Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 23-March-2007, Vol 120 No 1251
Paediatrician (24 September 1920 – 7 January 2007)
Dr Margaret Neave saved thousands of the world’s disadvantaged infants in her long, energetic, and unsung career. Children were her life, though none of them were strictly her own.
In one poor country after another—Tokelau, Samoa, Vietnam, New Guinea, Vanuatu, and in refugee camps in Hong Kong—she expended her formidable energy and skill to heal and comfort. Some of her overseas work was done for the Save the Children Fund.
She was also a VSA volunteer, the first New Zealand doctor the organisation sent overseas, and she went to Qui Nhon in 1969 with a New Zealand medical team.
She sidestepped formal honours from her own country and Vietnam, where she considered she spent her most productive working years. She was, though, revered by those who worked with her as a no-nonsense dispenser of practical Christianity. With her familiar stance of crossed arms, one arm of her glasses thoughtfully between her teeth, she wasn’t someone to be argued with.
She’d seen everything an impoverished life could throw at a child. Asked once why she had devoted her life to working in poor and troubled countries rather than building up a rich practice in New Zealand, she replied enigmatically: “It has been so very interesting seeing what the human race can do.”
Dr Neave was born in Wellington, one of two girls. Her mother had trained as a nurse and her father, who died of typhoid fever when she was two, was a barrister. She grew up in a loving extended family and maintained contact with them all her life. At Marsden School, where she was dux in 1937, she first wanted to be a nurse and then a doctor, and the school had to make special arrangements for her to take the science subjects necessary. She graduated from Otago University in 1943, then worked at Wellington and Hutt hospitals before studying advanced paediatrics in Britain.
In her 11 years with the then Health Department, which she joined in the mid-1950s, she participated in Polynesian health surveys that made her familiar with problems of Māori communities and took her to the Tokelau Islands in 1963 as part of a medical team led by Dr Randall Elliott. In 1965 she volunteered to work in village clinics in what was then Western Samoa, where she extended the fledgling paediatric service at Apia Hospital to a full maternal and child health programme.
Then came Vietnam. She worked with New Zealand’s surgical team at the provincial hospital in Qui Nhon, overseeing the establishment of a baby clinic and developing another north of the city. She spent several days a week away from the hospital at Binh Dinh, a medically backward province which, when the New Zealand team had first arrived, had only six doctors for a population of about one million.
Her work in Samoa meant she was not surprised by what she found in Vietnamese children—gastroenteritis, pneumonia, skin diseases, and malnutrition. In 1972 she transferred from the provincial hospital to a children’s home run by the British Save the Children Fund in Qui Nhon so she could focus more intensely on paediatrics. She returned to the surgical team in 1973 and stayed with it, continuing to brave, against all advice, the dangers of the communist-occupied An Lao valley north of Qui Nhon to help sick children.
She was evacuated with the rest of the team in March 1975 in the face of the North Vietnamese occupation of the city. Her efforts had led prime minister Norman Kirk to propose, in 1973, the building of a children’s ward at the hospital in her honour. In 1990 she returned to the hospital with a New Zealand team carrying medical supplies. The brass plaque naming the hospital, hidden by a staff member as the North Vietnamese arrived, was brought out of hiding. Her support for the Vietnamese continued all her life.
After her hasty exit from Vietnam in 1975, she worked in a hospital in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea, where she estimated one in 10 babies died in their first year. A New Zealand colleague there remembers her tirelessness. She would work as long into the night as it would take to settle the dozens of sick babies in the large paediatric ward in her charge and then help in the ward next door. She was obliged to work on a shoestring budget and was pragmatic and innovative, making sure there were always large cans of a water, salt, and sugar mixture for the many children with diarrhoea and vomiting. She invented a rudimentary incubator for babies born prematurely, a set-up with a wooden crib overhung with a light bulb in a tin can from which reflected heat.
In Papua New Guinea, as in other primitive societies where she worked, she had to allow for traditional healers. Highland mothers often believed that once their child was ill, it was likely to die and wanted a traditional healer to attend to it. Dr Neave would advise the mother to leave the child in the hospital where she could treat it and bring the faith healer to the child. “I would never see the faith healer,” she said in an interview.
She then worked in Laos followed by 6 years in Hong Kong camps for South Vietnamese refugees which had, she found, more resources than had been available in Vanuatu or Vietnam. In 1985 she returned to New Zealand and worked at the Te Aro Free Clinic in Wellington.
In 1988, when she was in her 60s, she went to malaria-ridden Pentecost Island in Vanuatu as a VSA volunteer. As usual, her aim was not to set up a little Western-style health service. In Vanuatu she found traditional midwives reasonably competent, though some still cut umbilical cords with sharpened bamboo, likely to lead to tetanus.
When she finally gave up the work that had been her life, she lived alone in her Thorndon apartment, latterly with help from close friends and family.
This obituary was written by Diana Dekker and appeared under the heading Doctor who saved poor children in the Dominion Post (Wellington) on 20 January. We are grateful to the Dominion Post for permission to reproduce it here (slightly shortened).
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