Bruce Tonge’s ground-breaking work in child psychiatry over five decades has focused on autism spectrum disorders and behavioural and emotional disturbance in children with intellectual disability.
The Woodend-based Emeritus Professor has been named an Officer of the Order of Australia in this year’s Australia Day Honours in acknowledgement of his service to research and education in this field.
Prof Tonge’s career began in 1970 as a young graduate of medicine at Monash University, when he first developed a keen interest in both paediatrics and psychiatry.
“My very first placement was at the Children’s Hospital in Brisbane and I just loved that work,” he told the Express.
“Somehow it resonated with me.
“And then I did my psychiatry placement, and that also made sense to me.”
But with limited opportunity to study in this field in Australia in the 1970s, Prof Tonge took up an opportunity to train in psychiatry at Oxford in England.
“In those days, the only training for psychiatrists was a diploma of psychological medicine at Melbourne University or in Queensland, and it wasn’t very elaborate, so most psychiatrists trained either in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada or the United States,” he said.
“The traineeship in England was innovative for its time in that it provided experience in all the main parts of psychiatry, including child psychiatry, so that attracted me.
“I got to work with some world-class psychiatrists there.”
Prof Tonge went on to undertake specialist training with Cambridge University before returning to Australia in 1976.
“I had a job joining the fledgling training program that the mental health service was setting up in child psychiatry, so I was able to get there right at the beginning of what became the child and adolescent mental health service in Victoria,” he said.
In the decades since, Prof Tonge established and directed the internationally recognised Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology.
He is the former chairman of the Mental Health Foundation of Australia and continues his work with the foundation today as patron.
He also helped establish Autism Victoria (now Amaze).
More than 15 years ago, Prof Tonge and his wife – early childhood educator Avril Brereton – set up a training program in Bendigo, which established the regional Child and Adolescent Autism Assessment Service.
Twelve years ago the couple established their Woodend clinic, Time for a Future – Centre for Child Development.
“It has built up into a busy clinic that sees patients from all over country Victoria, because there are very few paediatricians and virtually no child psychiatrists west of Melbourne,” Prof Tonge said.
“We have five or six psychologists, student psychologists and medical students, we’ve got an occupational therapist, an education specialist and a speech therapist starting soon.”
One of Prof Tonge’s many career highlights was developing the ‘Draw a Dream’ child mental state assessment technique, now used by child psychiatrists and psychologists around the world.
He has had dozens of books and hundreds of research papers and manuals published, and remains active in research and teaching in his field.
“I think (research) has to be the way of the future, I think we’ve really got to look hard at what we’re doing and whether it works,” he said.
“With regard to this great honour that the nation is offering me, it’s not mine, it’s on the back of lots of other people – those who taught me and worked with me, and the students.
“Research in my field is not a solo enterprise, it requires a team, it’s a collegial thing.
“I’m no longer driving those research projects but I’ve been working with younger people who are now the leaders, so I’ve got something to contribute as a mentor.”