DARK, Eric Payten (1889-1987) medical practitioner, social and political activist and writer, was born on 23 June 1889, the youngest child of the Rev. Joseph Dark, an Anglican clergyman, and his third wife, Adelaide (nee Goodwin).
In an intensely religious household the young Eric spent his Sundays reading religious literature. This gave him an extensive knowledge of the Bible from which he would quote often in later life. He suffered severe asthma and at the age of eleven was taken out of school on medical advice and allowed to ‘run free’ for two years on his father’s property at Mittagong. Besides having a beneficial effect on the asthma, this period of freedom also initiated his love of the outdoors.
Following a period of private tutoring, Dark was enrolled in July 1904 at Sydney Grammar School, where he demonstrated his innate intelligence and intellectual ability and quickly made up the academic ground he had lost. Skills in oratory and journalism were also nurtured in the school’s debating society and editing the school magazine. But intellectual pursuits were balanced by a love of physical activity. It was during his time as a student at Grammar that he and a friend made an epic 15-day canoe expedition down the Endrick and Shoalhaven Rivers. His enrollment at Grammar also saw the Dark family move back to Sydney, to a more permanent home at Greenwich. In 1909 he matriculated with honours and won the Sydney Grammar Medal for ancient history and physiology, a subject in which he discovered a deep
Half-way to being an agnostic he turned down a scholarship to Oxford offered with the expectation of a career in the Church. He had decided on becoming a doctor and, in 1910, enrolled in Medicine at the University of Sydney. As well as study, during his time at University he pursued interests in boxing, rowing, bushwalking, bicycling and rifle shooting. He founded and became captain-coach of the Sydney University Rifle Team.
When World War I was declared he took the opportunity offered to senior medical students to expedite their graduation and serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Though he graduated, third in his class, in 1914 he was not immediately called up and spent a short period as resident radiographer at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In March 1915, however, having received his call-up papers he departed for England on the ‘Orsova’.
After basic training he spent five months at the 18th General Hospital before being assigned to the 9th Field Ambulance. Promoted to captain, he served in Flanders, at the Somme and in the Passchendaele offensive. During the Battle of Ypres he was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” in evacuating the wounded under fire at Boesinghe on 31st July 1917 . As the offensive continued he was blinded and badly effected by gas after removing his mask to better attend the wounded. Returned to Britain he was given six months unpaid leave to recover and, following a period of convalescence in Scotland, he travelled at his own expense back to Australia.
While in Australia he married Kathleen Aphra (‘Daidee’) Raymond, whom he had met earlier at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where she worked as a nurse. Following an unsuccessful proposal in 1912 he had maintained a regular correspondence with her during his time overseas and she had finally accepted him in a letter received just before the Passchendaele offensive. The marriage took place on 25th January 1918. By March he was back in Europe and served the remainder of the war in the malarial Vardar Marshes of
Macedonia, a time he recalled as extremely boring. The war remained imbedded in his memory and, even towards the end of his life, experiences could emerge with sharp clarity.
He returned to Australia in July 1919. By the end of the year he and ‘Daidee’ had moved to Bungendore NSW where he established himself in general practice. Here he re-captured his earlier interest in physiology and purchased one of the earliest diathermy machines. On 26th July 1920 a son, John Oliver, was born. Tragically, within weeks Daidee’s condition deteriorated and on 8th September 1920 she died of septic peritonitis in St. Vincent’s Private Hospital, Sydney. She was cremated in Adelaide and her ashes buried in South Head Cemetery. Devastated, Dark returned to Sydney where, with the intention of becoming a surgeon, he became a demonstrator in the anatomy department at the University of Sydney.
Following his return to Sydney Dark renewed his acquaintance with the family of writer and politician Dowell O’Reilly, who had been a teacher at Sydney Grammar School during his student years. He had often visited the O’Reilly home and kept in touch with the family during the war. Photographs taken of Dark with the family in 1921 show the impact upon him of war and the loss of his wife. They depict a serious, melancholy man with a small moustache, “a grey bird” as Dowell O’Reilly described him . His friendship with the O’Reilly’s at this time was clearly beneficial. On 1st February 1922 he married the attractive, self-confident Eleanor O’Reilly, twelve years his junior.
