We, Carol L. Richards and Joan M. Walker, colleagues, and friends of Doreen Wheelwright (née Moore), learned with sadness of her death from our Australian colleagues. She died on April 8, 2020 in Crockwell, New South Wales, at the age of 86. Doreen is known world-wide for her contributions to the development of the physiotherapy profession.

She had charisma, innate leadership qualities, and the knack of surrounding herself with committees of highly capable people. Not only was she a Past President of the CPA, but she was also a Past President of the Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) and a Past President of the World Confederation for Physical Therapy (WCPT) (1970-74). These organizations have written tributes to honour her many contributions. This tribute focuses on the impact she had on the evolution of the physiotherapy profession in Canada.

Doreen began her physiotherapy career at the North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Australia. She came to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in the early 60s after a stint in England and became Head of Physiotherapy at the University Hospital. She went to Vallejo, California, to become proficient in Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF), a revolutionary technique of the times for the treatment of neuromuscular injuries. To upgrade her education to a BPT degree, Doreen then attended the University of Manitoba that offered the first degree-completion program in Canada.

In Saskatoon, Doreen developed and taught a three-month course in PNF at the University Hospital. It became a post graduate course offered for credits leading to an MSc degree by the University of Saskatchewan. In the late 60s and early 70s, because of Doreen’s leadership in Canada and abroad, Saskatoon became a pole of attraction for physiotherapists from Canada and other parts of the world. They flocked to Saskatoon to complete the very popular PNF course, often staying to become members of the physiotherapy staff and imparting an international flavour to the practice of physiotherapy.

A University of Saskatchewan graduate in physiotherapy commented: “She showed true leadership qualities. After her degree program at the University of Manitoba, she came back to a newly created job title at [the] University hospital. We affectionately called her the “red dragon” because of her fiery red hair and aggressive promotion of the “therapies” at the hospital.  I remember the “Canadian flag cake” we shared celebrating her newly acquired Canadian citizenship. The PNF course was so much fun. I remember two therapists from South Africa and another from Australia. Hearing how they practiced physiotherapy and about their home life was a real eye opener for us. Doreen brought a lot of out-of-province and country experience to Saskatoon.”

Carol Richards reminisces: “I met Doreen when I was a graduate student in the MSc Program in Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in 1970. I took the PNF course and got to know her as a teacher, mentor, true leader, and an all-around good person, who motivated many young therapists to pursue graduate studies. In the early 70's, Swedish physician-scientists were known for their research on the physiological bases of neuro-rehabilitation techniques. Doreen and Ingrid Odeen, President of the Swedish Physiotherapy Association, were instrumental in making it possible for me to pursue my graduate studies by studying with Professor Evert Knutsson, a world leader in neurological rehabilitation research at the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm.”

While President of the WCPT, Doreen left Saskatoon to undertake a Master’s of Health Services Administration at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. At the completion of her studies, she became Director of Rehabilitation Services of the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre in the mid 70's. But, Australia was calling her home and she left Canada to become Head of the School of Physiotherapy at the then Cumberland College (now the University of Sydney). Under her leadership, the University of Sydney became known for its many physiotherapy-scientists and clinically-focused post-graduate diploma programs, graduates of which impacted the further evolution of the profession. Lance Twomey, a contemporary colleague from Curtin University noted that “her presence and her vast international experience and range of contacts was the focus for major change” and that her influence spread to other programs and across the country.

Despite her heavy administration and educational responsibilities, shortly after her return to Australia she became President of the Australian Physiotherapy Association. At a later date, she married Rowland Wheelwright.

As President of the WCPT, she influenced the organization of physiotherapy congresses to foster the evolution of the profession. For example, the WCPT Congress 1974 in Montreal announced the gradual transition of the physiotherapy profession into a clinical science. Physiotherapists who later became academic leaders in many countries presented the results of their research projects at this Congress. She was the Convenor of the highly successful WCPT 1987 Congress in Sydney recognized for the quality of its organization, the introduction of many new ways of interacting with the speakers, and the excellence of its scientific program that demonstrated how physiotherapy was becoming a research-based profession. This Congress and the subsequent creation of the Australian Physiotherapy Research Foundation with the unexpected profits have been described as the “coming of age” of Australian physiotherapy.

List of Accomplishments

  • President of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association (1968-69)
  • President of the Australian Physiotherapy Association (1978-79)
  • President of the WCPT (1970-74)
  • Integral to the WCPT changing its rules on physiotherapy as a primary care discipline, something that she had succeeded in championing in Australia. This led to the WCPT issuing a resolution that “primary practitioner status be interpreted by each country in terms of their own standards.”
  • Canadian representative on the executive committee of the WCPT (1967)
  • The first physiotherapist to chair the Standards Committee for the Australian Council on Health Care Standards
  • The first physiotherapist appointed to a Commonwealth Government Committee of Enquiry
  • Foundation Member of the Management Committee for the Physiotherapy Research Foundation, Australia

List of Awards and Honors

  • Order of Australia
  • Canadian Centennial Medal
  • University Gold Medal (University of Manitoba)
  • Honoured Membership of the Australian Physiotherapy Association
  • Gold Medal for Services to Physical Therapy from the WCPT
  • Honorary Membership of the Mexican and Colombian Physiotherapy Associations


Crockwell Gazette 21 04 2020 Goulburn, NSW
WCPT website: News March 2006, 60th anniversary publication 2011
Head, Heart and Hands, The Story of Physiotherapy in Canada. Joan Cleather, CPA 1995

Carol L. Richards, OC, CQ, PhD, PT, CAHS
Joan M. Walker, PhD, FAPTA, FNZSP, CPA Life member, Professor Emerita