Vale Professor Margot Prior 1937-2020

We have lost a pioneer in autism research and beyond. Professor Prior was deeply involved in the creation of the Australasian Society for Autism Research, and it is in recognition of her that we have the Margot Prior Oral Presentation Prize. Below, is an Obituary written on her passing where you can read about her extraordinary achievements.

Margot was the best of us. She was a life affirming humanist, artist, environmentalist and scholar. She was a mentor to many and a much-loved friend. But at the heart of it she was a deeply passionate member of a large and brilliant family who sustained her through loss and love.

A classical musician who trained at the Melbourne University Conservatorium, Margot was a brilliant pianist and oboist who played in orchestras in the UK and Australia, and in recital on the ABC.  She married a musician, Glenthorne Prior, who she met when she was a student, and with whom she had three children: Yoni, David and Sian.

Whilst the couple were living in Brisbane and Glen was playing with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, he sadly drowned whilst saving two colleagues who got into trouble in the surf. Margot was left a widow, with her youngest child just 3 months old, and the eldest 5 years old.

Through necessity, Margot returned to Melbourne and study, retraining as a psychologist at Monash University. Having distinguished herself with a Masters degree which was focused on the then little known condition of autism. She was offered a tutorship and began a PhD, the latter also on autism, which she completed in just two and a half years, a rare feat.  Margot published the very first Australian journal article on autism in 1973, later to become known as Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Margot remarried in 1969 and is survived by her adoring husband John Hansen who had 4 children of his own, creating a large and blended family. In the midst of this busy time, Margot completed her PhD and took up an academic position at La Trobe University in 1976. It was here that she shone most brightly. Her interests grew to encompass many other early childhood conditions, including attention and language disorders. Her interests in clinical and developmental child and family psychology led to her research in childhood temperament, and she is well recognized as the architect of the Australian Temperament Study which began in 1983 and continues to this day. This study, one of very few that has examined three generations in a single project, has had a major impact on social policy in Australia, and developmental science more broadly.

Margot made highly distinguished contributions to the scientific investigation of child psychology and the application of developmental research to clinical practice and social policy in Australia and elsewhere. During much of this time, she continued to play in orchestras, which made for a very full and busy life. Music remained a core part of Margot’s life to the very end, but she eventually stopped working as a professional musician as the demands of academia and family life consumed much of her time.

Margot’s career blossomed and she was recognized as a leading figure in the field of psychology, becoming the first female Professor of Clinical Psychology in Australia in 1989, and establishing the first Clinical Psychology Doctoral program in the country.  Beyond her scholarly and academic work, Margot has been a prominent voice for child welfare, peace and social justice initiatives. She was one of the founding members of the Psychologists for the Prevention of War and co-established the La Trobe Institute for Peace Research. She also co-founded the Victorian Parenting Research Centre in 1997 (now the Parenting Research Centre) and contributed to the development of diagnostic standards for autism in Australia.

Margot moved to the University of Melbourne to take up the position of Inaugural Director of Psychology at the Royal Children’s Hospital in 1995, where she continued her stellar work. In addition to leading research in the area of developmental psychology and psychopathology, Margot mentored a generation of early career scholars and clinicians and was well regarded for her warmth and generosity and well as her fierce intellect and commitment to social and welfare issues. She was a widely read newspaper columnist and media commentator for many years, her advice and opinions doing much to raise the level of public understanding about child development in Australia, and autism in particular.

Margot’s work frequently led her overseas to present at many academic fora, including Chairing the Social and Human Sciences Network for UNESCO (2005 – 2007). She would also travel on missions to places like India and Vietnam to undertake development work including training clinicians to support children with developmental challenges.  She was often the go-to person for issues on child development, being invited to write reports for government, and even providing evidence in court for cases involving children. She had a keen interest in indigenous affairs and volunteered in an inner-city Aboriginal Health Service for many years.

Following retirement from her position at the Royal Children’s Hospital in 2002, Margot continued her involvement in research both at the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University. She was the inaugural Chair of the Advisory Committee of Australia’s first autism research centre at La Trobe, the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, established in 2008, and held this position until her 80th year. The Victorian Autism Specific Early Learning and Care centre at La Trobe was named after her in recognition of her long contribution to autism intervention science and service. She was also a Patron of Amaze, the peak autism body in Victoria.

Margot had a long and illustrious career during which she received many honours including being made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2004 and being named Senior Australian of the Year for Victoria in 2006. She was a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and of the Australian Psychological Society, where she also received the President’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology in Australia. In 2016 she was awarded Doctor of Science (honoris causa) for her distinguished contributions to scientific and clinical knowledge of developmental psychology, and in 2018 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Autism Research.

Margot was a pioneer and leaves an important legacy. Hers was a life well lived, to the fullest, and one that will be celebrated for a long time yet.

Please leave your memories below.

3 Comments

  1. Margot Prior was more than just a leader in the field of developmental psychology. Margot was engaged with people. Margot was a mentor, a teacher, a researcher, and had a life well lived.

    I could not count the times I sought and received sage, measured, and fearless advice, yet delivered with compassion. Margot could get fiery, but if she did, you knew why, and it was just. Margot was my teacher, and I can still see the day she first walked into a lecture I was in. She held us with enraptured with science. Now, in my research career, so often I have wondered whether the work I was doing would meet her standards, as these were the standards she taught me. But most of all, and for so many of us, Margot was a friend. Her laughter. Her laser-lock onto the conversation. Her quietness, and her calm and knowing smile. I will miss my friend.