The couple spent the first ten months of their marriage living in the inner Sydney suburb of Five Dock before Eric purchased a medical practice in Katoomba, possibly on medical advice regarding Eleanor’s health. They moved to the Blue Mountains in January 1923 and, in March, the “red-headed bloke with eyebrows like steam-shovels” bought ‘Varuna’, not far from Katoomba Falls. This would be the place where he and Eleanor would spend the rest of their lives, settling into the life of the local community and in the 1930s building a new two-story home on the property. Their son Brian Michael was born on 14th February 1928.
As well as maintaining a successful practice as a local doctor, Dark continued his interest in diathermy. In 1930 he published his innovative and highly praised first book, Diathermy in General Practice. This work went into a successful 2nd edition in 1935 and the Darks embarked on a tour of the United States of America between August and October 1937 to study and promote the use of electrotherapy in hospitals.
Dark enjoyed reading, especially English poetry, and listening to classical music. He also loved driving and he and Eleanor would take long drives through the Mountains as well as more extended family holidays, motoring and camping in different parts of Australia. A “small, wiry, energetic, extremely fit” man, Dark also shared with his wife an enjoyment of other outdoor pursuits including gardening, tennis, golf, bushwalking and rock climbing. In 1937 they found a cave in the bush near Katoomba and fitted it out as a private retreat. In 1940 they walked from Emu Plains retracing the route into the Blue Mountains taken by William Dawes in 1789.
In the 1920s the Darks became involved in a local circle of literary and bushwalking friends that included Eric and Nina Lowe, Osmar White and Frank Walford. They enjoyed bridge and music evenings, formed a writing group and were also involved in the Leura Amateur Dramatic Society. In 1930 this same group of friends established what was possibly the first organised rock climbing club in Australia, the Blue Mountaineers. Dark’s passion for climbing, which began during his student years, resulted in pioneering
climbs not only in the Blue Mountains but also in places as diverse as the Warrumbungles in NSW and Mount Lindsay and the Glass House Mountains of southern Queensland. His deep affection for the Australian bush inspired a strong nationalism that underpinned his later political and social activism.
In Katoomba in the 1920s he enjoyed a career as respected local doctor and businessman, becoming a director of the Katoomba Colliery and Katoomba Hotels Pty. Ltd., a company that proposed, unsuccessfully, to build a large hotel at the Katoomba Golf Course. At this time, despite his long friendship with the O’Reilly family, Dark was a political conservative. In the words of his wife, they “would go off to the polling booth together, he to vote Tory and I to vote Labor” .
With the coming of the Depression he underwent a radical political transformation. In the course of his work as a local doctor he witnessed the impact of an economic system under stress on the lives of his patients. Disturbed by what he saw he began to read and think more about politics, economics and history. He came to see his patients as part of a wider social fabric, in which their health was influenced as much by political and economic factors as by viruses and bacteria.
Frustration at what he saw happening and optimism that something could be done lead him to the Left. His trip to America in 1937 reinforced his new stance and by the end of the 1930s he was committed to socialism. Dark joined the Australian Labor Party and became actively involved in local politics. He donated land for a Labor meeting hall in Katoomba and became Vice-president of the local branch and a delegate to the Macquarie Assembly. In the 1940s he stood twice, unsuccessfully, on the Labor ticket in
local council elections. He came to count men like Chifley and Evatt among his friends.
With political commitment came involvement in movements for local community improvements such as the establishment of a children’s library, the provision of healthy ‘Oslo’ lunches at the school tuck shop and childcare facilities in the form of a day nursery for women munitions workers during the Second World War. In 1943 he was also involved in the setting up of a Current Affairs Library & Reading Room in Katoomba.
In May 1942 the fifty-three years old Dark enlisted in the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC). He spent three years as a sergeant in the VDC training men in the skills of bushcraft and exploring the Blue Mountains for suitable guerrilla bases in the event of a Japanese invasion. He was eminently suited to such work and was commended by the VDC High Command.
