Power Flip: Intimate Archives and the Ethics of History

Kate Davison – PhD Candidate in History (University of Melbourne)


Twitter: @katemdavo

Power Flip: Intimate Archives and the Ethics of History: The Neil McConaghy Archive

I first came across Neil McConaghy in 2015 while searching for primary source material for my PhD thesis. At the time I was also doing some paid research work for a colleague, who was investigating so-called sexual ‘conversion’ or reorientation practices by religious groups (now known as ‘sexual orientation change efforts’, or ‘SOCE’, in recognition that such practices are not ‘therapeutic’). It was in this context that I first heard of McConaghy’s work, which was mostly beyond the scope of my colleague’s project. As I quickly found out, it was far closer to my own research than it first appeared.

When I began my PhD I was mainly interested in the intersections of sexual politics, Communism, and East-West geopolitical relations, and connecting concepts of secrecy, disguise and emotional performance. My research originally focused on constructions of homosexuality as a ‘character weakness’ in Cold War security policy in East Germany, Australia and other countries. Concretely, I was looking at surveillance and detection strategies, as well as recruitment and training policies. This led me to trace the rise of behavioural observation, and behaviourist ideas in psychology and medicine. I wanted to find out what kinds of psychiatric and sexological knowledges the security agencies were using.

I was immediately fascinated by the enigma McConaghy represented: he was a psychiatrist in post-war Australia, which at that stage was extremely socially conservative and parochial; he was a self-proclaimed ‘Marxist’, whose best friend was even a member of the Communist Party, which meant that he was far more interested in behaviourist and Pavlovian psychiatric trends in Central and Eastern Europe than in America; he was the main and only Australian practitioner of homosexual aversion therapy who ever reached international recognition; and he was married but also queer. I took a deep dive.


Neil McConaghy was born in 1927 and died in 2005. Between 1962-1981, he built an internationally recognised career as the leading Australian practitioner of homosexual aversion therapy. The 1960s were the heyday of behaviour therapy in Britain, promoted especially at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Due to his political sympathies with Communism, McConaghy’s main inspiration was a longitudinal study of homosexuality carried out in 1950s Prague, Czechoslovakia, under the leadership of Dr. Kurt Freund. Contrary to the expectations of today’s audiences, both McConaghy and Freund were progressive and vocal advocates of decriminalisation of homosexuality.

The major innovation of the Czechoslovakian research that was most attractive to Neil McConaghy was the penile plethysmograph invented by Kurt Freund. This was a device designed to empirically and physically measure sexual arousal and therefore, it was believed, be able to diagnose sexual orientation. In 1964 he moved from Melbourne to Sydney and began an experiment heavily inspired by Freund – by this stage, electrical aversion therapy had been developed, so he designed his study as a comparison of apomorphine (nausea-inducing drug) versus electrical aversion therapy.

McConaghy was not the only practitioner of homosexual aversion therapy in Australia, but he had by far the most significant public and professional reputation for it. Until his retirement in 1997 he was based in the Department of Psychiatry at UNSW and worked clinically at the nearby Prince Henry Hospital in Little Bay. He specialised in all areas of sexuality and gender orientation treatment, and after homosexuality was removed from the list of mental illnesses in the mid-1970s his clinical focus shifted to abusive sexuality (specifically, child sexual abuse).

After learning a bit about him – in particular his clashes and interactions with early gay liberation activists – I was made aware of a webpage with a summary of his final book manuscript, which he had tried unsuccessfully to have published the year before he died. The webpage had last been updated in 2006, the year after his death, but listed at the bottom of the page was an email address of a family member. I sent off an email asking whether there might be any information on him available, not expecting anything back.

A month or so later, I got a reply. Yes, there were 15 boxes of his papers currently sitting in storage at the home of one of his daughters. She believed they were likely of some value and I was welcome to come and have a look. I booked a ticket to Sydney straight away.

It was one of those ‘holy grail’ moments for a historian. The boxes contained extraordinary material, much of it sensitive. I was so fortunate to be able to stay for the week while I went through it. I first created an inventory, and then identified certain boxes to rule out from a legal, privacy and data protection point of view. I was left with 9 boxes which are now on loan to me.

It was immediately clear that McConaghy had been aware of the historical import of much of his work and career. I was astonished to open them and find film reels labelled ‘aversion therapy’, an electrode machine McConaghy had tailored to specific clinical use, still film negatives depicting fairly tame pornographic images, and appointment diaries from the high-tide of his homosexual aversion therapy experiments in the late 1960s and early 1970s, log-books of these experiments and their results, including patient Kinsey scores, plethysmograph scores, masculinity-femininity scale scores, records of sexual activity and the gender the sexual partner. There is also quite a lot of correspondence with other psychiatrists in several countries – both East and West – who shared his interests in Pavlovian and behaviourist techniques.

