The Rise and Fall of National Women’s Hospital – A History – Linda Bryder (AUP)

The rise and Fall of National Women’s Hospital

A little over four years ago social historian Linda Bryder suggested that the infamous investigation into the so called ‘unfortunate experiment’ at National Women’s hospital, the Cartwright Report held over 1987 -88 somehow got it all wrong. Her book ‘A History of the Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s Hospital’ opened the academic levy, although for her she’d been heavily investigating the treatment of women in our medical system ever since her groundbreaking history of the Plunket Society, ‘A Voice for Mothers’.

Early in her introduction she revisits the The historian the 30-year-old scandal but this time it’s really just a reminder of why the place featured so prominently in our papers back then, and even now.
Auckland University Press, and Bryder herself were dragged over the coals and challenged at every turn.  Bryder was not quite ridiculed in the streets, but the experience, in an academic peer sense must have come pretty close.  But was she right? I believe so.  The enquiry was very political  then as now, and the battle for control over women’s bodies steamrollered over the good intentions and genuine concerns to solve serious medical problems for the benefit of all,  But if so, was the deaths and mutilations of so many worth it?  History can only provide facts, not empathy, in this case.

Just over 50 year’s ago National Women’s hospital was a flagship for medical care and innovation.  It pioneered many new procedures and there are plenty of children, now adults, who have the staff and doctors of this fine institution to thank for their very lives.  It was a centre of excellence, compared teaching hospitals in Europe and America,  It was even a household name in England.

Bryder’s new work attempts to complete what she actually started out to achieve in her first book, before it veered off down the blind alley of the Cartwright investigation.

“When I put a proposal in [for funding] a decade ago,’ she told the NZ Herald (A headline-making hospital by Andrew Stone Feb 18 2014) “I pretty much said I didn’t want the story to focus on Cartwright because I was interested in reproductive health….I thought I would simply summarise the inquiry findings and draw on Sandra Coney’s [co-author of a Metro article which blew the scandal wide open] work. I didn’t realise I was entering a minefield.”

Indeed the incendiary devices can be found most deeply in the lush fields of the chapter “Feminists, Midwives and National Women’s Hospital”, which recounts the tireless push by activists to criticise the stalwart reproductive practices and the very core of the established medical order not only in NWH but all over the country.  Specialists with the tile of “Mr” could no longer hide in the bubbles of arrogance or command blind respect without proving their credentials to the wards every day, from now on.

Staring gently, almost like flipping through the Architect’s digest or Popular Mechanics, Bryder paints the scene – a primary coloured, glossy dream – a jewel in the crown of the State’s vaguely socialistic fantasy of medical care and nutrition for all, post war and into the future.  Her history details the life and times of the purpose-built hospital, and we’re reminded that although the final years were blackened, during the golden years National Women’s was a world-leader for research that produced produced breakthroughs which altered the way science came to understand the miracle of childbirth and foetal growth.

In 1965 the Hospital gained media rock-star status when Shirley Lawson gave birth to quintuplets.  Remeber this was just the fifth set of surviving quintuplets in the world. The photo of Shirley Lawson with her four girls and a boy sitting up in bed two hours after giving birth has become a national icon.  And the 26-year-old miracle mum was only one of tens of thousands of New Zealanders whose lives were touched in some way by NWH over the second half of the 20th century.  My own wife included.  And, we learn, The author, who in 1992, had first child there, despite the initially planned homebirth.  And Bryder’ second child was also born at National Women’s, in 1997. So, if you were searching for conflicts of interest, then perhaps they lay here.  Perhaps. Perhaps not.

The hospital was a catalyst for the work of medical stars such as Bill Liley, who pioneered antenatal blood transfusions in the early ’60’s, and Graham “Mont” Liggins and Ross Howie who saved many, many premature babies from respiratory failure by applying steroids prior to delivery.  A few cheap injections saves thousands of dollars in intensive neonatal care and on-going care for handicapped infants, Liggins argued. He advocated for the practice to be widely adopted throughout the country and it finally was accepted in the 1990s.  Bryder argues the reason for the delay was discussed at two big London conferences –  “territorial jealousies” between rival disciplines existed and were fiercely defended by arrogant parties.  And the core evidence and research, and sheer disbelief that this incredible finding could emerge from a “primitive backwater” was a definite slap to the pride of world health professionals. “It was a tight international community, of which New Zealand was a part despite the tyranny of distance, but at the same time it seems that national and personal rivalries abounded.”

Surprisingly, at least to me was Bryder’s revelation that it was Liggins, in the 1970’s who found the trigger for the onset of labour in sheep, leading to solving the initiation of labour in humans.  But how exactly he discovered it remains a mystery.  And it remained so when Liggins died, in 2010, the mystery remained.

And this is only one case study …

Professor Bryder likes to look at the interplay of social forces on science and medicine.  She argues that the hospital folded in the end because it lost the hearts and minds and trust of the public.

