A Prescription for Action: The Life of Dr Janet Irwin by Susan Currie tells the fascinating life story of New Zealand born and trained Janet Irwin, medical doctor and social activist.
Born in 1923, Janet’s childhood in the Hokianga was free-ranging, but not without significant challenges, which may have influenced her subsequent interests in medicine. From her mother, Lucy, Janet inherited a voracious appetite for reading. Her father, “Doc Smith” (or “GM” as he was also known) was a legendary and revered doctor in the Hokianga in the early part of the twentieth century, when life there was remote and co-operation arose out of shared hardship. He had come from a farming background in Scotland and, like other early settlers in the area, he could be described as having been “successful in villainy, public service and philanthropy”: he was not above breaking the law in pursuit of what he considered the greater good. He was also charming, warm and empathetic, characteristics shared by his daughter. GM was an iconoclast, as was Janet, who had the gift of forcefully challenging ideas without creating offense.
At the age of four, she contracted leptospirosis from a rat bite and spent 18 months in bed. Then, when she was seven, her older brother, Jock, died on the operating table, when her father was operating and her (unqualified) mother administering the anaesthetic. Such was their grief that Jock was never spoken of again. Then, as a teenager, Janet’s father abruptly told her (but then would not discuss) that she had four half-siblings in Scotland. In fact, he had run away to New Zealand with a patient, Lucy (Janet’s mother). Much later, Janet got to know her father’s other family: her half-nephew is the author, Alexander McCall-Smith.
In 1942, she complied with her father’s plans (about which she was not consulted) and went to Medical School in Dunedin, where she was one of six women students. She boarded with Margot Wood (later Ross), whose husband, like Janet’s “man”, Peter, was away at war. They formed a strong bond, as Janet was to do with many others through her life. Although GM was pretty domineering, he was the first of several male mentors in her career.
Janet had met Peter when she was seventeen and they married when Janet was twenty. That year she caught TB – an occupational hazard for health professionals in those days. Once they started a family (three children in two and a half years), Janet left Medical School. It was after her marriage broke down in 1960 that Margot wrote and suggested Janet resume her medical training. So, after a seventeen year gap, and with three teenage children to organise, Janet moved back to Dunedin.
She found that psycho-social aspects of medicine were now in the curriculum and this aspect of medicine was to be the main focus in her career. Once the children had all left school, she won a scholarship to research “abnormal psychology” in Edinburgh. She learned the importance of the 3 P’s of illness : the predisposing factors, the precipitating factors and the perpetuating factors.
After two years in Scotland, where she and her two daughters met GM’s first family, she was offered a job at Student Health in Christchurch, where she was interested in mental health issues and contraception. She believed in liaising with other agencies and held regular meetings with the Accommodation Officer and chaplain, and invited University Executive members and student reps to attend as well. She got involved in the abortion issue, both with students and in the public arena. She recalled GM wanting to provide an abortion for a mother of nine children who had bled badly with her previous two deliveries, but the priest had said No. The woman died in childbirth, leaving ten children. Within a year the eldest daughter was pregnant to her own father.
In 1974 Janet Irwin became the head of the Queensland University Student Health Service, where again she ran a co-operative service. She was the first non-academic to be invited to give an Inaugural Lecture, titled “People, problems and pills”. She was keen that all women achieve their potential, and was involved in preparing draft legislation on Equal Opportunities. Sadly, as in New Zealand, the Australian Equity Office was relatively short-lived.
She recognised that doctors needed a safe environment to express their own anxieties and set up a Balint group. She taught medical students and was involved in the Australian Association for Adolescent Health. One of her many campaigns was dealing with sexual harassment on the campus. (The AUS had had to establish a Defence Fund, as academics sued student complainants for defamation.) She did a survey and found (unsurprisingly in view of current issues in Hollywood and elsewhere) that 52% of students reported harassment. Janet was prescient in predicting that the internet and email would prove to be additional avenues for harassment. She was instrumental in the University setting up an Advisory Committee with two student reps on it.
In Brisbane, Janet again got involved in the politics of abortion: she organised surveys of both doctors and the public re liberalising the law. She helped organise a public meeting in City Hall, which resulted in the restrictive Unborn Child Protection Act being defeated in a Parliament where only two out of 82 members were women and in a state where only 12% of the population had completed more than nine years of education.>
When Janet resigned in 1988, her farewell included 63 letters of appreciation. She then got involved in the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, as corruption had extended beyond the police and politicians to taint every public service. She was appointed a Commissioner to the Criminal Justice Commission because of her “proven ability in community affairs”. Janet was awarded the Order of Australia in 1991, and on her 70th birthday there started an annual Janet Irwin Women’s Dinner. The author completed this biography as part of her PhD in Creative Writing. While the research is extensive and detailed, it can at times take precedence over the reader getting a sense of the woman herself.
Dr Tree Cocks is a GP in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Read about other women graduates from Otago University School of Medicine on Corpus: