Page 1: Biography
Opie, Alice June Norma
Polio survivor, clinical psychologist, writer, broadcaster
This biography, written by Sarah Burgess, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.
June Opie was a polio survivor, clinical psychologist, writer and broadcaster who overcame discrimination against the disabled to achieve professional and personal success. Her memoir, Over my dead body (1957), was an international best-seller and brought her widespread fame. Her determination to live an independent life despite the obstacles presented by polio informed her later advocacy for disability rights, and she maintained strong support for equality of opportunity for those with disabilities throughout her life.
Alice June Norma Opie was born in New Plymouth on 27 June 1924, the third child of Kate Esther Corbett and her husband Harold Piers Opie. Her family lived at Mōkau, north Taranaki, where her father worked on bridge and roading projects. Opie and her siblings loved their rural childhood, climbing hills and mountains, and boating and swimming in the river and ocean. June formed a lifelong love of the outdoors, particularly waterways.
Opie was educated at the sole-charge primary school at Mōkau and later attended New Plymouth Girls’ High School. In 1943 she completed a teaching qualification at Auckland Training College, followed by a speech therapy qualification at Christchurch Training College a year later. After the Second World War ended, she worked as a speech therapist for the Education Department in Whāngārei.
In 1947, Opie sailed for England. She intended to work for two years as a teacher and visit British speech therapy clinics to further her education in this area. After arriving in London, she explored the city for a day and two nights before falling ill. A headache, backache and stiff neck developed into a fever, and she was taken to St Mary’s Hospital. There paralysis set in, starting with her fingers before spreading throughout her body; at its worst, she could only blink one eye. She had contracted poliomyelitis, a virus which attacks the nerve cells in the spine, causing paralysis and muscle wasting.
Opie spent the next 10 weeks in an iron lung, which encased her body from the neck down and controlled her breathing. Once she was strong enough to breathe on her own, she was fitted with a specially made plaster cast which held her body in place so that it did not become distorted. She lay in the cast for a little over a year, receiving physiotherapy treatment, before she gained enough control over her muscles to have no further need of it. Eventually she learnt to walk with the aid of callipers and crutches, a remarkable achievement given the extent of her initial paralysis. In 1949, after more than two years in hospital, she returned to New Zealand.
Adjusting to life post-polio
Over the next few years Opie continued to work on her recovery and began building a new life for herself. At first she was based at Auckland Hospital where, despite her progress, a doctor told her she would require institutionalised care for the rest of her life. Considering that defeatist, she left the hospital and moved back to Mōkau with her mother. She soon realised she would need to leave the small town if she wanted to lead an independent life. When a friend offered her a place to live and continue her treatment at a family-owned spa hotel, Opie moved to Helensville north of Auckland.
She enrolled at Auckland University College and in 1954 completed a BA, majoring in philosophy. Her passion lay in geology, but philosophy was the only course the university would allow her to take. To add insult to injury, in her third and final year the university advised her that as she had not attended classes on campus, she would not be permitted to sit her final examinations. After an influential friend intervened, the university relented.
Opie’s battle against discrimination continued when she tried to enter the workforce; she initially struggled to find work, even armed with her new degree, and felt that potential employers did not want someone with her level of disability. In 1955 she found work as a speech therapist and later as a clinical psychologist for children with cerebral palsy at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Rotorua. She worked there for three years before taking up a research position with the Dadley Trust (part of the Crippled Children’s Society) in Auckland. She then spent two years working as a psychologist at Mount Eden prison in Auckland and a boys’ welfare home in Levin.
Throughout this time, Opie had to contend with other people’s reactions to her disability. Her two years at St Mary’s Hospital, surrounded by supportive medical professionals and friends, had sheltered her from the reality of her situation. Old friends and acquaintances struggled to reconcile themselves to her altered physical condition; some openly wept. She was most hurt by those who reacted negatively to her disability when they first met her.
Despite these challenges Opie remained cheerful, determined to make the most of her life and the opportunities presented to her. She learnt to ride a tricycle to get to and from her treatment and later her job in Rotorua. She also acquired a car and a kayak, spending many happy hours on the water. Such freedoms, coupled with a fulfilling job, friendships and a thriving social life, made for a happy period in her life.
Writing and broadcasting career
While she was looking for work, Opie wrote a book about her time recovering from polio at St Mary’s Hospital which was published in 1957 as Over my dead body. Written to thank the St Mary’s staff, the book chronicled her battle against polio and the many people who helped her during her recovery. It became a best-seller in 10 days and was translated into several languages, transcribed into Braille, dramatised on the BBC and serialised. She was deluged with fan mail and requests for interviews from journalists around the world.
