Professor Margot Ruth Prior 1937-2020

Sue Leekam writes in loving memory of Margot Prior, researcher, clinician and pioneer in the study of autism and neurodevelopment, who died from Covid-19 on 25 August 2020.

Margot Prior’s first career was as a professional classical musician. Following the tragic loss of her first husband who drowned while saving two friends, Margot, the mother of three young children, began her second career, in psychology. In 1973 she published the first scientific article from Australia on autism and in the following 40 years the breadth and depth of her work was enormous. Her expertise spanned clinical, cognitive and developmental psychology and she brought these approaches together in a vast body of work including pioneering studies of autism, language impairment, dyslexia and ADHD, longitudinal work on temperament and experiments on children’s attention, reading and memory. It is therefore no surprise that her work had a wide-ranging impact internationally across the disciplines of developmental neuropsychology, psychiatry and psychology. She continued to influence British psychology and psychologists many years after the time she spent at the Institute of Psychiatry and in my 30 years of collaboration with her, I (and my students) never stopped learning from her.

With her exceptional clarity of vision combined with a broad horizon of expertise, Margot was never constrained by prevailing paradigms or doctrines of the time. She bravely generated and tested new ideas, debunked unscientific and questionable interventions, pushed forward new knowledge and was always guided by the clear need to serve the families with whom she worked. She wrote, researched, taught, mentored and, indeed, lived her life by directing energy and wisdom towards where it would make the most difference. Always guided by the clear need to serve the families with whom she worked, a constant reminder was that the cornerstone of her own life was family, her beloved second husband John and her amazing children, Yoni, Sian and David.

While opening new horizons in academic psychology, her purpose was in parallel to champion for the needs of children and families, advocating at all levels for their welfare. Examples can be seen in her work in a clinic providing parenting advice for Aboriginal women, her advisor role in autism clinical services in Vietnam and India, her position as a founding member of La Trobe Institute for Peace Research, her book with colleagues showing us the societal changes necessary for children to achieve their potential, her UNESCO work and her advisory role to many governments and research centres internationally. 

Her professional achievements reflect exceptional leadership. She was awarded the Order of Australia in 2004; Chair of the Social and Human Sciences Network for UNESCO (2005 – 2007); Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia; President’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology by the Australian Psychological Society 2005; Senior Australian of the Year, Victoria in 2006; the award of Doctor of Science (honoris causa), Melbourne University, for her contribution to developmental psychology in 2016; and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Autism Research in 2018. 

The greatest prize though was the one she gave away. She shared generously all that she knew, and all that she loved. She shared her curiosity, her enthusiasm and wisdom. In her life she knew tragedy, she knew suffering and she knew courage. She showed us also how to strive for positive change whatever the cost, to hold a vision and remain hopeful. We will deeply miss a very dear friend who never stopped giving to us and guiding us; but her mentorship, scholarship and compassion leaves a legacy of great riches for the years and generations ahead.

- Sue Leekam

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

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