This biography is based on an interview with Beth Synek in 2016 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project
Early life & inspiration to study medicine
Beth MacGregor was born in Thames and raised in farming district in Puriri—halfway between Thames and Paeroa. Beth was the older sister to two younger brothers, and both her parents, her grandparents, and several uncles worked on farms in the region. Beth went to primary school in Puriri and then later to Thames High School. When she was five years old, her father was in a tractor accident which left him paraplegic for the remaining twelve years of his life. Despite the tragic circumstances, this inspired young Beth towards a career in medicine.
“He had six months in Auckland Hospital at one stage, in the neurosurgical unit, but most of the time, at Thames, which was great, because it was only nine miles into the hospital, so we could see him every day. It was always good.”
“I saw an awful lot of hospital work, and thought it looked okay.”
Medical school: living on carrots, keeping warm, & enjoying biochemistry studies
Beth enjoyed school, where she worked hard in preparation for her medical training. Just shy of 18 years old, she moved to Dunedin for her medical intermediate studies, where she lived in St Margaret’s hostel for women and made good friends with the other girls there. The hostel was strictly operated, which didn’t particularly bother Beth who had grown up with similar rules.
“We all had favourite stories about the warden and the meals. For years and years, I wouldn’t eat carrots, because the poor dietician could only afford to feed us if we had potatoes and carrots at every dinner, and occasionally they added cabbage, when it was in season. When I got away from St Mag’s I said, “I’m never eating carrot again in my life”.”
“There were some people who thought having to come in at 10 o’clock at night was awful, whereas in my family, if you weren’t home by 10 o’clock at night, that was it. So, I didn’t mind the rules.”
Eleven women enrolled in medical school in Beth’s year, although only six went on to graduate alongside her, for various reasons. The women integrated particularly well with the men in their class and were free to choose where and who to sit with during their lectures and laboratory classes.
“One girl got to second year and decided she hated medicine, so she was honest about it. She left good and early. One got pregnant and dropped back a year. I think most that started went right through.”
“We were lucky, because we had a lovely group of boys in our class, and they were very friendly. We just mixed in. We wore slacks and heavy jumpers; went and ate pies for lunchtime, because they were nice and hot, in the cafeteria. We just mixed and mingled a lot.”
The early days of medical school were relatively relaxed until First Professional in the second year, where the students were examined on all they had learnt so far. Collaborative studying was not the norm and Beth would usually study alone in her room. Beth loathed examinations, which she found a terrifying time.
“Well, for some reason I ended up loving biochemistry, which I never thought I would. I loathed anatomy. By the end of the course, you’re really fed-up with anatomy. I ended up loving histology, which was interesting considering that I eventually took up histopathology. Geriatrics I enjoyed a lot.”
“The finals were the worst. I remember not being able to sleep most of the nights, and then you’d arrive, at an oral, hung-over looking with red eyes.”
Although the weather in Dunedin was colder than what Beth was used to, the people were friendly, and Beth enjoyed socialising with other female students, including arts student she met in her first year who she remained friends with. Beth never had the sense that medical students were viewed as superior to other students, and instead found that arts students held the upper intellectual hand.
“Quite a few of the arts students look down on us as they more or less thought we were technicians, whereas they were the really intellectual types. I got that we were just technicians learning some things, and they were the ones that did creative thinking.”
“We used to be told that it was best to live in a cold climate, because you didn’t have the temptations to go out and do other things. No, it was good for the brain. We used to spend a lot of time—because it was so cold—having little parties in various people’s rooms in the college. Well, we couldn’t afford to go out anyway, to anything that you had to pay for. We used to go to the movies quite often, because it was nice and warm. We all used to go to church, because they had some very good preachers who really talked about things that were interesting. In those days, virtually most people went to church. So, we all went.”
“I used to see quite a bit of South Dunedin and Green Island area. We all had bikes, and occasionally on a Saturday we’d get on the bikes and ride up the valleys and explore a bit. We’d ride as far as we could, and then turn around.”
The main social event of the year was the Wool Store Hops that took place in April or May every year, organised by the student union. This was a time with lots of socialising and dancing.
“At that stage of the year, the wool stores were mostly empty of wool bales, so they’d hire an enormous wool store, which was twice the size of an average hall, and hire a band, and you just went along and took your bottles of grog with you, and the band played all night. Yeah, it was great fun. I was at university when the Beatles first became popular, so I remember an awful lot of Beatles songs.”
