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Dame Margaret Sparrow and Mary Jerram AM

Wednesday 25 March 2020 3:54pm

Dame Margaret Sparrow sexual health trailblazer

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Dame Margaret Sparrow

University of Otago medical graduate (1963), Dame Margaret Sparrow was named the Ryman Healthcare Senior New Zealander of the Year at the recent awards presentation in Auckland.

Dame Margaret says it’s always a pleasure to know that your work is appreciated. She notes some Kiwi sexual health pioneers have never received the recognition they deserved. Among them was Ettie Rout, who was revolutionary in providing condoms to reduce the Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) rates of thousands of NZ soldiers during WWI. She never received any recognition for this work from the Government of the time.

Dame Margaret says she was both surprised and honoured to receive the award.

“I felt very humble in a room full of people that have achieved so much, but equally felt inspired by all their achievements.”

After several years working at hospitals in her home province of Taranaki, she began working in sexual health at the student health centre at Victoria University in Wellington in the late 1960s.

Dame Margaret started looking for solutions to the unplanned pregnancy problem that she saw. She began offering new services such as the morning after pill.

Against the wishes at the time of the student health director she helped make contraception more easily available to students at the university.

“The ruling at the time from the Medical Association was that it was only ethical to provide contraception to married women,” she says.

In 1976 she introduced the first vasectomy service at Family Planning in Wellington.

“There have been huge advances, contraception is now readily available for young people and this certainly wasn’t the case when I began working in the field.”

Later she formed a company called Istar Ltd. with four other doctors. Since 2001 Istar has imported the abortion pill, as she says no other NZ company would do this. Istar is named after a Mesopotamian goddess of love, fertility and war. “We thought that she had all the right attributes,” Dame Margaret says.

She says in the early days there was very little available in terms of abortion options in this country and many people were sent to Australia for the procedure.

Dame Margaret was 21 when she gave herself a DIY abortion. She did this with a potion that worked for her, but was illegal at the time.

“In those days one of the options was to write away to chemists and get a special mixture, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t,” she says.

After completing her BSc in Wellington, she was offered a place at medical school, but was badly injured in a car accident and didn’t recover in time, so deferred her entry. However, she got accepted as a research assistant to the Professor of Surgery at Otago.

“That was quite a formative year for me, because I realised that I was good at research, but perhaps more importantly I realised that I liked people a lot more than I liked rats,” she says.

After a year as a research assistant, she began her studies at Otago.

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1963 Graduation with husband Peter and their two children

“When I sat first professional, I was pregnant with my son and when I sat second professional, I was pregnant with my daughter. I then took two years off before deciding to finish my medical degree.

“I found my time at Otago (1957 to 63) a bit different to many other students, as for me it was about babies, nappies, highchairs, and lots of washing.”

Dame Margaret says there wasn’t much in the way of childcare available in those days. There was a solo mother in her class, and soon she lived with Dame Margaret, her husband Peter (also a medical student), and between the three of them they took turns attending lectures and looking after their children.

“I think it was quite a good learning experience, because the two who attended the lectures had to report back to the one who didn’t go, so there was a lot of sharing of information there.”

She says that one of the greatest things she learnt during her time at Otago was the importance of fertility control for both women and men. She adds that in 1961 she was one of the very first women in New Zealand to take the contraceptive pill.

“I think that my time at Otago made me appreciate the importance of things that we weren’t taught as well as those that we were. The things that weren’t taught were all about sexual and reproductive health. We of course were taught how to deliver babies, but in my whole time at medical school there was only one lecture on contraception and the only mention of abortion was as a crime under the Crimes Act of 1961.”

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Margaret and Peter working in the Physiology Lab in 1957

She says while she was doing medical research Otago brought out Professor Peter Medawar from England as a visiting lecturer (he later won a Nobel Prize and was knighted).

“He gave me a real enthusiasm for science and being the best you can. And perhaps more importantly that learning never stops.

Dame Margaret says while finishing his time at Otago, Professor Medawar was informed by a colleague in London that there were in fact 46 human chromosomes, not 48 as she had been taught. “Which just goes to show that despite having a degree you never stop learning,” she says.

She has published three books on abortion and three on contraception and in her mid-eighties says her days of writing books are now over.

