09 June 2012

Vale Helen Beh, 1941-2012

My lifelong friend Professor Helen Beh, one of my father’s first PhD students, who went on to become Head of the Department of Psychology at Sydney University, died on 7 February 2012.

The following obituary was written by her husband, Cyril Latimer; the Paul Barratt referred to therein is my father.

Professor Helen C. Beh.  1941 – 2012.  Obituary
Most scientists would not expect to publish in the prestigious journal Science at any stage of their careers.  In 1965, within two years of the commencement of her academic career, Helen Beh and her co-author Paul Barratt published their paper “Discrimination and Conditioning during Sleep as Indicated by the Electroencephalogram” in Science.  This landmark paper, demonstrating that changes in electroencephalograms indicate that subjects respond more frequently to significant or meaningful stimuli during sleep than to non-significant stimuli, and that conditioned reactions may be induced in sleeping subjects, is still regularly cited today.
Professor Helen Beh went on to become an internationally recognized expert in sleep research, psychophysiology, human performance and sports psychology.  In a university career spanning 38 years, she published four books and 73 papers in peer-reviewed journals. She was regularly invited as a keynote speaker at national and international conferences, and acted as guest and consulting editor for journals such as the Psychological Bulletin and the Journal of Experimental Psychology.  She held numerous overseas research appointments, including: Birkbeck College, University of London; McGill University; and the University of California, Berkeley.  Besides holding many research grants herself, she regularly reviewed grant applications for the Australian Research Council and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. Helen Beh acted as a consultant to many NSW State Government Departments and Australian Companies.  These included the NSW RTA, QANTAS, NSW Cricket Association, the Australian Football League and the Sydney Opera House.
Helen Beh was an excellent teacher, and in 1993 was one of the first academics to receive an Excellence in Teaching Award at the University of Sydney.  She supervised 83 honours students, 18 masters students and 20 PhD students, many of whom now hold senior academic, government and business positions in Australia and overseas.  She recognised very early the potential of computer technology in teaching, particularly in her courses on psychophysiology and human performance, and this insight, together with her superb communication skills, ensured that her lectures and tutorials were regularly crammed with enthusiastic psychology students.  Even today, her students attest to her presence at the lectern, her critical thinking, her ability to challenge, inspire and exhort them to “seek ever to stand in the hard Sophoclean light and take their wounds from it gladly”.

Professor Helen Beh with some of her postgraduate students

Many academics would be satisfied with excellence in teaching and research, but some would argue that Helen Beh’s major contributions, particularly to the University of Sydney, were achieved in her role as a senior administrator.  Having served as Sub Dean, Associate Dean and Pro Dean in the Faculty of Science, and also Head of the Department of Psychology, she was appointed Acting Dean 1995-1997.  This was a very difficult and turbulent time in Australian universities, a time of fiscal uncertainty and a time when central resources and power were devolved upon the faculties and thence the individual departments.  It was a time for fortitude, clear thinking, a thorough understanding of what universities are and should be about, innovation, sharp negotiating skills and a willingness to compromise – an environment in which Helen Beh thrived.  For various periods during 1996 and 1997, she was Acting Pro-Vice–Chancellor, Sciences Group, and in 1999 was awarded an Honorary Professorial Appointment in the Faculty of Science.  She was the first woman to hold a Dean’s appointment in the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney, and is remembered for her outstanding negotiating skills, her economic and business acumen and her ability to inspire confidence and extraordinary loyalty in colleagues and staff.

Helen relaxing with Faculty colleagues Damon Ridley (left) and Bob Hewitt (right).

Helen Charmaine Beh was born on the 31st of July 1941 in Singleton, NSW, daughter of Florence (Simpson) and Frederick Charles Beh.  She attended Singleton Public and High Schools and was awarded a BA (Hons) at the University of New England in 1963.  In 1969, she was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Psychology at UNE.  In 1973, she became the first woman to be appointed Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sydney.  For her services to the Faculty of Science, she was awarded a Master of Science (ad eundem gradem) by the University of Sydney in 2000.  

For someone who never suffered fools gladly and rarely took prisoners, she could be incredibly generous with her time, her advice and her finances.  She assisted dozens of students financially, and steered and encouraged many uncertain young postgraduates into successful careers in universities, government and business.  She always knew a good set of neurons when she saw one, and very rarely were her charity and support misplaced.  Formidable and tenacious in argument, when her pistol misfired, she would, like Dr Johnson, simply reverse the weapon and bludgeon her opponent with the butt end. From personal experience, when insulted, she had a very fast and very accurate straight right. She was a mean chess and scrabble player, and gloating opponents would often find the board and pieces in their laps.  Helen had a devilish sense of humour that was used effectively against those with an inflated sense of their own importance, and often to restore perspective in many a committee meeting.

Raised on the land, she was an excellent horsewoman, a sport to which she returned in later life.

Colleagues often remarked on her capacity for working long hours and on her ability to achieve goals quickly and effectively.  I recall her sitting down regularly at her computer in the evenings after cooking the family meal, and over the period of a few weeks, writing not one, but two textbooks – one on Human Performance and the other on Psychophysiology.  She then formed her own publishing company and had them printed.  They were highly successful and students bought them by the hundred.

Helen’s fighting spirit was exemplified when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. She immediately enrolled in a part-time Law degree at Macquarie University, collected several prizes and graduated with first-class honours and the Dean’s Award for topping the year in 2005.

In August 1999, Helen Beh resigned from the University of Sydney to become the first CEO of the Australian Orthopaedic Association (AOA).  Using her sound financial skills, she was involved in increasing members’ equity by almost $10 million in eight years.  This despite membership fees having effectively decreased by around 30% over the same period.  With her enduring interest in training programmes and continuing education, she ran workshops to train orthopaedic surgeons who acted as interviewers for the AOA training programme, and oversaw the development of a national training program and establishment of a national selection process.  She was influential in bringing about the swift and successful completion of the Memoranda of Understanding and Service Agreements for the training of surgeons between the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the Specialist Surgical Societies.  These formal arrangements were essential to the College receiving accreditation from the Australian Medical Council, and everyone involved valued Helen Beh’s leadership, intellectual input and commitment to the process.  Some believe that her most significant contribution to the AOA was her knowledge and advocacy of proper corporate governance in the workings of AOA Boards and associated committees.

In early 2007, Helen was diagnosed with a malignant and aggressive brain tumour, and without treatment, given weeks to live.  The fighting spirit resurfaced, and she enrolled in a counselling course!  With the help of her excellent medical teams at the Prince of Wales Hospital, the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst, and Milford House Nursing Home, not to speak of the love and care given by her family and friends, she defied all the statistics of her disease, surviving almost six years, and being able to play with her beloved grandchildren Will and Honor.  Helen, being Helen, had no funeral or memorial service – just a simple cremation and Wake at which many of her family, friends, colleagues and students remembered and celebrated a life well lived.  Helen’s Memorial is to be a dedicated Holm oak and bench seat overlooking Randwick Pond in Centennial Park.  She is survived by daughter Phillipa, sons Jason and Steven, husband Cyril and her beloved cats, “Screamer” and “Big Cat”.

Cyril Latimer
4 June 2012