While the boys would often go to the Captain Cook to drink, Beth recalls that women would not usually visit pubs in those days. Smoking was more widespread in medical school during the 1960s, as the association with lung cancer had not yet emerged. Most of the medical school class would have smoked at some point, and Beth herself smoked for many years.
In her fourth year of studies, Beth moved into a flat with fellow medical students, Elizabeth Steele and Karen France, and Karen’s sister Diane. They lived along Hope Street, just behind St Margaret’s hostel, which they quickly learned had been previously run as a brothel. The flat was uncomfortable and cold, and after a year they moved to South Dunedin into a flat with better central heating. The girls would share the household chores, rotating between a week of cooking, a week of cleaning, and a week off.
With plans to move back to Auckland after graduation, Beth decided to spend her sixth year of clinical training in Auckland, where she enjoyed the luxuries of living alone in a flat off Remuera Rd.
“It seemed to be virtually all clinical work, and far fewer lectures and things, so it was quite a change that year, but it was good, because you moved around so many different units, and by the end of the year you had a pretty good idea of what you liked and what you didn’t, and how it was all going to go.”
The students rotated every six weeks between different specialties, including chest medicine at Greenlane Hospital, orthopaedics at Middlemore Hospital, and geriatrics at Cornwall Hospital, which no longer exists.
“The Americans built Cornwall during the Second World War, so it had an enormous long corridor. The porters used to ride bikes up and down because it was so long, with wards coming off. Each side arm had some garden and lawn in between it. It was a lovely old place.”
Beth was the first in the MacGregor side of the family to attend university, and her graduation in 1965 was celebrated by her extended family, including her grandmother, her mother and brothers, and one of her aunts.
“I don’t think you enjoy your own graduation very much at all, because you’re so busy having to go and get your photo taken, and go and get your gown and cap, and do this and that. When my younger brother graduated in Palmerston North, I went, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt so proud of my baby brother, and I suddenly thought, well that’s probably what the family felt about me, but I enjoyed that much more than my own graduation.”
Training as a house surgeon at Greenlane Hospital
The transition from working as a student without responsibility, to a qualified doctor, was a challenge. Beth spent most of her house surgeon training years at Greenlane Hospital in Auckland, where she lived in an old two-storey house with the other house surgeons.
“The first two weeks were the worst, but after that I got over the fear of putting my foot in it at every step. I’d say most of the consultants that I worked with were very pleasant, and I had no problems at all.”
For two years, the house students rotated every three months between different specialties, choosing from a long list of available runs. Some had so many subscribers that a ballot system was put in place. Beth went through the list and was able to cross off many specialties that didn’t interest her, settling on geriatrics, general medicine, ENT, paediatrics, to name some.
“I ended up being the first woman to be a house surgeon on the male urology ward, which was quite an experience. These poor guys would arrive with their bladders—filled up, and in agony. You’d catheterise them, and you ended up with a ward full of grateful old men, because you’d bought so much relief to them.”
“Overnight you were the anaesthetist for three-year olds and four-year olds and up on paediatrics. I’d put them to sleep, and it was all fine and never had a problem. But then I did anaesthetics as a proper run, as a house surgeon, and I was terrified, because they told me all the things that could go wrong. I thought, there I was, I’d just whip down the hill and anaesthetise another child and go back to bed. Certainly, anaesthetics was one of the ones I knew I would never do.”
Specialising in pathology: from Auckland to Queen’s Square in London
At the end of her two years house surgeon training, Beth had narrowed her choice down to Anatomic Pathology and Radiology, eventually deciding on pathology, and she loved it from the very beginning. At the time, women pathologists were relatively uncommon, although the specialty grew in popularity over the course of her career. Beth spent the next five years training as a pathology specialist at Auckland Hospital, where she found the work varied and interdisciplinary, with lots of interaction with other medical specialties, and self-organised teaching amongst the registrars.
“All the specimens from theatre would come in, so you just never quite knew what would turn up next day, which is nice, because no two days were ever the same.”
“It was good at Greenlane, because all the seniors and the house surgeons had a lunch room that was just theirs. If you wanted to get somebody to come and look at one of the patients in your wards, you could waltz into the lunch room with your yellow form, and see the consultant. We had much more cohesion in Greenlane, I think, just because we were all together in one big room and could discuss things over lunch.”