As for the $5000 prize for her award she says she has many charities she supports and has a garden at her Wellington home that has been severely neglected over recent years and is in real need of some TLC.

Law, medicine and detective work all in a coroner’s day

A day in the life of a coroner involves a mixture of law, medicine and detective work, according to Otago alumna Mary Jerram, who was the first woman to hold the post of State Coroner for New South Wales, Australia.

Mary retired from the position in 2013, and in 2018 was awarded the honour of Member of the Order of Australia AM, as an Honorary Award, for significant service to the law in NSW, and as a role model for women in the legal profession.

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Mary Jerram with her Collie on her acre in Exeter.

“I liked the bit about the role model,” she says from her acre in Exeter in the Southern Highlands halfway between Sydney and Canberra, where she lives with her husband architect Philip Taylor, her Collie dog and a few chooks.

“Obviously [what I’ve done] gives younger women hope, the current coroner is again a woman. It helps people to feel more confident.

“I’ve been a strong feminist since the 70s, I always had that feeling that girls can do anything if they really try.”

She also enjoys the fact it was given as an Honorary Award – because when she was contacted initially to see if she would accept the nomination, she thought they’d never give it to her because she didn’t have Australian citizenship.

“Originally I couldn’t bear to give up New Zealand citizenship, when you had to have one or the other, and by the time you could have both well it was just laziness on my part, I’d been here such a long time.”

But despite her distinguished career, law wasn’t always on her wish list. Her father encouraged his children to go to university and she just assumed she would go to Otago after attending St Hilda’s in Dunedin. She did a BA in Languages, and then moved to Sydney with her first husband and their two young children in 1969.

She started off teaching at a girls Catholic School in the city. “It’s a thing women can do when they have children to worry about, but I didn’t enjoy it much, I got sick of things like telling girls to put their gloves on.”

She also got tired of the overloaded classrooms, and eventually decided to study law at the University of Sydney.

“I’d always been interested in law, but I had a distorted idea of what law was, that it was a bit dull.”

For the next few years she taught by day and attended classes and studied by night. “It got to the point where I was halfway through and I thought I can’t stop now.”

While she was still studying, she stopped teaching and worked as a law clerk for a year, and by the time she finished her study she was working for the Independent Teachers’ Union as an industrial officer. From there she went to Legal Aid, where she swapped her interest in industrial law for criminal law.

“I loved it from the first minute. I ended up as one of their advocates in the more senior courts, which was unusual because judges still sneered a bit at people who weren’t wearing wigs or gowns.

“I liked being on my feet, and even though some clients were difficult, at the same time many were extremely grateful to be given decent help. I remember one of them saying ‘you’re so good miss you could even be a real lawyer’.

“There was terrific camaraderie amongst all the other solicitors. It wasn’t very well paid but you were always busy, it was nearly always interesting and it moved. Some law I still think is a bit dull, I couldn’t have been a corporate lawyer or a conveyancing lawyer.”

Mary says if she’d been able to afford it she would have liked to have gone to the bar. “But I was advised by some barrister friends who said unless you are sure you can live for two years with no income don’t do it. And I had young kids and by that time I was separated so I had to keep on with a definite salary. Then once I became a magistrate [in 1994] that all became much easier.”

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Magistrate M.S.Jerram

The magistracy proved a bit of a challenge as she had to do civil cases and some family law, as well as criminal. “I wasn’t very well skilled in those, so I had to scramble to keep up.”

She spent three years as a country magistrate for the Goulburn country circuit, between Sydney and Canberra and not far from where they had a farm.

“That was fun, you’d do anything from Braveheart to Babe. You might do a murder committal in the morning and then deal with someone who’d been stealing sheep.”

She then came back to Sydney and was made deputy to the Chief Magistrate. “I didn’t love that so much because it was a lot of administration, and that’s not my favourite thing. But at the end of two years as deputy we decided to buy a farm in New Zealand.”

“We had a terrific five or six years running the farm just outside Christchurch. I’d had to retire but they’d given me an Acting Commission so about five times a year I went back to Sydney and worked a couple of weeks at a time, it kept my hand in, and I missed it as well. And then I’d go home and help tail sheep.”