She argues further that the Cartwright and the chest-tapping investigation under Helen Cull, QC were, at the core, about distrust in the medical profession.  Beyond the wards the hospital came under such pressure from the feminists, turf wars between doctors and midwives, political funding and pie carving and a blood thirsty medial, gnawing on the fleshy bones of scandal.

All in, this is a fascinating journey and in some ways a miracle that it is written. Thorough, opinionated, at times personal but fair this is a good book, weighing up facts and evidence against the need to tell clear and concise stories to a public dumbed by twitteratti and 30 second sound bite.  In a world of OIAs and veiled information it’s good to know someone is willing to risk hay fever to delve into the dust files of National Archives and uncover truths the internet can not provides us.  Especially something so close to our loins.

Interview: Mark Potter (Elbow)

It t’was the night before Wednesday and all through the night it rained cats and dogs, w’out relief in sight.  A fair winter’s chill had befallen July and n’er this even’ I remain dry.  So t’was whilst purchasing bread and milk in the shop that the phone did ring and it made me cause to stop.  On the line from Manchester, where it was a sunny, balmy day Elbow’s guitarist Mark Potter had just rushed in from a hard day’s fly fishing to call me up.  So whilst I ran for the car in the freezing rain, he’s reminding me of the band’s last trip to New Zealamd.  “It was brilliant. We rented a boat to go fishing – my idea. I convinced my skeptical lot that it would be fun.  We had a brilliant day out from the Auckland coast, catching Snapper and drinking beer.”

Speaking of which, the band, who’ve just released their ninth album “The Take Off and Landing Of Everything” have just become brewers. “Yep.  Somehow it got around that we like a drop and this little brewery, Marston’s (in Burton-upon-Trent) made us an offer.”  The result was a craft brew made like the spicy American steam beers (fermented at a higher temperature than the norm to release a fruitier aroma and sweeter finish) “but still retains the class of a traditional British real ale” claim the tasting notes.  The name ‘Charge’ is taken from one of the tracks on the new album.  “We went down to a whole afternoon’s tasting.  It was brilliant, learning how it’s made, tweaking the flavours.”  Alas, their final product, a summer release is unavailable this far south of the equator but perhaps there may be some on sale at the band’s next tour Down-under.  Elbow has already started touring, although local dates are still to be confirmed.  Their most recent performance will take some beating.  “We played at the Eden Sessions, Cornwall, which has a series of ‘biosphere’ stages.  These are great big domes with individual eco-systems.  One is Mediterranean, one’s tropical and so on.  The environment really suited our music.”  That music is the result of the slightest of transitions from the moody, contemplative brooding of their first big effort “A Cast Of Thousands” to their epic proportions in “The Seldom Seen Kid”, “build a rocket boys” and their latest “The Take Off and Landing of Everything”.  The new album brings on board yet more innovations and collaborations, including what lead singer Guy Garvey has dubbed “Manchester’s oldest band”: The Halle’ Orchestra and long time friends and movie makers the Soup Collective.  “They’ve been on board since they filmed us recording the (Seldom Seen Kid) sessions.  Their latest contribution  is the achingly beautiful video for Real Life (Angel) which juxtaposes singer Garvey’s contemplative lyrics with a short documentary about a woman who sets out to swim 200 lakes.  The video has a subtitles running under images of a swimmer who treks to remote Highland lakes to complete her quest.  The light in the films is particularly spectacular.  “Not as wonderful as New Zealand”, Potter notes “but pretty awesome.”

Once again “The Take off…” is a soaring collection, with critics noting the mellowing of anxieties and a maturing in the songs.  “Im reaching the age where decisions are made,” noted Garvey in Lunette/Flyboy Blue, recently,”on the life and the liver.”  Potter noted that some of these songs were not as collaborative as in the past.  “On the whole we tend to all write up the music together, with Guy adding his own lyrics from a (vast collection) of notebooks.  But this time with Flyboy Blue me and Pete (Turner, bass) were in the studio by ourselves, creating something to present to the others.  This was a riff we’d had since the early days and we wanted to use it.”  Some of the album was a skype interchange with Garvey spending half his time in Green point, Brooklyn and the remainder in Manchester.  Poignantly, he’s noted “There is plenty to be proud of in the UK but there’s also plenty to be ashamed and fearful of and coming home has at times been a bitter sweet experience.”  Distance amplified his experiences, as can be seen on the album’s closing track “The Blanket of the Night”, a love song of illegal immigrants trying to land on the shores of a better land.