But it was when I saw the original drafts of the paper he presented to the American Psychiatric Association conference in San Francisco in 1970 that I truly had to gasp. This conference has gone down in history as the location of one of the earliest major public interventions by American Gay Liberation activists. It was McConaghy’s speech they interrupted – some guy from Australia presenting his results from homosexual aversion therapy! Another folder contains correspondence with Australian gay and women’s liberation activists in the early 1970s, including one anonymous death threat written in invisible ink.

The vast physical bulk of the material, however, consists of hand-annotated photocopies of articles and papers from the medical literature. It is therefore possible to develop a detailed view of his intellectual, theoretical and psychiatric views and knowledge base.

In connection with his world view and political stance, McConaghy repeatedly argued that treating patients with aversion therapy at their request was consistent with a liberal humanist position: he argued that the role of the therapist was to reduce suffering. If that suffering was caused by unwanted sexual desire, then the therapist should work with the patient to reduce or eliminate those desires. Later, as the gay rights movement began to emerge, his rather peculiar interpretation of Marxist scientific values clashed with anti-oppression movements from below.

As historians of queer and LGBTIQ lives, or really of any subaltern or oppressed group, we are used to a situation in which documentation of our own or our subjects’ history has not been of their own creation, but has been through the prism of law enforcement, medicine, the political system, judicial processes: in other words all the elements of the architecture of repression identified by Foucault and others.

My intention in detailing the history of homosexual aversion therapy in Australia from the practitioners’ point of view is not to privilege the ‘voices of power’. I dedicate chapters in my thesis to the voices of patients and activists who opposed pathologisation and the medical model. Rather, my objective is to investigate the theoretical, methodological and clinical underpinnings of this area of medical history as it was presented and debated by practitioners and their peers, in order to fully understand how it was justified and on what theoretical, ethical, moral, political, technical, medical or scientific grounds.

The archive I have at my disposal is that of the psychiatrist and sexologist – the taxonomer, the one in control of definitions of others, the chief investigator, the scrutiniser, the representative of power and the medical establishment. Working with this archive, noticing the extent to which these two sides of the scenario intersect, clash, butt up against one another, contradict one another, or even overlap and agree has been a palpable experience. I have in some cases been able to match up the narratives of former patients gained through oral histories with records in the archive, from McConaghy’s appointment diaries and the log books of his clinical experiments.

Yet there is also material in the archive that offers a perplexing set of questions about his motivations. According to anecdotal reports, it was common knowledge that McConaghy himself was sexually active with men, but for me as a historian it was still gratifying to find concrete evidence of this in his personal archive.

In his final manuscript, called ‘So You Say You’re Straight?’ McConaghy attempted a defence of what he called ‘heterosexual homosexuals’. This book – which was never published – could be interpreted as a swan-song type of tract, in which the author finally puts down on paper one of the key observations about himself from a professional point of view, but also reveals that the divisions between his subjects and himself, and between his profession and his personal experience, was not as clear as we may first assume. This raises questions about what we consider to be a ‘queer archive’. It also troubles the slogan of the early gay liberation movement, which claimed that ‘psychiatry is the enemy’. If McConaghy and Freund were villains in the narrative of queer history, they were imperfect villains.

Further reading:

Kate Davison (2020). ‘Cold War Pavlov: Homosexual aversion therapy in the 1960s’History of the Human Sciences (Special Issue): 1-31.

Kate Davison, ‘Neil McConaghy’s Penile Plethysmograph’, in Chris Brickell & Judith Collard (eds.), Queer Objects (Manchester University Press, 2019), 286-295.

Kate Davison, ‘The Sexual Politics of Loyalty: Homosexuality, Emotion and National Security in Cold War Geopolitics’, in Sean Brady & Mark Seymour (eds.), From Sodomy Laws to Same-Sex Marriage: International Perspectives since 1789 (Bloomsbury, 2019).

Further listening:

‘The Ruins of Science’, Shooting the Past – ABC Radio National podcast, aired 22 January 2019; duration 28min 35sec. Guests: Kate Davison, Fabian Lo Schiavo and Dr Sue Wills. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/the-history-listen/shooting-the-past-the-ruins-of-science/10732622

Kate’s paper was one of several submissions we accepted from our Call For Participation at the start of the 2019-20 academic year. This post returns to the material she covered in her wonderful talk at the start of 2020.

We received some fantastic responses for both seminars/sessions and blog posts – keep an eye out for these across the rest of the year! And, if you would like to put forward an idea, keep an eye out for future Calls For Participation or email us directly: queerhistory@warwick.ac.uk

Don’t miss new blog posts!

We don’t spam! Read more in our privacy policy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *