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John Curtin Medal awarded to academic and community leader

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A retired Curtin University academic with a passionate commitment to developing the potential of local communities was today announced as the 2012 John Curtin Medallist at a special ceremony held at the University.

Emeritus Professor Jo Barker was recognised for her leadership in the field of occupational therapy as well as her extensive contribution to developing cultural and educational opportunities in the coastal town of Mandurah.

Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling said the award recognised the enormous contribution Professor Barker continued to make in all aspects of her life.

“Professor Barker has, throughout her career, fearlessly pushed her vision to have occupational therapy recognised as a field of major importance in the health sector, and has never lacked the courage to take on new and challenging roles, even in her retirement,” Professor Stirling said.

After graduating as an occupational therapist in New Zealand in1963, Professor Barker spent the early part of her career working with people recovering from strokes. In 1969, she moved to Western Australia, and spent the next decade working in the mental health field, helping hospital outpatients to recover daily living skills.


Professor Barker joined Curtin University in 1979, instantly stepping into the role of Head of Occupational Therapy, a position she held until 1993. While at Curtin she also became the first occupational therapist to complete a PhD in 1988.

Continuing on her trend of firsts, Professor Barker was the first female board member of Perth’s Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and, subsequently, its first female Chair. She was also the first Australian President of the World Federation of Occupational Therapists.

After ‘retiring’ in 2001 to Mandurah, Professor Barker found herself just as busy as ever, lending her significant leadership skills to the role of Chair of the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre.

During her decade-long tenure she restructured the community-based board to give it a more strategic focus, steered the creation of a new vision for the Centre, recruited an experienced Festival Director to expand its programming activities, and reorganised its volunteer team, which today is more than 480-strong.  She effectively transformed the under-utilised landmark building into a cultural hub for the Peel region and a provider of performance training for the local community.

In 2008, she was awarded the Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Alcoa Business Excellence Award for Enterprising Women for the leadership role she played in supporting cultural change in Mandurah.

Recently, she has turned her attention back to education, chairing the Board of the newly opened John Tonkin College – an amalgamation of the Mandurah High School and the Mandurah Senior College offering a greater range of study options to almost 900 high school students across two campuses. Professor Barker has played a critical role in guiding and articulating a vision for the independent public school, which aims to set a new direction for public education in the region.

In addition to all her voluntary work in the Mandurah community, Professor Barker has also been an active mentor, coaching and developing skills in others so they too can become successful community leaders.

Life for the grandmother of six post-retirement may be as challenging as ever, but Professor Barker said she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You just change jobs. We have a very good life, so I think it’s good to give time back to your community,” she said.

The annually-awarded John Curtin Medal is the highest non-academic award presented by Curtin University. The medal is presented to people who exemplify wartime Prime Minister John Curtin’s qualities of vision, leadership and community service.

For more information about the John Curtin Medals and past winners, visit


Denise Cahill, Public Relations, Curtin University
Tel: 08 9266 1931, Mobile: 0401 103 683, Email:
Twitter: @CurtinPR

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