Choices, Choices, Choices: Writing the biography of Australia’s father of pain medicine

Gabriella Kelly-Davies

The creative component of my PhD is the biography of Australia’s father of pain medicine: Breaking through the pain barrier. The extraordinary life of Dr Michael J. Cousins. The biography of Dr Michael Cousins explores what made Australia’s ‘father of pain medicine’ tick and what set him ticking. It portrays his dreams, trials and tribulations, Eureka moments and moral choices.

The exegesis, Choices, Choices, Choices explores some of the many narrative choices I made while creating Breaking through the pain barrier. Each choice involved one or more questions, and by viewing them as a whole, I formed my research question: How does one write the biography of a living scientist? This question was inspired by one Virginia Woolf voiced: ‘My God, how does one write a biography?’ in a letter to Vita Sackville West while she struggled to write the biography of her friend, the artist Roger Fry.[1]

While weighing up the choices, I studied the biographies of scientists and doctors to learn how other biographers captured the essence of subjects with a scientific bent. I also contacted the biographers, asking them questions about their choices. We debated the merits of each possibility, drawing insights and new knowledge from the exchanges. And I turned to biography scholars, whose research, ideas, conversations and debates informed many of my decisions, although this was challenging at times because the theory, art and craft of biography is a hotly contested subject with a ‘dizzying array of viewpoints’. In Choices, Choices, Choices  explore these debates, starting with Plutarch and working my way to the present. Through this process, I am creating new knowledge about the art and craft of writing the biography of a living scientist, one that seeks to get beyond the legend without destroying the man.

One of the weaknesses of the published biography is that COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures meant I couldn’t access archives. Now border restrictions are over, I’m doing archival research and rewriting the biography to incorporate this research. So far, I’ve spent several weeks researching the archives of Royal North Shore Hospital where Dr Cousins led an acclaimed pain centre, and in February 2023 I’m researching the Gus Fraenkel Collection at the Flinders University Library where he also established and led an internationally acclaimed pain centre. In May 2023 I’m researching the extensive pain medicine archives at UCLA, Stanford and McGill Universities and spending several weeks at Oxford University’s Centre for Life Writing as a visiting scholar.


Breaking through the pain barrier was published in 2021 and it received extensive media coverage, highlighting the issue of chronic pain in Australia, where one of five people live with the condition. Click here to read media coverage and here for reviews of the book.

‘Narrative Choices in Biography’, State Library of NSW, 12 Oct 2022

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