“Every Friday morning, the registrars had a teaching morning, and you’d pick a topic and give an hour’s talk on that particular topic. So, you had two or three registrars presenting each week. We’d get senior pathologists to come along and talk about their specialties also. For a lot of the weeks, people would bring along problem slides, and then they’d put it up and everybody would discuss what they thought it was, and what they’d recommend.”
After her five years training, Beth chose to sub-specialise in neuropathology, as no one else in her working group had specialist knowledge in the area. She travelled to London for a job interview at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Queen’s Square—one of only two teaching hospitals in the world specialising in neuropathology at that time. She waited nervously for several days before learning she had been successful in her application.
“So, the pace of work wasn’t any different. In fact, it was probably more relaxed, but they had years and years of boxes of slides of various conditions, and you could just sit at your microscope and look up anything you’d like to think of. I keep saying, “no, no, it’s not that neuropath is difficult, it’s just like everything else, you need plenty of exposure to lots of conditions”. This was a centre that had an enormous stockpile of cases, and you could just sit and learn at your own pace, as well as seeing the day to day things that came through the department.”
Beth enjoyed the social life in London. Pathology specialists largely did not work on the weekends, leaving Beth free to visit the sights, such as the nearby Hampton Court and other attractions around London. The hospital backed onto South Hampton Row near the festival halls, and once a month she would go down to the ticket office and for half a crown could get tickets for all the up and coming music around London.
“So, you’d buy a whole pile of tickets, and if that night, when you finished work, you felt tired, you’d go home and say, well it’s only two and six. Other nights you could go down and sit in the orchestra stalls behind the performer for two and six. There were people like Janet Baker, I heard sing; she was wonderful. So, the music was fabulous, and the art galleries of course were wonderful.”
Beth’s mother visited her for three months during her time in London, where she lived in Beth’s flat and took care of the domestic duties.
“She’d totter down the road to the local laundrette, and the woman who ran the laundrette would say, “ello love, now, come on, it’s time for a cup of tea and a bickie”. My mother had all the local gossip about people she didn’t know and never heard of. I’d come home and she’d say, you’ll never guess what happened last week. Then, we’d book her on tours, so she went to the Continent, and various things.”
After two and a half years living in London, Beth had tired of the more mundane parts of London life, such as travelling between home and work.
“You just get so fed-up with the constant underground and getting to work and going home from work on the damned underground. It all becomes a little bit tired. So, I was quite pleased to leave London at that stage.”
Living & working in Sweden as a newlywed
Beth’s mother remained in London to celebrate Beth’s wedding, where Beth was given away by one of her mother’s cousins. Beth’s new husband Vladimir was born in Czechoslovakia during the Russian occupation and had left illegally to claim asylum in Sweden. He had moved to London for his postgraduate training in neurology, where he and Beth met. His complicated history meant that he was sadly not able to reunite with his family at that stage.
“His mother was originally Jewish, so she ended up in Theresienstadt concentration camp during the war, which was not as bad as most of them. It wasn’t one of the death camps, as such. I’d only known Vladimir for a few weeks when she died, and his father was in Czechoslovakia, and a brother, but he had very little family. Russia was still very firmly in charge, and there was no way they could really travel, and Vladimir wouldn’t dare to go back, because he left the country illegally. So, he was cut off at that stage from his family.”
Because of Vladimir’s upbringing, he was fluent in five languages, which often made travel much easier.
“He would just learn a new language for fun. You know? He’d say, oh I think I’ll learn a bit of Spanish, now. They just pick languages up like it’s fun to learn a new language.”
After their wedding, Beth and Vladimir moved to Sweden for 18 months, which Beth found to be quite a culture shock. Beth noted the medical training system was different in Sweden, where graduates were required to complete a PhD before becoming a consultant, compared to New Zealand’s more clinically based training. Beth spent the first three months studying a Swedish language course before she could begin her pathology work, and thereafter continued to struggle with the language. Most of the other doctors in her department were Swedes, and Beth found it particularly challenging writing reports in Swedish, where it would often take her a whole week to get through a day’s worth of report writing.
“You had the three months language, and then you had a test, and if you passed that test, then you could start working, but then every six months you had to go and do another language test. I remember they gave you a tape recorder with somebody talking in an accent from Norland—because they have a lot of regional accents in Sweden, and Norland—and he was a carpenter who was saying how he wore gloves that came down to the first knuckles on his hands, because in the winter you had to keep warm, but then you had to hold the nail to be able to hammer, and all this kind of garbage.”
