Passing of Dr Kevin Walsh

Tribute by Professor Michael Saling

Dr Kevin Walsh AO, the founder of the profession of Clinical Neuropsychology in Australia, passed away suddenly on Monday the 4th of December at 92.

Dr Walsh served in the RAAF during the Second World War, commencing his medical studies in 1946. He showed an early interest in Psychology, and was amongst the first cohort to enrol in Melbourne University’s newly established Department of Psychology, ambitiously during the first years of his medical training. Following the completion of his medical studies he became interested in abnormal behaviour, and during his tenure as a Neuropsychiatric Medical Officer at the Mont Park Mental Hospital, he studied the complex behavioural alterations induced by prefrontal leucotomy, for which the degree of Master of Science was awarded in 1960. This work was the ‘moment of transition’ that gave birth to his vision for a clinical discipline that would unite psychological depth with neurology. A year later, Dr Walsh joined the staff of the Department of Psychology, initially in an honorary position. As a result of detailed negotiations between the Melbourne University’s Department of Psychology and the Austin Hospital, a new postgraduate training program in Clinical Neuropsychology and a Clinical Neuropsychology Unit at the Austin Hospital were created, with the first student intake in 1977. At the heart of this new clinical enterprise was Dr Walsh’s deep and enduring collaboration with his dear friend, Dr Peter Bladin, the first Director of Neurology at the Austin Hospital.

Kevin, as he preferred to be known to his students and colleagues alike, was a humble and unassuming man of the people. He preferred informality over formality. My first meeting with him on my arrival in Melbourne in 1985 as his Clinical Fellow was over a glass of beer. And in that decidedly non-academic atmosphere we chatted about the next 12 months, as I caught glimpses of his immense scholarship and grasp of a literature opaque to me because it had been published in languages over which I had no mastery. He was more concerned, however, about my deficiencies in ‘Strine, which he set about to correct in in the coming months! I was soon to encounter Kevin’s Wednesday evening “social seminars”, attended by staff and students. Clinical anecdotes were shared, and wisdom was imparted, often in the form of Kevin’s trademark aphorisms. I was later to write that “the wealth of knowledge displayed during these get-togethers was stunning, and I revelled in every precious second of it”. But the centrepiece was undoubtedly his weekly Tuesday Case Conference held in the Padua Lecture Theatre at the Austin Hospital. An eminent international reviewer was later to highlight the exceptional brilliance of these sessions.

Kevin’s unpretentious attitude is reflected in the book that was to become one of his most influential works, Neuropsychology: A Clinical Approach, first published by Churchill Livingston in 1978. He set out to write the book in a direct, simple, and highly accessible style, intending it to be an introduction to the field. Perhaps contrary to his expectations, Neuropsychology soon came to populate the shelves of neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, speech pathologists, and other health professionals around the world. It was widely prescribed wherever clinicians were seriously interested in the relationship between brain and behaviour, and, translated into a number of languages, was one of the most frequently cited texts in the field. My first encounter with Neuropsychology: A Clinical Approach, half a world away, was transformative and I was determined to meet and work with him. I will be forever grateful for that immense privilege.

Dr Walsh was honoured with the Order of Australia for his foundational contribution to the field of Clinical Neuropsychology. Amongst his many talents, he was a gifted and inspiring clinician and teacher. His legacy is the vigorous and expanding discipline that has attracted postgraduate students from almost every continent, and although he is no longer with us, he stands amongst the giants of Neuropsychology.