Melody Pool – Interview

Melody Pool

Written for

Melody Pool21 year old Aussie singer/songwriter Melody Pool describes herself as “currently in limbo”, hanging out in her o

Pool is a self-starter, using crowd sourcing to fund her way to Nashville to record alongside US singer Jace Everett (his song ‘Bad Things’ is the theme tune to the hit TV show True Blood).  It was almost a chance meeting that conjoined Pool and Everett.  She was asked to help play along-side a friend who was opening for one of Everett’s shows Down Under.  “I think I was introduced to him in a backstage dressing room.  I was helping Kirsty our on guitar, I was real gimpy and shy.”  But something struck a chord and the two became fast friends.  The resulting album, recorded at the home of Country Music, was The Hurting Scene. It’s an album with all the classic trace ingredients: lost love, infidelity, and the assertion of independence.  A beguiling, bittersweet series of vignettes and tales, claims Pool.  “I’m in love, and you’re to blame…” goes the opening lines.  But does she identify with Country?  “Don’t compare me to Kasey Chambers; I’m more ‘folk’ I think”.  Growing up, Pool tells me, she was deeply influenced by artists like Joni Mitchell.  “I, myself have been compared to Joni sometimes, which is flattering.  But while I love her I don’t want to be limited by her.”  Pool loves Mitchell’s Kind of Blue period but acknowledges that even the singer herself transcended jazz, pop and folk seamlessly in an effort to stay fresh.  Part of that was working with producer Brad Jones.  “He worked with Missy Higgins and Justin Townes Earle.  He has this, um, gentle touch to the sound which I love.”  And indeed it works, giving Pool’s vocals far more maturity than her two decade existence.

I put it to her that sometimes she sounds a bit like a ‘female Ryan Adams’ especially on her ballad “Somebody You’ve Never Met Before’ and the new single ‘Xavier’.  The phone line goes quiet… but I swear there’s a small girlish giggle before the reply.  “Actually I was going for Patty Griffin, but ok.”  Then the conversation turns to what it would be like to have a man cover her songs.  A reverse perhaps of Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girls concept, where the singer covers a collection of tracks by ‘blokes’ like Joe Jackson and Eminem in a Nuevo-feminist way.  “I don’t know about that, but I like it.  Actually, Marlon and I have covered each other’s songs.”  Williams covered Pool’s ‘Pretty Little End’; Pool played William’s ‘Heaven For You’.  “We did (promo) clips for Youtube.  It was amazing hearing his voice in my songs.  I guess I imagined them sung by women.  I didn’t have any comprehension of how that might work differently, in reverse.  I don’t tend to change genders, but Marlon does.”  Now I was wondering if he’d be wearing a dress on stage when the two team up for their local tour.  “No,” Pool laughs, “I meant that he makes the song more ‘manly’.  A good suggestion, though.  Would florals go with that hat?”

Marlon Williams Single Release Tour with support from Melody pool and Aldous Harding

with support from Melody pool and Aldous Harding
Fri 21 July San Francisco Bath House – Wellington
21 July The Tuning Fork – Auckland

with support from Aldous Harding
13 July – Taste Merchants – Dunedin
16 July – Wunderbar – Lyttleton


Book Review: Speed of Light by Joy Cowley

As published on

There’s no question that any novel by Joy Cowley will make you think and suck you incv_speed_of_light. She’s not only a great story teller but a clever narrative architect. This is a simple tale of a boy whose life is surrounded by chaos. He is visited by a mystery, only he doesn’t comprehend the meaning or the rationale. Not yet, anyway. This book is a classic building of layer upon layer, keeping the tension right through to the end.

Jeff is a boy from a privileged household. But his family are not perfect. His brother is holed up in a Thai prison for drug smuggling. His loving, but promiscuous sister is constantly blurring the lines and pushing the boundaries, despite looking out for her little brother – when it suits her. His father is the archetypal rich dad – grumpy, business-obsessed with a real estate deal that goes foul, and blind to what’s happening in his own world, to his own family. His mother works, if only to escape boredom of a rich captive lifestyle.

Jeff can’t rely on anything – except mathematics. Numerology and mathematics are the only truths he knows. This interplays with a mysterious woman who appears in his garden during a storm. She appears again and again, and passes on strange messages, indicating that she is not who she appears to be. Everyone else passes her off as a strange deluded old lady but Jeff is not so sure. Is she an angel? Or something else?

Cowley’s interplay between the false façade of adult authority and a child’s interpretation of reality is imminent here. It’s wonderful to see how, as the story plays out, the adults all fall over each other as the main character, Jeff, remains true to himself to pull it all together. It’s a story that will appeal to boys who don’t necessarily want to blow everything up. Perhaps they might want to spend some time dealing with the complications of growing up without the puberty blues. In many ways this tale is very real and ordinary. To me, that gave it more authenticity. I also enjoyed the bus trips and walks that Jeff took around the city of my childhood, Wellington. I particularly enjoyed the tiny insignificant details that carry the story along. It’s a delightful, understated story.

Underlying the story is the moral theme of hope, which we need when adults are too obsessed with themselves to understand their children. It’s not an original theme but its one worth revisiting. If boys, who notoriously shun any emotive, sensitive literature can be encouraged to pick up this book, then there is some hope of getting through and perhaps changing a destiny or two. Let’s make that happen.

Speed of Light will be launched at the Children’s Bookshop Kilbirnie on Thursday 14 August. To attend, RSVP to by the end of Tuesday 12 August.