Her new fame had a positive effect on the ways in which strangers treated her; rather than avoiding her or looking at her with pity, they now approached her with pleasure and interest. But the burdens and expectations of fame were heavy and she soon became overwhelmed by the demands on her time. Around this time she and her mother were involved in a serious car accident which resulted in a lengthy hospital stay and added to her stress.
On her doctor’s advice Opie returned to England for a break in 1963, settling in Cornwall, where she earned a living writing book reviews and articles for magazines and journals. Between periods of working she travelled widely throughout Europe and the Middle East, even managing to visit Petra, in Jordan, on horseback. She travelled solo, driving from country to country and often sleeping in her vehicle. She also returned briefly to New Zealand to visit her mother over the summer of 1973–74.
In the late 1960s writer and close friend Eric McCormick asked Opie to make a radio documentary about the painter Frances Hodgkins. Somewhat daunted by the prospect, she nevertheless agreed and the resulting documentary was highly successful, bringing her further broadcasting work and an invitation from the Royal Society of Arts to give a lecture based on the documentary. This was well received and led to her being made a fellow of the society; she was awarded its medal in 1969. These successes brought her further lecturing and broadcasting work, and she continued to write articles and short stories. After the composer Priaulx Rainier died in 1986, Opie was named her official biographer. Two years later, ‘Come and listen to the stars singing’: Priaulx Rainier: a pictorial biography, was published.
Disability rights advocacy
As she gained prominence, Opie was increasingly asked to take part in advocacy work on behalf of people with disabilities. She did so happily but with some reservations, concerned that her activism would entrench polio as the defining feature of her life at a time when she was becoming better known for her broadcasting and writing. She addressed issues from her own experience, particularly her struggle to undertake study and enter the workforce, and the preconception that those with disabilities could only ever lead limited lives.
Opie gave lectures on disability issues and advised the British government on legislation. In 1971 she helped form the Association of Disabled Professionals, which advocated on behalf of those trying to enter higher education and the professions. She edited the Association’s quarterly magazine for the next 10 years. She also protested against a tax imposed on a mobility allowance by Margaret Thatcher’s government, speaking publicly about the issue at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park and in a rally outside the Houses of Parliament. The tax was removed.
Around this time Opie was also invited to take part in a pilot scheme by the British government to test the effectiveness of computer technology for people with disabilities. The scheme opened her eyes to the potential for technology to remove barriers to participation, and she became an ardent supporter of making it available to those who could benefit from it.
Opie argued publicly that people with disabilities should be at the forefront of decision-making processes in matters affecting them, particularly around the design of buildings and public spaces. She also spoke out against their segregation from the able-bodied community, urging that they should be encouraged to take part in everyday activities.
In 1961 Opie established the June Opie Rose Trust, a fund established from the proceeds of the sale of a rose named after her by the rose grower Wilhelm Kordes. The trust provided grants to young people to help them buy a car or wheelchair, or service a mortgage. In 1991 the fund was amalgamated with Alan Cook’s memorial trust to become the Cook-Opie High-Tech Trust to provide grants for the purchase of computer and technological equipment. Three years later she established the June Opie Fellowship, a scholarship for students of high academic achievement with a severe disability who wanted to undertake postgraduate study.
June Opie never married. She developed a close friendship with Peter Johns, an Englishman she had met on her original voyage to London; he was a great support to her during her stay in hospital, and they remained friends for the remainder of their lives, but she never let the relationship develop further.
During her hospitalisation Opie had forced herself to accept that relationships and a potential family would be closed off to her. She thought it unlikely she would be a suitable partner or wife. As an attractive and charming young woman in her twenties it was a difficult reality to face. She considered it one of the biggest problems she had to encounter. Despite her initial feelings on the matter, she did later enjoy a lasting and fulfilling relationship.
In 1988, prompted in part by the death of her companion and also by a desire to live in a warmer climate, Opie left England. She divided her time between Australia and New Zealand, living half of the year in Auckland with friends and the other half in her home in New South Wales. She continued to travel, seeking out dramatic landscapes, visiting the Rift Valley in Central Africa and the Grand Canyon in North America.
In 1996 Opie published an updated version of Over my dead body, giving an account of the 40 years of her life which followed her return to New Zealand in 1949. Three years later she was making plans to sell her house in Australia and return to New Zealand when she was diagnosed with cancer. She died shortly afterwards, on 25 August 1999, in Bulahdelah, New South Wales, aged 75.