Dorothy Rowe 1930-2019

An appreciation from Craig Newnes.

Few, if any, clinical psychologists have touched as many lives as Dorothy Rowe, who has died in Sydney aged 88. Author of 16 books, countless magazine and newspaper articles, and a regular contributor to radio and television programmes, she was also a fierce friend, ardent defender of people’s – particularly women’s – right to choose a more fulfilling life and a constant critic of psychiatric orthodoxy.

In March 2002 she appeared on Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs. The following year she wrote for The Guardian, The Mail, The Express, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph and The Observer on everything from happiness to The Dunkirk landings. She had a column on parenting in Chat, was an agony aunt to the agony aunts and appeared in Openmind as a regular columnist. These columns say much about what is wrong with our society, what hurts people and what is destroying hope for our children. Her views on the inscription of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are summarised in her chapter title: ADHD: Adults’ fear of frightened children. She always promoted the idea that what most people need, apart from money, is the power of education and knowledge.

In the 1990s, Fay Weldon declared her the 'closest thing we have to a saint'. In 2010 Dorothy was included in the Daily Telegraph's list of the 100 most powerful women in Britain in Business, Academia & Politics (Daily Telegraph 3/12/10). She is listed in Who's Who and the Who's Who of Australian Women. She published in journals of philosophy, psychology and psychiatry and was an Emeritus Associate of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Her books were published in a dozen languages – who knows what South Koreans made of Living with the Bomb, a volume that Dorothy herself thought could be summed up in a couple of Posy Simmonds cartoons.

She was born Dorothy Conn in Newcastle, NSW, Australia, in 1930. She was educated at Newcastle Girls' High and Sydney University where she obtained a degree in psychology and a Diploma of Education. She taught for three years, married in 1956 and her son Edward was born in 1957. She was offered the opportunity to train as a school counsellor (educational psychologist) and went on to become Specialist for Emotionally Disturbed Children. At the same time she completed her Diploma in Clinical Psychology.

In 1968 she separated from her husband, embarking with Edward to England where she took an NHS post at Whiteley Wood Clinic in Sheffield. Alec Jenner, Professor of Psychiatry at Sheffield University, suggested to Dorothy that her research PhD topic should be 'Psychological aspects of regular mood change'. Don Bannister was bringing Personal Construct Theory into something approaching the limelight and Dorothy worked with Patrick Slater at the Institute of Psychiatry in developing computer software for analysing Kellyan repertory grids.

In 1972, the year after completing her degree, she was appointed to set up the Lincolnshire Department of Clinical Psychology at St John’s Psychiatric Hospital, Lincoln. The battles with the cadre of (all male) psychiatrists probably began an hour after she first arrived.

Her first book, The Experience of Depression, now called Choosing Not Losing, appeared in 1978. Her second, The Construction of Life and Death (The Courage to Live) was published in 1982. Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison, winner of the Mind Book of the Year Award in 1984 and now in its third edition put her on the map.

Dorothy was unstinting in her loyalty and generosity to friends. Her audiences could be vast – she once spoke to well over a thousand people in Westminster. In Perth, in 2006 thousands more were turned away from a conference featuring Dorothy. Her sagacity is legendary: on being asked about toilet training, her answer was, 'They’ll let you know when their ready'.

In 1986 Dorothy moved to Sheffield, leaving the National Health Service to become self-employed. Nine years later she moved to a basement flat in Islington where she continued to write and inspire. Despite extraordinary sales, she saw her writing as a 'hobby'. Four years ago Dorothy returned to Australia. She described herself as semi-retired.

- Revisit our 'One on One' 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber