Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 05-November-2010, Vol 123 No 1325
Melvin Athol Brieseman
MB ChB 1959 NZ; FICS 1973; DPH 1977 Otago; DHA 1979; MCCM (NZ) 1980; FAFPHM (RACP) 1994
Melvin Brieseman fulfilled two lives, as a missionary doctor, and (for 31 years) the longest serving Medical Officer of Health in New Zealand. Mel, as he was known to all, was born in Stratford, Taranaki on 13 June 1934, the third of Francis and Ivy Brieseman’s four children.
Mel was dux of Stratford High School. Mel’s thoughts of becoming a doctor from an early age materialised when he entered Otago Medical School in the early 1950s.
In Dunedin he met Joan Daniels who was, at that time, secretary to the professor of microbiology. Mel and Joan shared a common bond in The Salvation Army. As their friendship matured and their future together seemed to be destined, Joan told Mel that she had, as a 7-year-old girl, heard a call to be a missionary, whether it be to India or to Africa she then did not know.
They were married in 1957.
Following his graduation in 1959, Mel became a junior medical officer at New Plymouth Hospital. In 1964, having completed the 4 years in hospitals which then entitled a recently-graduated doctor to a bursary for a year’s overseas study, Mel and Joan travelled with four very young children to London.
In London, Mel studied at the Royal College of Surgeons and worked at Hillingdon Hospital. In 1966, following a residential period at The Salvation Army William Booth Memorial Training College, Captain Dr Mel Brieseman was appointed Chief Medical Officer of the Evangeline Booth Hospital. This hospital, one of six Salvation Army hospitals in India, is in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, east of Mumbai. While here, Mel commenced outreach and public health programmes in surrounding villages.
In 1970, Mel returned to New Zealand, to further his knowledge and experience in medicine. In 1972, he was appointed Chief Medical Officer, Emery Hospital, Anand, Gujarat, 400km north of Mumbai. In 1974, Mel was laid low with a viral hepatitis, deeply jaundiced, that left him debilitated him for many weeks.
For a 50-year reunion of classmates held in Queenstown early this year, Mel, with much encouragement, when his health was failing and his mind was not clear, wrote of his time in India:
I have enjoyed a widespread cover of a variety of medical fields—surgeon in every sphere apart from thoracic and cardiac—with obstetrics, including not a few complications. Although I was not a specialist, I was needed in every situation. For example, a visiting New Zealand colleague, an obstetric GP, offered to assist if needed. A village mother with an impacted hydrocephalic dead foetus had been brought in one night. The colleague advised ‘Can we call the local expert obstetrician?’ My response had to be ‘That’s me!’ So, having read up an obstetric textbook, I became the specialist needed to save the mother’s life.
Joan often heard Mel say with regard to surgical matters, ‘I did not know what to do, but my hands were directed.’ There were times of great rejoicing, such as when a woman said to Mel, ‘I thought I was going to die,’ and Mel said, ‘And so did I.’ She had come in with a post-partum haemorrhage, bleeding profusely, and was nigh unto death with an extremely low haemoglobin level.
In 1976, Mel and Joan, when their older children graduated from secondary school, returned to New Zealand. Mel now gained the DPH and became Superintendent of Stratford Hospital. When the time came for Mel to return to India, the doors had been closed by the Indian Government for overseas workers.
Mel and Joan now moved to Christchurch, where Mel became Deputy Medical Officer of Health in November 1977. While Mel’s work was immensely varied, the area he most made his own was communicable disease control. He was a member of the National Influenza Strategy Group from its inception and remained an honorary member after his retirement in recognition of his significant contribution to that work.
He was a member of the national Communicable Disease Control Advisory Committee for many years. He played a role in development of national strategies on immunisation and tuberculosis control amongst other things. He was also a foundation member of the Christchurch Infection Control Committee.
The 31 years that Mel worked in communicable disease saw the identification of campylobacteriosis, now New Zealand’s most common notifiable disease, and the emergence of AIDS, SARS, and E. coli 0157. On the other hand, they saw New Zealand bring epidemics of invasive Hib disease and meningococcal disease under control. Mel was at the centre of the public health response to all of these issues. His name and face were for many years synonymous with public health in Canterbury.
Mel also took a great interest in the bigger picture of public health. He was a guest lecturer in the Diploma in Public Health and was frequently called upon to talk about the diversity of public health work that he had been involved with. He was a member of the Clinical Board of the Canterbury District Health Board. He was a Foundation member of the New Zealand College of Community Medicine in 1980. He also helped form the national Society of Medical Officers of Health, and always attended national MOH meetings and training.
Mel had a wealth of experience, and was generous in sharing it. He was also never afraid to be the one to take the responsibility and the flack that often came with working in the public eye.
If you asked Mel about what he did in his 31 years in public health, he’d tell you that he didn’t do anything on his own, that he was always part of a team of public health people. Mel worked with patience, calmness, resilience and humour that were an example to all. A caring colleague with broad shoulders and a warm heart, he will be fondly remembered by all those he touched.
Mel read widely, to a background of classical music. His spiritual home on earth was with The Salvation Army.
In early 2010, Mel was recognised to have a renal cell carcinoma metastatic to the brain. Mel died at his home in Christchurch on 25 October 2010, aged 76, surrounded by his family.
The celebration of his life was held in The Salvation Army Linwood Citadel, attended by some 300 people. Mel is survived by his wife Joan; children Nigel, Lyn, Sherry and Jo; and 10 grandchildren.
Dr Bramwell Cook wrote this obituary, with the assistance of Dr Daniel Williams and the family of Melvin Brieseman.
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