She says her children “started to whinge” about them not being around and Philip got a little tired of being teased about being Australian, so they returned to Sydney in 2006 and she went back on the bench fulltime. Six months later she was appointed State Coroner.

“Boy was that a challenge. Technically I could have done some coronial law when I was in the country but the registrar there loved doing it, because in those days they didn’t have to have law. So I hadn’t really done much. Again I loved it.

“It was like a mixture of law, medicine and detective work. I did pick up quite a bit of medicine because we worked alongside the pathologists, and inevitably you learn things and I found that really interesting.

“Also, unlike when you are on the bench as a judge, you saw every paper even before we began a court case. Whereas if you’re sitting up there as a judge on your own you just get what’s handed up to you. You do a lot of the preliminary work in Coroner’s Court, so you’re reading the whole story.

While it was challenging, Mary says she didn’t find it depressing, although sometimes it was sad.

“You needed to reach out to families and be empathic to them. Because often they were a bit irrational, as people are when there’s some awful sudden thing happening, but you had to understand that.

“I’ll never use that word closure if I can help it, but a lot of them felt at least there was somebody who cared – when they’d been given an inquest and it had been gone into. A lot are looking for someone to blame and often there is, but I think the fact that attention was given to that particular person’s accident or suicide or whatever it was, made them feel better. I had a few letters and cards that said that which was a nice reward.”

The coroners took turns attending the daily “bodies meeting” at 8am with the pathologists, where they would go over the deaths of the last 24 hours, deciding whether autopsies would be done.

“That was a big source of tension between us and the pathologists, because they often wanted to do everything as an autopsy and families had a right to object. You overruled them if it was suspicious, but babies for example, a lot of parents really didn’t want their baby being opened up.”

During her time as coroner she says she met a lot of wonderful younger women lawyers. “It was quite different from criminal law, you’re not prosecuting, you’re trying to find out what the truth is and the counsel assisting helps everybody, that’s the theory, they’re not trying to find guilt.”

Two cases that stand out for her include one where parents of a young baby were homeopaths, and their baby developed eczema when it was about two months old. They used ointments that weren’t effective, and at the very last minute they took it to the children’s hospital and the baby died.

“I had a whole stream of experts from the children’s hospital and they remembered it vividly, some cried in the witness box they were so appalled, they were all saying this was the worst thing they’d ever seen in terms of neglect. In the end I referred the parents to the Director for Public Prosecutions and they did charge them and find them guilty.”

The other case concerned a young Brazilian student staying in Sydney. He went out with some friends and one of them gave him LSD.

“He wasn’t used to it and he went silly, the mates put him into a taxi home and he leapt out before it left the city and started running throughout the main streets pulling off his clothes.”

He went into a shop and the shopkeeper asked if he was alright and gave him some biscuits. Eventually he ran away, but a cleaner in the street had seen him run in and assumed he was doing a robbery and called the police.

“So the police honed in on him without knowing the whole story and they didn’t talk to the shopkeeper at that stage and in the end there were about 20 police pounding after him through the city, and they started lasering him and eventually tripped him up and sat on him and gave him capsicum spray over and over, and suddenly of course they realised he wasn’t breathing.”

That inquest went on for six to seven days. “I described the police behaviour as like Lord of the Flies, most of them didn’t know what he was supposed to have done. It was really bad behaviour and really sad, because he wasn’t a bad boy at all and he hadn’t done anything to anybody.”

As for why the world seems obsessed with crime shows on TV, Mary says “murder has always fascinated people. The media here were always fascinated by it, and we got more publicity than we wanted, we certainly didn’t seek it.

“I think it’s the unsolved part that fascinates people, and they want a resolution.”

Although now officially retired, Mary still travels into Sydney for a day every fortnight to sit on the Mental Health Tribunal. “It keeps my brain working slightly.”

She also gardens, walks the dog and returns to New Zealand about four times a year where she has a place in the Waitaki Valley. While there she visits her brother who has a vineyard in the valley, and catches up with old friends from Otago days who live nearby. “It’s the old friendships and ties that matter.”

She still feels a strong connection to New Zealand, “I still feel nostalgic about it.”

“I’m very torn when it’s the All Blacks versus the Wallabies.”