Derek Parfit died on 2 January 2017. He was a philosopher, whose work focused on personal identity, the basis of ethics, and our obligations to future beings. The title of his 2011 book states his overall focus: On What Matters. He was a distinctive person, and he produced strikingly original and influential work.
I was a final year BA student in philosophy at the University of Canterbury when Parfit published his first book in 1984. Seven years later he was an examiner of my Oxford D.Phil. thesis. He gave me a fair grilling and a fair go.
He was born on 11 December 1942 in Chengdu, China, the second of the three children of Jessie and Norman Parfit. Jesse and Norman practised preventive medicine in Christian missionary hospitals. Soon after Derek’s birth they moved back to the UK. Derek’s school record was outstanding in every subject except mathematics. He ‘read’ for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in history at Balliol College, Oxford, 1961-64. Seven years after they get their BA, Oxford BA graduates are awarded the degree of Master of Arts. That was his highest degree. Following a period in the USA as a Harkness Fellow, in 1967 he won a Prize Fellowship to All Souls College, Oxford. It remained his primary academic base. In 1983 or so, Parfit met Janet Radcliffe Richards, author of the 1980 book The Sceptical Feminist. They got together some months later, and were together for the rest of his life.
In 1971, seventeen women were among the 120 graduates in medicine at the University of Otago. 44 years later, fifteen of the sixteen who were still alive wrote brief life stories, and in November 2015 fourteen of us met for a three day reunion. The naysayers were wrong: we had all practised medicine for many years, with just one giving up after thirty years to pursue other interests, and none of us regretted having chosen a medical career. Three had retired in the last few years but the rest were still practising, aged 67 or older. What follows are insights gleaned from this group of women, as we reflected on the time before we started university, our time together at Medical School, and our lives as medical practitioners. We also reflected on the process of meeting again, nearly fifty years after entering Medical School, and we now offer some insights to our successors, the women studying medicine today.
In 2002 my youngest daughter, Rebecca, died of a rare appendix cancer at the age of 23. For a whole year afterwards I couldn’t say her name and the word ‘died’ in the same breath. Though I am a writer, I lost not only the capacity to articulate my feelings, but also the capacity to write. I stopped dreaming. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to be inside my skin. The silence of my own home, the beauty of my garden, the breath of my animals, the quiet paddocks and the river walks provided no refuge. They were all empty spaces that reverberated with Rebecca’s absence. This new territory was so bleached of colour, so arid and alien, so lacking in anything recognisable that I had no language to negotiate my way through it. And I could form no response to comments such as “Gosh, you’re coping so well.”
Sustained engagements and entanglements with the activities of massage therapy, counselling, arts therapy and teaching have taught me a lot about the potency of presence in the phenomena of healing, learning, creativity and renewal. There’s a particular quality of presence – both of a person and a process of encounter – that makes a difference. Such a presence, in my experience, is a mediation of a number of influences and practices, one of them being attentive curiosity. Attentive curiosity could be considered a methodology of presence.
Three years ago, in the grip of a sudden, near fatal cardiac ‘event’, I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance, only to be taken to a larger hospital system by helicopter. At the time it seemed likely I would need urgent cardiac surgery. As it turned out, I was treated medically, eventually learning, but only after some months had passed, that what had occurred was most likely a viral inflammation of the tissue surrounding my heart: pericarditis.
Within the space of a few hours I was jolted from being a healthy active seventy year old (admittedly a bit tired after shifting house), into an old person, on heart medication for life, who needed to ‘take care of himself’.
The word “mapping” usually gets my attention, so I was intrigued to read Laurence Fearnley’s Corpus post, Scent mapping, Signal Hill. I imagined that she would have created a depiction of Signal Hill with delineated areas where certain scents predominated, probably colour-coded and overlapping syllogistically in places. In other words, scents experienced in real life would be mapped to defined areas on a small scale pictorial representation of real life. Captions would be along the lines of “Here be lavender,” and “Bracken, with the bouquet of gorse in season”. This was a map that I really wanted to see, and to sniff at. But Laurence’s article and a subsequent email disabused me. She saw her map as “dynamic rather than static, with ‘map’ being more of a verb than a noun.” More along the lines of what Alfred Gell refers to as a “mental map”: a process, not a picture. The Signal Hill scent map existed in Laurence’s brain, not on paper.
I first encountered rabies in Trincomalee, Ceylon, in 1947. The father of one of my friends at school died suddenly. I remember sitting quietly while the adults talked in hushed voices about “hydrophobia” and how “their throats close up when they want to drink”. The other thing they said was “The treatment is ten days of injections into the tummy”. I felt sad for my friend and her family, and anxious at the thought of ten injections – I loathed being stuck with needles. I was also upset that the puppy, which our mother had found for us, was sent away. In those days there was no immunisation for dogs.
Later, at medical school in Edinburgh, we were told about rabies and what a scourge it was in many parts of the world. The treatment was serial injections with immunoglobulin as soon as possible after infection.