Bernice - or 'Bunny' Thompson was a true pioneer in the world of physiotherapy. Born in Dunedin in August 1923, she developed a method of treating childhood asthma long before the days of metered-dose inhalers. She produced the first films showing how physiotherapy for asthma might be performed, opened the first physiotherapy school in China, and produced two very successful books. View an early film featuring Bunny, entitled "Asthma - Why Physiotherapy?"

Born Bernice Joyce Alldred, Bunny grew up in Dunedin and began her physiotherapy training in 1941. When she qualified in 1944 she married Heath - a graduate of the Otago Medical School - in 1943. Both had a fascination with respiratory disease and Heath would later pioneer vascular and cardiac surgery, but in 1944 they began their careers together at Grey River Hospital in Greymouth.

They moved to China when civil war broke out and volunteered for the Quaker's Friends' Ambulance Unit. After three years they moved to Wuhan, where Heath became general surgeon and Bunny set up a school of physiotherapy. In 1949 they moved to England and worked in London and South Wales, specialising in the management of chronic respiratory diseases. They returned to New Zealand in 1952 and settled in Christchurch.

In New Zealand, tuberculosis was a major problem and both were involved in work at the Cashmere Sanatorium, but Bunny's work began to focus more on asthma, and in 1963 she published a book titled Asthma and Your Child. This book concentrated on the need for well-targeted breathing and physical exercises in the management of children's asthma and provided inspiration for practitioners like Pru Billings, Dinah Morrison and Jennifer Pryor to pioneer breathing techniques that are the cornerstone of physiotherapy practice today. The book’s popularity never diminished in subsequent years, despite the introduction of MDIs that revolutionized the treatment of asthma. The book was so successful that a film based on it was made by the New Zealand. National Film Unit in 1967. In the same year Bunny published a second book titled Better Breathing. This time written for adults, the book proved equally successful and ran to four editions.

In 1968, Bunny and her husband published a paper entitled Forced expiration exercises in asthma and their effect on FEV1 which demonstrated how the exercises assisted in the mobilization and clearance of secretions in patients with asthma. It would be another eleven years before Bunny and Jennifer Pryor would write the follow-up work on the Forced Expiratory Technique (FET) that would begin the gradual shift away from postural drainage and chest clapping in physiotherapy practice.

Bunny was awarded a Fellowship of the New Zealand Society of Physiotherapist in 1977 for “distinction in the advancement of physiotherapy” and the following year received the Queen's Service Medal for her services to the community. Her final film Asthma. Why Physiotherapy? was shown throughout the world after its launch at the 8th World Congress of Physiotherapy in Israel. Bunny died on July 18th 2009 in Christchurch, leaving a legacy as a true pioneer in the field of respiratory physiotherapy.

By Victoria Donoghue and Dave Nicholls

Editor's note August 2013: Spelling of Bunny's maiden name corrected. Incorrect reference to Heath Thompson's work removed. (He never worked in Greenlane Hospital, but his obituary says, "He also pioneered vascular and cardiac surgery, before the use of bypass pumps and the development of new expertise shifted much of this work to Auckland’s Greenlane Hospital.") Thanks to Gillian Thompson Templeton for pointing out the errors.

Further reading

Crean, M. (2009). Physiotherapist became expert in respiratory issues. The Press, 25th July, p.17.

Brown, W. (1991). Browns of Kyeburn Peninsula. Brown, Mosgeil.

Thompson, B. (1963). Asthma and Your Child. Pegasus Press.

Thompson, B. (1967). Better Breathing. Peagasus Press.

Pryor, J.A. (1992). Physiotherapy for airway clearance in adults. Eur Respir J 1999; 14: 1418-1424


Thank you to Dinah Bradley and Jennifer Pryor for their help in developing this article.


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