The University of Newcastle, Australia

Hearing voices from the margins

Viewing the past through the critical lens of the present, historian Professor Catharine Coleborne is finding traces of histories hidden by accepted narratives.

An internationally-recognised historian of health and medicine, Catharine has an extensive portfolio of research, teaching, administration, and academic leadership.

By looking at the intersections of mental health, illness, trauma, mobility, gender, law, colonialism, families, and medical institutionalisation, Catharine has attracted worldwide attention.

“The continuous theme through my work has been a focus on people who live on the margins of society,” Catharine explains.

“Asking questions about marginal identity or people who need somehow to be made visible, has changed the way we look at stories from the past, to better understand our present.”

After 16 years at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, Catharine returned to Australia to take up a new appointment as Head of School in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.

Acknowledging multiple narratives

With an outstanding record of research and scholarly activity, Catharine has published three sole-authored books, more than six edited collections, and a range of book chapters and refereed journal articles.

The bulk of her work until this point has focused on institutions in the context of historical psychiatric practices and the formation of colonial social identities.

“It is very complicated, to tell the story of institutions and psychiatry, because the lives of individuals were impacted by experiences in different ways,” Catharine notes.

“There are multiple narratives, and therefore, many individual stories.”

Catharine’s most recent book, Insanity, Identity and Empire (Manchester University Press, 2015), looks inside institutions in Australia and New Zealand during the end of the nineteenth, and start of the twentieth, centuries.

Catharine calls this work ‘a bookend’ as she is now refocusing to examine the lived experience of consumers, through the narratives of mental health service users in the twentieth century.

“I'm really shifting my attention to look at contemporary issues so that we can more accurately talk about mental illness.”

Madness in the twentieth century

Catharine notes that economic rationalism, and the wider introduction of psychotropic therapies lead to the push to close down institutions in favour of community care.

This trend began in the UK in the 1960s and rippled through other Western countries until the end of the twentieth century.

“Some people felt really sad at the closure of institutions because they found them places of care and respite, often in lovely settings in the countryside,” Catharine says.

“But other people found institutions to be very repressive, very dark, very violent places, where abuses occurred.”

“Both stories are true, and multiple stories need to be told.”

Talking with colleagues in the UK, Canada and New Zealand, and forming a broad research group to inform her work, Catharine has begun work on her next volume, in which she explores Narrating Madness in the Twentieth Century.

Catharine is also preparing a project in collaboration with Professor Brian Kelly and Professor Sally Chan, looking at the unique aspects of Newcastle’s mental health care, past and present.

Examining mobility

A recipient of a Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe) Stipendiary Award from Lancaster University in 2015, Catharine is also investigating mobility and its regulation through social collusion and law.

“All through Australia's history, the mobility of Indigenous people has been regulated, the mobility of transient and poor people has been regulated. The mobility of refugees and migrants is still regulated, I could go on,” Catharine says.

“All mobility is not regulated uniformly. People who have private planes aren’t scrutinised or regulated the way people with no home are regulated, so it’s unwanted mobility, a fear of mobility, that interests me.”

Societal attitudes around people in motion fascinate Catharine, as does the movement of ideas and objects.

“Mobility is a sociological concept, a really flexible one. I like to think of the world as being highly mobile,” Catharine says.

“It allows us to examine all kinds of movement: the movement of objects, such as people collecting shells and feathers, photographs, postcards, the technology of passports, the books migrants carry.”

“Looking at the world through the lens of mobility is really exciting because you see different things.”

Global Newcastle

As a new resident of our city, Catharine brings an outsider’s perspective to the Global Newcastle Network, an umbrella for many projects aimed at making Newcastle’s history as a global city more visible, and accessible, to both the community and visitors.

In partnership with Newcastle City Council, Newcastle Region Library, and the UON Centre for 21st Century Humanities, the Global Newcastle Network seeks to activate the city’s rich heritage sources.

Digital, physical, and written resources, plus experiences designed to showcase living histories, will explore the city’s changing identity.

“Even though we might feel like Newcastle is a fixed place there has actually been a lot of movement,” Catharine says.

“Global Newcastle is actually the story of lots of people who have been moving through this city across many generations, as workers, as seafarers as migrants, as tourists, as students.”

Over the course of her career, many individuals and community groups working on historical projects have approached Catharine seeking help.

“Global Newcastle is also a way that I, and others in history here, could become helpful to communities wanting to preserve, write and catalogue histories,” she says.

Reading madness

Born in Armidale NSW, Catharine grew up in the coal mining area of the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, and having completed her undergraduate and masters qualifications at the University of Melbourne, graduated with her PhD, 'Reading Madness', on gender and nineteenth-century colonial institutional confinement for the mentally ill in Victoria, from La Trobe University, in 1998.

The following year, Catharine took up a post at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.

During her sixteen years there, she performed a number of key academic, administration, and leadership roles including Chairperson, Department of History, and Associate Dean - Graduate and Postgraduate, while also maintaining her research.

Catharine has held the post of President of the Australia and New Zealand Law and History Society, was a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Marsden Panel (Humanities) for three years, and was a Specialist Adviser to New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Commission.

She also has vast experience in course design, digital delivery of content and team teaching.

Describing her students as ‘fantastic’ and ‘talented’, Catharine has supervised more than 40 pieces of postgraduate research, including doctorates, masters and honours dissertations to completion, and is currently supervising one student at UON.

In her new role with a new team at the UON, Catharine aims to make the School of Humanities and Social Sciences a destination of choice for postgraduates and researchers.

“Humanities and Social Sciences need to be present in the whole university – called upon to be part of research priority areas, invited to be part of external funding applications / bids and research collaborations, and blazing a trail in terms of relevant engagement with research."