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Dark, Eric Payten (1889–1987)

by John Low

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Eric Payten Dark (1889-1987), medical practitioner and activist, was born on 23 June 1889 at Mittagong, New South Wales, youngest of three children of Rev. Joseph Dark, an Anglican clergyman born in England, and his third wife, Adelaide, née Goodwin, who was born in Sydney. His father had three older children from his first marriage. After private tutoring, Eric attended Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney (MB, Ch.M., 1914). He worked briefly as a resident radiographer at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

Appointed a temporary lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps on 15 March 1915, Dark sailed to England. He was sent to the Western Front, where he spent five months with the 18th General Hospital and two years with the 9th Field Ambulance. As a temporary captain (1916), he was awarded the Military Cross for evacuating the wounded under fire at Boesinghe (Boezinge), Belgium, on 31 July 1917. In October he was temporarily blinded and badly affected by gas, having removed his mask better to attend to casualties. Invalided to England, he recovered and was posted to a general hospital in Macedonia. He returned to Australia in July 1919.

While on leave in Australia Dark had married Kathleen Aphra (`Daidee’) Raymond, a nurse, on 25 January 1918 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney. Next year they moved to Bungendore, where he worked in general practice. Following the birth of their son in 1920, Daidee died of septic peritonitis. Devastated, Dark returned to Sydney, where he became a demonstrator in the anatomy department at the University of Sydney. On 1 February 1922 at St Matthias’ Church of England, Paddington, he married Eleanor O’Reilly twelve years his junior; they were to have a son. They moved to Katoomba and bought a house named Varuna in 1923 and he took over a general practice. Dark published his innovative and successful Diathermy in General Practice (1930). He enjoyed reading and listening to classical music. A `small, wiry, energetic, extremely fit’ man, with `reddish hair, a small moustache and flying eyebrows’, Eric shared with Eleanor an enjoyment of gardening, tennis, golf, bush-walking and rock-climbing. He became a director of the Katoomba Colliery Ltd and Katoomba Hotels Pty Ltd.

Initially a political conservative, Dark witnessed the impact of the Depression on his patients. He realised that their health was influenced as much by political and economic factors as by viruses and bacteria. An advocate of the nationalisation of medicine, he published a collection of his articles, Medicine and the Social Order (1943). By the end of the 1930s Dark was an active member of the Australian Labor Party, later serving as vice-president of the local branch. In the 1940s he stood twice, unsuccessfully, on the Labor ticket in council elections. He was involved in obtaining local community improvements such as a children’s library, healthy `Oslo’ lunches at the school, childcare facilities and a current affairs library.

In protest against government censorship and the banning of the Communist Party of Australia in 1940, the Darks purchased shares in the People’s Printing & Publishing Co. In 1941 he became vice-president of the Russian Medical Aid & Comforts Committee. He wrote Who Are the Reds (1946) and The World against Russia? (1948). His concern for freedom of speech led to his becoming a vice-president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties and found further expression in The Press against the People (1949). In 1942-45 he had served part time in the Volunteer Defence Corps, rising to lance sergeant. He was commended for his work of training men in the skills of bushcraft and exploring the Blue Mountains for suitable guerrilla bases in the event of a Japanese invasion.

Although 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 suspicion of him in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1947 the charter of the Katoomba branch of the ALP was revoked and the Darks were named in Federal parliament as underground workers for the CPA. He supported the Lithgow coalminers during the 1949 strike. Under surveillance by the Commonwealth Investigation Service (Australian Security Intelligence Organization), he received threatening letters and was expelled from the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial Services League of Australia in 1950.

His joining of the Australian Peace Council that year precipitated his resignation from the ALP. Next year he and Eleanor opposed the Federal government’s attempt to proscribe the Communist Party.

After selling the practice, in 1951 the Darks bought a farm at Montville, Queensland, where Eric pursued a new interest in sustainable agriculture. The political climate relaxed somewhat and in 1957 he was appointed school medical officer in the Blue Mountains. Enjoying this kind of social medicine, he worked until forced by government regulations to retire, aged 85. He was awarded life membership of the Doctors’ Reform Society of New South Wales (1981) and the Sydney Rock-Climbing Club. A man of moral rectitude and courage, he died at Wentworth Falls on 28 July 1987, two years after Eleanor, and was cremated. His sons survived him. An oil portrait painted by Brian (`Bim’) O’Reilly hangs at Varuna.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Brooks and J. Clark, Eleanor Dark (1998)
  • New Doctor, June 1984, p 11
  • Hummer, July-Aug 1987, p 7
  • Blue Mountains Gazette, 12 Aug 1987, p 21
  • Rock (Glebe, New South Wales), Jan-June 1990, p 18
  • J. Boyd, That Dark Lady’s Husband (BA Hons thesis, University of Western Sydney, 1992)
  • series B884, item N347269, and series A6119, items 82 and 1482 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Dark files (Blue Mountains City Library)
  • E. Dark papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John Low, 'Dark, Eric Payten (1889–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/dark-eric-payten-12401/text22293, accessed 23 November 2017.

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