As his involvement in political and social activism grew, he began to write extensively on the social aspects of his profession and on wider political, social and environmental issues. In 1942 a collection of his articles appeared in book form as Medicine and the Social Order. He became a strong public advocate for the nationalization of medicine.
When the Federal government banned the Communist Party in June 1940 and moved to censor the publication and reading of left wing literature, Dark and his wife purchased shares in the People’s Printing and Publishing Company in protest. A developing interest in Russia and Soviet experiments in social reform saw his election as president of the Russian Medical Aid and Comforts Committee in 1941. In 1946 he published the pamphlet, Who Are the Reds?, drawing upon an accumulated knowledge of subjects as diverse as history and theology to comment on the rise of anti-communism in Australia. This was followed in 1948 by The World Against Russia. His concern with issues of censorship and freedom of speech saw him become vice-president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties and, following the war, found further expression in a treatise on ownership and control of the media, The Press Against the People (1949).
His political commitment came with a price. The respected doctor and businessman of the 1920s became the subject of community suspicion in the 1940s and 1950s. Though he was never a member of the Communist Party and was insistent that his political philosophy was “democratic socialism not communism” , his left-wing views and association with known communists resulted in his being labelled a ‘Red’.
During his VDC activities rumours circulated about him hiding information and even guns and ammunition in preparation for a communist takeover. As a Government Medical Officer, he was accused of persuading men not to enlist and a dossier was begun on him by military intelligence. In 1946, press reaction to his radical stance undermined a potential appointment as Australian Ambassador to the Soviet Union. In 1947 the charter of the Katoomba branch of the ALP was revoked “to counteract the influence of left-wing elements within the party” and he and Eleanor were named in Federal Parliament as underground workers for the Communist Party. He received threatening letters, resigned under threat of expulsion from the RSL in 1950 and ex-servicemen were warned away from his medical practice, which began to suffer.
The Commonwealth Investigation Service (later ASIO) monitored the activities of both himself and his family.
The 1949 coal strike saw him at odds with the Chifley Labor Government. He supported the Lithgow coalminers and, by purchasing a truck, assisted local efforts to get food and other provisions through the army lines. In 1950 he and Eleanor joined the newly established Australian Peace Council and the following year expressed publicly their opposition to the proposed legislation to ban the Communist Party of Australia. Dark’s membership of the Australian Peace Council drew particular attention from ASIO and also roused further opposition against him within the ALP, becoming the trigger for his resignation from the party.
Dark sold his medical practice in Katoomba. In April 1951 he and Eleanor moved to Montville, north of Brisbane, where they had purchased a run-down citrus and macadamia nut farm near their friend Eric Lowe and their son Michael who had both embarked upon the production of pineapples. For the next seven years they alternated between Montville and Katoomba, spending the majority of winters in Queensland. On the farm Dark pursued a new interest in sustainable agriculture and land use, experimenting with organic
composting to produce his macadamia cash crop.
In 1957 Dark was offered the position of School Medical Officer in the Blue Mountains by the NSW State Health Department and the family returned permanently to Katoomba. Though he was still known locally as a ‘communist’, the political climate had relaxed somewhat and Dark enjoyed his job enormously. It was the kind of social medicine he had always thought important. He remained in this position for another seventeen years until a new government regulation prevented doctors being employed beyond the age of
seventy. Dark was eighty-five and he reluctantly retired.
Though his commitment to issues of peace and social justice remained strong during the years of his retirement, he no longer entered the arena of public debate. However, in this later period of his life his sustained work for social reform, especially in the field of medicine, achieved some degree of recognition. In 1981, at the age of ninety-two, he was made the first Honorary Life Member of the Doctors’ Reform Society and his book Medicine and the Social Order was put on the reading list for courses offered by the
University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine. His pioneering achievements in bushwalking and rock-climbing were also recognized at this time by the award of a life membership of the Sydney Rock Climbers Club.
