to write about that part – it can be messy, personal, and sometimes quite convoluted! Forced to write without his notes and sources, Bloch instead reflected on the nature of historical research and writing itself. And the more I think about it, it is the process of deciding which questions to ask, going about finding material and making connections between different sources which shapes the way I organise my files – each project requires a different approach. This one is still taking shape, and no doubt there’ll be some more tweaking along the way!

Thus ends my brief reflections on this conundrum! There are many other options out there – some people use NVivo, or stick to the old card index systems. What have you found works best? I’d love to know!

Migration booklets from the 1950s, a surprise find at the State Library of NSW.

Migration booklets from the 1950s, a surprise find at the State Library of NSW.

Destination Australia: upcoming research trip and public talk

In just under a week now I’ll be hopping on a plane from Heathrow to embark on a much-complained-about aspect of the Australian ex-pat experience – the long haul flight home. The uncomfortable 24 hour flight provides the fodder for an amazing amount of conversational topics – on which airline has hot towels, where the best stopover is (Singapore’s Changi Airport always seems to win), how to align your sleep/sleeping pills to avoid the worst of jet lag, and the relative advantages of window vs. aisle seats (middle seats are, of course, to be avoided)… the list could go on. But this time around my focus is firmly on what happens when I hit the ground – not in my hometown of Sydney, but in Perth, where my first few days will be spent trawling through the oral history collections of the State Library of Western Australia.

While in Australia I’ll be visiting libraries, archives and museums in Perth, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra to gather source material for my current research project, ‘Healthy Citizens? Migrant Identity and Health in Post-War Australia’, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project, which you can read more about here, examines experiences and ideas of health in Australia in the period immediately following the Second World War. Migrants’ experiences are at the heart of the project, but I’ll also be examining how health played a part in government campaigns to ‘sell Australia’ to prospective migrants, and to convince Australians that new arrivals from Europe and Britain were happy, healthy potential-future-citizens.

When we think of migration and health it is often medical examinations that first come to mind. These were certainly an important part of the post-war migrant experience, but I am also interested in the interactions between migrants and medical professionals once in Australia, whether in the general practitioner’s surgery, in the maternity ward, or in the accident and emergency section of hospitals. The Australian medical journals I have been working with so far are a treasure trove of glimpses into these interactions, and the beliefs, ideas and assumptions that informed them. While in Melbourne on March 25 I’ll be talking about some of these sources at the Museo Italiano in Carlton. While it is very early days in the project, I am looking forward to sharing this work with the general public, and to getting some feedback on the project, its aims, and its possible applications beyond academia.

For more details on the talk, The ‘Problem’ of Migrant Health in Post-War Australia, see the Museo Italiano website. And if you are in Melbourne on the day, do come along and say hello!

Museo Italiano Flyer


From migrant to citizen: jumping through hoops in 1950s Australia and 2010s Britain


As a migrant and a historian of migration, there are many moments when events in my personal life overlap with my research. This has never been more so than in the last month, where I have started an exciting new project on migrants and health in post-war Australia, funded through a Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship in Medical Humanities, and begun the journey towards citizenship in Britain through taking the Life in the UK test.

The Life in the UK test is something of a right of passage amongst Australians in London. Previously a prerequisite only for citizenship, it is now a requirement for all applying for indefinite leave to remain (permanent residency), most of whom are already resident in the country on a range of visas, including work and spouse visas. The 24 questions test the applicant’s knowledge of British traditions and customs – a pass is 75% correct or above. Australians, like others from English-speaking or Commonwealth countries, are exempt from a separate language test. So for us, it’s a small hoop to jump though – after all, Australia is a country with similar institutions, culture and traditions. How hard could it be? (if you are wondering, you can take a short version of the test here)

I borrowed the official ‘Life in the UK: A Guide for New Residents’ from a friend and dutifully began reading about Britain’s ‘long and illustrious history’. Meanwhile, in the library each day I was reading about Australia’s post-war immigration programme. With a strong preference for British migrants – deemed the most assimilable and the best migrant ‘stock’ – the programme would eventually see millions of European migrants arrive alongside the Brits, including Italians, Greeks, Turks, Yugoslavs, and some 170,000 Displaced Persons from eastern and central Europe, assisted through a scheme with the International Refugee Organisation (IRO). Although the ‘northern Europeans’ were preferred, and thus received more assistance to migrate, the entry of so many ‘southern Europeans’ was tolerated and even begrudgingly encouraged in a bid to shore up Australia’s population and economy. To assuage concerns of the host population, the newly-formed Department of Immigration dubbed the diverse migrants ‘New Australians’. A nationwide organisation, the Good Neighbour Movement, was tasked with introducing them to the ‘Australian Way of Life’, and encouraged them to naturalize by taking up Australian Citizenship as soon as they were eligible. Throughout most of the period I am looking at, five-years of residency was required before applying.