An expanding career as one of New Zealand’s only neuropathologists
In 1977, Beth’s brother’s wife died from a routine anaesthetic complication, and Beth convinced Vladimir to move to New Zealand with her.
“After we flew and flew and flew for hours and hours, and got out of the plane in Auckland, I thought, what have I done, because in Sweden you just hopped on the plane in the winter and flew off to the northern Italian lakes. It was only an hour’s flight, and we had these wonderful holidays, and I’d forgotten just how far New Zealand was from the rest of the world.”
Back in New Zealand, Beth and Vladimir found work easily and they both enjoyed the diversity of combined clinical and academic work. Vladimir’s experience awarded him a role in the neurophysiology department running EEGs, and although he felt the distance keenly between New Zealand and Europe, he thoroughly enjoyed his work.
“He loved the work, because there were fewer people employed in our health system than there are in Sweden. He got to see a lot more. He said it was wonderful from the point of view of seeing things, and he liked to publish, so he would write paper after paper.”
Beth split her time between a pathologist for the hospital board and a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland. As the only neuropathology subspecialist, Beth found she had no competition from colleagues and was free to expand her career as she chose. While this meant she had to make many clinical decisions alone, she would sometimes send samples to Australia or back to Queen’s Square in London if she needed a second opinion.
“When I came back here, all the brains were mine. I had no competition whatsoever. It was all mine. I really started to learn neuropath properly once I got back here, because it was my problem to sit down and work out.”
The couple lived and worked in Auckland for the next 35 years. Over this time, Beth’s expertise in neuropathology lead to several other opportunities outside her usual work, including forensic pathology for the coroner service, and as the clinical neuropathologist with the Neurological Foundation Human Brain Bank, where she would diagnose brains afflicted by Huntington’s Chorea.
“It brought the opportunities of working with the brain bank people, and it was wonderful, because they keep publishing all these high flown scientific papers, and because I’ve done the basis pathology, my name went on any number of papers, just because I originally said, “yes it is Huntington’s”, or “no it’s not”. So, I actually got a lot of exposure in the literature that I hadn’t earned at all.”
“There are brain banks worldwide, and they collaborate in a lot of investigations and swap bits of tissue, and things. It’s a big deal now, because they look at Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and Motor Neuron Disease, and they keep adding to the list of things that they look at.”
From the age of 60, Beth moved to part-time work solely as a forensic pathologist until she turned 70. By then, she had been involved in a number of high-profile cases, and she felt the pressure to maintain competency was too great.
“I’d get to the stage where even working part-time, by two in the afternoon, the brain would say, “stop—I’m not going to do anymore today”. You just haven’t got the energy. Also, you’re awfully worried, if you are the only one, are you getting it right? Particularly once the child abuse cases started coming to court, that became an absolute nightmare. They’d have pathologists flown in from overseas, and it really was beginning to be too much drama. Because I never trained in paediatric neuropathology, I really was an adult neuropathologist, and when you step into another field, where you haven’t got the background, you really begin to worry that this might not go well.”
Reflections: retirement & looking back at the changes in pathology
Beth modestly reflects on the changes that she saw during her time working as one of the sole neuropathologists in New Zealand, including the impacts of new technologies.
“I was doing just histopathology. In my day it was just they made up slides with a few special stains, but there really weren’t any great advances, except that a lot of the major classification systems came particularly during my early part of doing pathology. So, there was a lot of classification and re-classification going on, but we were pretty old-fashioned, otherwise.”
“They can now use lots of antibodies, so you can stain [the tissue] in different colours. But it means you can be much more precise about what you think a tumour is, and where it’s come from, whereas in our days it was very much, “yeah that look belongs to so ‘n so”, but there can be so many variations of that look, that one thing feeds into another. Nowadays they get a much firmer diagnosis than we did.”
“The first half of the career you’d spend hours getting journals from the library and photostatting them. Whereas [now] you’re able to sit at your computer and print them out; it’s wonderful. Gosh, that has been a major help for everyone, I’m sure.”
Now that she’s retired, Beth is happy to have some time to dedicate to her own life, outside her career.
“I walked out, and it was over, and I’ve never looked back at all. In the village, we have so many little groups. There’s a book club and various groups that you can go to, and movies on a Saturday night—things like this. You could fill all your time in, in the village quite happily. It’s been great.”