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Helena Murphy (2013)

Helena Murphy - 2013 John Curtin Medal recipient Helena Murphy (nee Clarke) - 2013 John Curtin Medal recipient

Born in 1922, Helena Murphy (nee Clarke) is a Western Australian civil rights activist and freedom fighter. She is regarded by many as a national treasure and often referred to as the Rosa Parks of the State's civil rights movement.

Helena is most noted for her part in founding the Coolbaroo League in 1947, a political movement and Indigenous social club that aimed to gain equal rights in post-war Western Australia at a time of extreme racism, before Aboriginal people had gained the right to vote.

Helena founded the League as a young woman in her 20s, when Aboriginal people lived under constant fear of police surveillance, had their children removed and were limited in where they could travel and work. It was also a time when women did not have equal rights, making Helena's courage and impact even more remarkable.

Coolbaroo, a Yamitji word for 'magpie', symbolised the idea of black and white coming together. Although non-Indigenous people could attend Coolbaroo events, only Indigenous people could hold office - a policy aimed at recognising the ability of the Indigenous community to run an exemplary organisation.

Helena and her colleagues fought for the rights of Indigenous Australians on many fronts - including lobbying the government on issues such as the removal of children, citizenship laws, deaths in custody, education and voting rights. One of their intentions was to close down the Moore River settlement and others like it.

Helena used Western Australian daily newspapers effectively as a means of addressing systemic racism and derogatory comments towards Aboriginal people. At one point, she tried to join the airforce and the land army, but was rejected on the grounds that Aboriginal women were not permitted.

By 1960, the Coolbaroo League had grown to become a highly effective Aboriginal-controlled organisation, responsible for - among other things - running the Westralian Aborigine newspaper. Helena and her peers had also successfully established the Western Australian Native Welfare Council.

Throughout her young adult life, Helena's activities were conducted at considerable personal risk, and she was kept under surveillance by the police for her activism.

The Coolbaroo Club inspired a film of the same name, which has been taught in WA secondary school for many years.

Helena moved away from Perth in the early 1950s, after marrying Cyril Murphy, an Indigenous man with family ties to the Kimberley. Together they ran a successful trucking business in Darwin. After her husband's early death at the age of 37, Helena single-handedly raised five children while also owning and operating a large corporate cleaning business that provided employment to many people.

Helena Murphy's fight against injustice has been for all Indigenous Australians and has a particular value in showing that strong Aboriginal women have a deserving place in the history books of Australia. She is a most worthy recipient of the John Curtin Medal for 2013.

Additional information

Arts, Culture and Heritage, have three podcasts in a series ‘Untold Stories of Perth’ that includes an interview with Helena Murphy, which can be accessed here.

There is also a Perth History Centre blog with the same stories, which can be accessed here.

John Curtin Medallists

Dr Graham Forward (2013)

Graham Forward - 2013 John Curtin Medal recipient Graham Forward - 2013 John Curtin Medal recipient

Graham Forward's story is one in which the strands of personal interest and professional commitment have been closely intertwined to bring remarkable impacts to many people living in East Africa.

Full-time orthopaedic surgeon, devoted husband to Jacquie Gilmour and father of eight children - including three adopted from Ethiopia - Graham has found the time and the energy to establish and build a highly respected medical humanitarian organisation.

Graham completed his medical training in Perth and went on to do an MBA at the University of Bath, subsequently returning to Perth to run his own building company for a short period of time.

Following his deep desire to pursue a professional career that could make a worthwhile contribution to society, Graham then undertook postgraduate training in orthopaedics, and has worked as an orthopaedic surgeon in Western Australia since then.

It was in 2004 that Graham embarked on what has become an extraordinary humanitarian journey. In response to the emergency medical requirements resulting from the 2004 tsunami, Graham organised a medical team to travel to Somalia, in an effort to aid swift recovery from the natural disaster.

On his return to Perth, he established Australian Doctors for Africa (ADFA) to help relieve communities in the Horn of Africa from some of their most severe medical and health difficulties. Graham's vision has been to provide long-term medical assistance in ways that complement host countries' health care plans.

Since 2005, the organisation has grown into a charity engaging some 70 medical professionals who provide voluntary medical, surgical and nursing services to Ethiopia, Somalia and Madagascar.

Over almost ten years, more than 36 medical teams have conducted thousands of surgical procedures, outpatient and inpatient consultations, and ward rounds. More than $10 million worth of medical supplies and medical equipment has been dispatched in 22 sea containers.

Key ADFA contributions include introducing new surgical procedures to the local medical workforce and completing six major building projects including new operating theatres. Local medical services have also been expanded and medical knowledge has been increased - through the use of information technology - to guide local surgeons in the treatment of orthopaedic injuries.

During the ADFA journey, Graham has experienced events and developments that have been large, unpredictable and rare - most of them far outside the realm of expectation for organisations operating in more politically stable countries. Graham has shown tenacity and skill in establishing and building ADFA in challenging conditions.

ADFA continues to go from strength to strength. This is testament to Graham's leadership ability and his deep concern for the welfare of those less fortunate. It is his enduring dedication to a long-term humanitarian vision that makes him a worthy recipient of the John Curtin Medal 2013.

Work undertaken since receiving the John Curtin Medal

Since receiving the John Curtin Medal in 2013, Dr Graham Forward continues to oversee the development of Australian Doctors for Africa (ADFA) as the organisation’s CEO.

Dr Forward founded ADFA in 2005. Today it is active in four countries: Ethiopia, Somaliland, Madagascar and Comoros Islands. The organisation sends at least 15 volunteer teams of medical specialists annually to provide medical services and assess and implement skills transfer, through medical consultation, surgical and non-surgical treatment and training local doctors and students. The objective is to enable a trained, sustainable local surgical workforce in each of the target countries.

While the initial focus of ADFA was on the provision of orthopaedic services through implementing local screening clinics and training local medical staff and surgeons in early detection and treatment, it has broadened to include specialised teams with expertise in urology, gastroenterology, obstetrics, gynaecology and paediatrics.

Since 2013, ADFA has been supporting infrastructure upgrades through the provision of surgical and hospital equipment, building renovations, hospital wards, water supply and capacity-building initiatives to improve medical facilities in major government teaching hospitals. More than 50 containers of medical and hospital equipment have been sent to hospitals in the target countries to date.

ADFA plans to continue supporting its existing medical training programs and expansion of the scope of specialist surgical teams it provides to include gastroenterologists, cardiologists and urologists, in addition to plaster technicians, physiotherapists, emergency GPs, anaesthetists and nurses.