The hoops these migrants were expected to jump through were much tougher than the ones I was negotiating. Migration agreements with the IRO and many individual countries required migrants to sign two-year work contracts in return for their assisted passages, with the type and location of the work at the discretion of the government. International qualifications were rarely recognised. Family reunion was not guaranteed. Even the government work contracts did not ensure employment, leading to a number of riots in migrant hostels. Migrants were expected to get on with becoming Australians, in their attitudes, language, knowledge and behaviour, and above all else, to be grateful for the opportunity to build new lives. The doctrine of assimilation guided these expectations. As Australian demographer W.D. Borrie explained in 1954:

Assimilation is a psychological, socio-economic and cultural process, resulting in the progressive attenuation of differences between the behaviour of immigrants and nationals within the social life of a given country.

Monthly bulletin of the Good Neighbour Movement, promoting citizenship in 1959,

‘The Good Neighbour’, monthly bulletin of the Good Neighbour Movement, promoting citizenship in 1959.

The aim of assimilation would be achieved when it was impossible to tell the ‘immigrant’ from the ‘national’. Naturalization was seen as the reward, or perhaps as the proof, for achieving such invisibility. But the take-up rates for citizenship among some groups of migrants remained low throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  In the immediate post-war world, assimilation represented a progressive attitude to immigrant settlement, one that was embraced by organisations like the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM). But ultimately the impracticality of the doctrine became impossible to ignore. In 1964 the Australian Government shifted their language from ‘assimilation’ to the softer, apparently more accommodating ‘integration’, and the 1970s saw ‘multiculturalism’ adopted as a new national ideology. But as Anna Haebich and others have argued, the ideal of assimilation still plays into current debates about national identity, citizenship, and immigration. Haebich’s concept of ‘retro-assimilation’, or a longing for a simpler (albeit fictional) cohesive past, is one that I kept coming back to when preparing for my Life in the UK test:

Retro-assimilation mixes 1950s dreams of an assimilated nation with current ideas of nationhood using today’s spin to create an imagined world based on shared values, visions and agreements where all citizens will be treated equally and the same and share fully in the benefits of Australian society, once they agree to cast off their differences and become the same… Retro-assimilation has strong appeal in today’s climate of social turmoil, transformation and global threats: we are irresistibly drawn to its retro-scapes, its nostalgic memories of safer and simpler times.

In both Britain and Australia the tests now sat by prospective citizens condense complex and contested histories into much simpler pasts and presents, peppered with famous sportsmen and women, inventors and artists. Citizenship requires knowledge of these national heroes and their achievements, as well as a smattering of demographic info and random facts about the political process (I now know, for instance, how many people sit on a jury in Scotland. It’s 15). A current research project, ‘The UK Citizenship Process: Understanding Immigrants’ Experiences‘ at the University of Leicester is looking at the ‘assimilationist turn’ in British immigration and integration policies, though the experience of those who are at the receiving end of policy change – immigrants themselves. In my historical research on migrants and health in assimilation-era Australia, I also want to look at sources that reveal migrants’ experiences, rather than just policy-makers’ intentions.

In the meantime, I am celebrating jumping through the first hoop and passing the Life in the UK test (phew!), and will now always remember what date St George’s Day falls on. Whether or not I will decide to take up citizenship is another matter, but unlike many of the migrants I am studying, I will have the option to retain the citizenship of my country of birth as well. An excerpt from a Greek newspaper in Australia in the 1960s serves as a reminder of the pressure on migrants to naturalize, the permanent nature of the decision, and its emotional implications, and seems a fitting note to end on:

Four and five years is hardly sufficient time in which a man of sound principles could, without strong pangs of conscience, sever every link with what he has been taught to hold dear… It is only after many years of separation from the mother country, and in the absence of any circumstances and situations which may remind a man of it, that he begins to attach diminishing importance to his national ties. It is then that he finds the thought of returning home has lost much of its pressing attractiveness. And it is then that the idea of legally adopting the country, in which he now lives and prospers, strikes him in earnest.


W.D. Borrie, Italians and Germans in Australia, Cheshire: Melbourne, 1954.

Anna Haebich, Spinning the Dream: Assimilation in Australia 1950 – 1970, Fremantle Press: North Fremantle, WA, 2008.

Hellenic Herald editorial, quoted in George Zubrzycki, ‘Migrants: Some become citizens’, The Canberra Times, Thursday 23 June 1966.