  2. When Margot turned 80 we edited a book for her as a tribute to present to her. I wrote the following for her in this book.
    To my dear mentor and friend, Margot
    I was aware of you, Margot, from my first days of becoming interested in autism as an undergraduate student in the early 1980’s. You had written the first autism paper in the country, published in 1973. Being an alumni of Monash University, where I too was training, and strongly under the influence of Ross, Mac and Stella – I knew well who you were. But I didn’t know you.
    I came to know about you more as a postgraduate, especially when you were brought in as a third marker for an essay I wrote that had been assessed with discrepant marks by the two internal markers. The theoretical essay, titled “A critical appraisal of organic and experiential theories of the syndrome of early infantile autism” was a hurdle requirement to move from enrollment in the Masters into the PhD program, and my ‘scaling it’ was entirely dependent on you! You passed it with the comment that while it wasn’t the best essay you’d read, it should certainly not stop me from progressing onto a PhD. That was in 1985.
    In 1988, I gave a paper at the Autism World Congress in Sydney, and was thrilled to see you were in the audience. By now I had met you and was regularly reading your work in the area. But imagine how I felt when you left the room while I was still strutting my stuff. My heart dropped – ‘oh, she didn’t like it’ was my first thought. While feeling completely disappointed, at the end of the talk someone I didn’t know walked up to me to say “Margot says, Bravo”!! Well I began to love you right then and there.
    I sought you as a mentor and this you still are. So wise and gracious, and understated in all you say and do. You have enormous intellect and integrity and I have been blessed to have you at my side whenever I needed you.
    You were one of the first people I sought out on my return to Australia following my post doc in the US. Having undertaken my position at La Trobe in early 1996, also a place formerly inhabited by you, you kindly read a draft of my very first grant application for a “Small ARC”, which I was awarded. And you were the first person I rang on the day that Olga gave her first cheque (on 12th July 2007). And so much has flowed from then. Including you agreeing to being the inaugural Chair of the Advisory Board of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre.
    It was your idea, following the centre opening a year later, to bring together Australian autism researchers at a workshop at La Trobe as one of our first activities at OTARC. You facilitated this two day meeting, in April 2009. The Australasian Autism Research Collaboration, that we formalized at the conclusion of the workshop, culminated in the formation of the Australasian Society for Autism Research, of which you were awarded a lifetime membership, along with Lawrie Bartak. The Margot Prior Prize for Best Student Paper at the biennial ASfAR conference will continue in perpetuity in recognition to your contribution to the field.
    Also in 2009, it was announced, on World Autism Awareness Day (April 2), that La Trobe was chosen as the site to establish the Victorian Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre – named the Margot Prior Wing in recognition of your contribution to the University over so many years. I will never forget your hands reaching up to your face in sheer surprise – and delight I hoped!
    You have had such a strong influence on me Margot, and we have achieved so much together. I can’t thank you enough for the support and love you have given me, and the sage advice whenever I needed it. Having you as a sounding board has always given me confidence in moving forward. And that mentorship came with friendship, and for this I will always be grateful

  3. I came to Australia from the UK to work with Margot as a postdoctoral researcher from 1989-1990, a time that changed my life and future for the next 30 years. Her impact was powerful. Her mentorship and friendship were unique. She enabled independence, while guiding me (all of us) towards the bigger and important picture. She showed me how to ensure that scientific research ideas are combined with clinical and educational common sense. Crucially she demonstrated how to honour the privilege of the research work we do by aiming to make a positive difference for families, and particularly for children and adults with autism and with other developmental disabilities, whenever we possibly can.

    Across the years she gave me endless career advice, shared academic ideas, wise reflections on research strategy and advice from her work with families. Importantly, she provided a particular model of the courage that is needed to succeed. I’m thinking particularly of her uncompromising involvement with government, and with issues related to family welfare, children’s development and justice in Australia and elsewhere in the world. No matter how difficult it was and how pessimistic the outlook might be, she got involved and did what she could.

    Margot’s principles and values influenced me and helped to shape my approach. The early studies we did together set a path on which I travelled forward. She was always one step (or more) ahead of the newest ideas and looking back now, I see that we were already working on the same questions which have become so topical today. It was so rewarding to work with her on a number of research endeavours, and to see her link beyond me to the next generation of UK students who came to OTARC, for example Mirko Uljarević, following on from his Cardiff PhD, and PhD Katy Unwin who visited in 2017 and returned in 2020.
    Her mentorship guided me when I went to Cardiff University in 2009 to set up an autism research centre and to work closely with Welsh Government. We were proud to have her as our External Advisor on the Advisory Committee for the Wales Autism Research Centre and to learn from her experience of working with other governments. She never stopped advocating for us and supporting our work.

    Margot’s research achievements and awards were phenomenal. The greatest prize though was the one she gave away. She shared generously all that she knew, and all that she loved. She shared her curiosity, her enthusiasm and wisdom. In her life she knew tragedy, she knew suffering and she knew courage. She showed us also how to strive for positive change whatever the cost, to hold a vision and remain hopeful. We will deeply miss a very dear friend who never stopped giving to us and guiding us; but her mentorship, scholarship and compassion leaves a legacy of great riches for the years and generations ahead.

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