Peter Spitzer an Australian Clown Doctor Obituary

Dr Peter Spitzer, founder of the  Australian Clown Doctor program



PETER SPITZER, 1946-2014

Send in the clowns: Dr Peter Spitzer.

Send in the clowns: Dr Peter Spitzer.  Photo: Adam McLean

Dr Peter Spitzer was a physician, educator, researcher, innovator, performer,  and co-founder and medical director of the Humour Foundation and the Australian  Clown Doctor program.

He was a man of immense curiosity, energy, warmth and humility who lived his  life with a wide-eyed enthusiasm, unwaveringly confident in the goodness of  humanity. He was an innovator and risk taker whose profound legacy will live on  in the organisation he co-founded, the programs he developed and the people he  cared for and taught.

Peter Spitzer was born in Czechoslovakia on May 1, 1946, and his family came  to Australia in 1956. His early enthusiasm was for flight and he dreamed of  becoming a commercial pilot while working to pay for his teenage flying lessons.  Faced with the devastating news that for medical reasons he could never make a  career of flying, he turned his bountiful energy to studying medicine, while  simultaneously nurturing his love of the arts. He graduated from Melbourne  University in 1972 with a major in medicine and an unofficial “sub-major” in  live performance, modern dance and film – generally of a more experimental  persuasion.

Dr Peter Spitzer.

Dr Peter Spitzer.

The “art of medicine” was to become the guiding philosophy for the rest of  Spitzer’s life as he sought a holistic approach to caring and healing.


With characteristic interest in the world, he headed overseas soon after  graduating, serving as the Australian Embassy’s medical examiner for refugees in  Cyprus. This was followed, in honourable deference to his generation, by a stint  working in London and living in an overcrowded share house inhabited by artists,  activists and other free radicals.

Back in Australia again, Spitzer married Judy Major (with whom he felt he had  “come home”) in Sydney in 1976.

Inspired to lead a life of strong connection to community, Peter and Judy  moved to Bowral, where they set up a family medical practice with Judy on  administration. Peter was a sought-after general practitioner, with a waiting  list of patients right up to his retiring from medical duties only months before  his death. As a physician, Spitzer was relentless in his search of better  treatment to offer his patients. He trained in acupuncture, musculoskeletal  medicine, hypnosis, psychotherapy and natural medicine.

Humour was also integral to his principle of person-centred care. A shy young  patient would be wooed by magic or clowning. Next visit, the child would bring  along a handful of friends because visiting the doctor was such fun. A reserved  older patient would suddenly find herself laughing with delight after a  well-timed prank, able now to talk with ease about her condition. For Spitzer,  work and play were not mutually exclusive.

Spitzer’s passion for both medicine and performance merged perfectly with the  creation of the first Clown Doctor program in Australia. In 1996 Spitzer  co-founded the Humour Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to  promoting the health benefits of humour, with Clown Doctors as its core program.  At the time, clowns-in-hospitals was a radical idea and Spitzer would often say  that in the early days there were lots of lessons in rejection.

As inaugural chairman, Spitzer oversaw a great shift in the attitude of  hospital staff to that radical idea. In 1997 a small program began in Sydney  Children’s Hospital. A few years later clown doctors were in most states. They  now work in 21 hospitals across every state in Australia, and bring smiles and  laughter to over 150,000 sick children and their families every year. They work  in the most serious areas of hospitals, including intensive care, oncology and  emergency departments and have integral partnerships with healthcare  professionals in various treatment clinics such as burns and pathology.   Once opposed, the program is now warmly embraced and over-subscribed.

Dr Fruit-Loop, Spitzer’s clown doctor alter ego, played his role in that sea  change. With his golfing beret (complete with Astroturf putting green, golf ball  and flag), remarkable collection of laughter-inducing props, and a wonderful  capacity for successful risk-taking, Dr Fruit-Loop was a much-loved figure in  the hospitals he visited.  On one occasion he entered an oncology ward,  pulled out a pair of supersized plastic scissors and asked a bald patient if she  would like a haircut. He was greeted with the patient’s first laughter in weeks  and a parent weeping her thanks for seeing such joy in her daughter.

Spitzer led a team of clown doctors to East Timor in 2000.

Research was an enduring passion of Spitzer’s.  He published many  articles, including “Hospital Clowns – modern-day court jesters” in The  Lancet, and was awarded a 2002 Churchill Fellowship to study the  international impact of hospital clown units on the healthcare system. This  research was integral to providing a sound theoretical base to the work and  ongoing training of clown doctors. This hunger for knowledge never abated,  inspiring the creation of a world-first qualitative PhD study into the impact of  clown doctors, to begin later this year in the faculty of medicine at Melbourne  University.

Observing the impending tsunami of dementia in Australia, he turned his  attention to using lessons learnt from the Clown Doctor program to improving the  quality of life of those living with dementia in residential aged-care  facilities. In 2003, inspired by the mantra “Why should kids have all the fun?”,   Spitzer developed the Laughter Boss training program to enable healthcare  professionals to develop creative skills in introducing  play, humour and  laughter into their practice.

This work was extended in the three-year  (2009-2011) NH&MRC-funded  SMILE Study, which investigated the impact of professional performers (Elder  Clowns) working in partnership with Laughter Bosses in residential aged-care  facilities. Spitzer was a co-chief investigator in this landmark study. On the  strength of its results, Elder Clown-style programs are now operating in many  aged-care facilities throughout the country.

Spitzer loved people. In making new acquaintances he would perform  “open-heart surgery”, always assuming the possibility of making positive  connection with another human being, always delighting in and encouraging the  success of others. This made him a very popular and inspiring “Humour in  Practice” workshop leader and conference speaker – working both nationally and  internationally – and Australia Day ambassador from 2006. He was a great  community builder in the world of international hospital clowning, always  encouraging the exchange of ideas. He also inspired much love in the town of  Bowral, whose community members have been hosting an annual fund-raising ball  for clown doctors for 15 years, raising over $1 million.

Spitzer also took particular delight in haggling with his grandson over  storage space for props and toys.

Spitzer was a rare mix of heart and head. He brought ideas and passion to all  that he pursued. He helped to create and steer an organisation that will bring  joy and healing to people of all ages in vulnerable situations for generations  to come. He will be remembered for his gentle soul, his twinkling eyes, his  life-affirming shirts, his infectious smile and for making the world a kinder,  funnier and happier place.

Peter Spitzer is survived by Judy, children Luke and Amber, and grandson  Isaac.

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Mohandas Gandhi

“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”


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