Dark, now well into his nineties, cared for his wife Eleanor as her health declined and she became bedridden. He continued to chop wood for the fire and keep the house running. This final bond reflected the depth of their relationship. Widely known as ‘the husband of Eleanor Dark’, he expressed no frustration in pursuing his own career alongside his more famous wife. Eleanor’s death on 11th September 1985 had a profound effect on him. His sons, John and Michael, would often find him weeping and the garden at
Varuna grew wild. He died two years later on 28th July 1987 at the age of ninety-eight.
A man of moral rectitude and high personal standards, his ideas and actions were underlain with an intense physical and intellectual courage. In personal philosophy he moved from vague conservatism to socialism.
As an idealist, a democrat and a socialist who was also a member of a privileged profession, he felt compelled to speak in public debate. He was, however, also a man who cherished the privacy and security of marriage and family.
He was cremated and his ashes placed in Blackheath Cemetery, alongside Eleanor and Dowell O’Reilly. His two sons, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren survive him. An oil portrait painted by Brian ‘Bim’ O’Reilly hangs in Varuna The Writers’ House, Katoomba.
© John Low 2003
Note: a much shortened version of this article appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Images from the Local Studies Collection at Blue Mountains City Library.
From top -
1: Eric Dark portrait 1914-18, courtesy of Mick Dark
2: Eric Dark 1917, courtesy of Mick Dark.
3: Eric Lowe, Jim Starkey, Eric Dark, 1920s, photo by Jim Starkey
4: Eric Dark on the first ascent of the Boar's Head Rock at Katoomba. 1931. Photo by Jim Starkey
5: Eric Dark, Eleanor Dark and son Mick with Hennesy at Varuna, 1930s, courtesy of Mick Dark
6. Eleanor Dark, Eric Lowe, Osmar White and Eric Dark ascending the Boar's Head Rock, 1931. Photo by Jim Starkey
Books & Pamphlets
B. Brooks & J. Clark, Eleanor Dark: A Writer’s Life (Syd, 1998)*;
J. Devanny, Bird of Paradise (Syd, 1945);
L. Baxter, ‘Fires in the Fall: the Story of a Rational Reformer’, New Doctor, (June 1984), no 32*; L. Brant, ‘The Warrumbungle Range’, Walkabout, (April 1936), p 32; ‘Clio’, ‘Dr. Dark: Portrait of a Pioneer’, Rock, (January-June 1990), no 12, p 18*; English, D. ‘The First Ascent of Belougery Split Rock – Warrumbungles’, The Sydney Bushwalker, (1936), No.3, pp 6-14; J. Low, ‘The Salt of the Katoomba Earth: A Series on Blue Mountains Labour Identities No.3, Eric Payten Dark’, The Hummer, (July-August 1987), no 17, p 7;
Blue Mountain Echo, 5th January 1923 [Dark’s arrival in Katoomba]
Sydney Morning Herald, 23rd October 1943 [Review of “Medicine and the Social Order”]
Sydney Morning Herald, 30th July 1987 [Death of EPD]
Blue Mountains Gazette, 12th August 1987 [Obituary by John Apthorp]
J. Boyd, That Dark lady’s husband, the forgotten life of Dr Eric Payten Dark (B.A. Hons thesis, Univ WS, 1992)*.
Dark Papers (ML)*; Dark Files (Local Studies Collection, Blue Mountains City Library)*; John Dark correspondence (LSC, BMCL).
Cottle, D. “Dr. Dark and the Secret State”; J. Smith, “The Blue Mountaineers: Rockclimbing, Bushwalking, Literature and Politics in Katoomba 1920-1950”; O. White, “Pioneer Rock Climbs in Australia”; W. Williams, “An Overview of Eric Payten Dark’s Contribution to Australian Rockclimbing”, Eric Dark Memorial Lecture (Escalade’95). [Copies held LSC, BMCL]
Note: follow this link to a digital copy of Dr. Dark's military memoirs written in the 1970s, courtesy of John Oliver Dark, original held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney -
THE MILITARY MEMOIRS of CAPTAIN E. P. Dark 1915 to 1919
John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian, Blue Mountains City Library