Dame Margaret June Sparrow (nee Muir)

This biography is largely based on an interview between Dame Margaret Sparrow and Dr Tree Cocks from 12 May 1998. The interview was recorded as part of the New Zealand Medical Women’s Association Oral History Project ‘Stories of Diversity and Success’ and is held at the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington. Permission to use this interview was granted by Dame Margaret Sparrow and the National Library. Information has also been sourced from archival research, all of which is listed in the footnotes. The biography was written by Michaela Selway and Margaret Sparrow.

1963 Graduate


Family History

Margaret June Muir was born on 26 June 1935 in Inglewood, Taranaki. She was the second of four children born to Daniel James and Jessie Isabel (nee McMillan) Muir – Elizabeth, Margaret, John, and Grace. The first two years of Margaret’s life were spent on a farm near Inglewood, however, when Margaret was two, the Muir family moved to a farm on the coast south of Urenui. Margaret lived on this farm until she went to university.

Dan Muir was a dairy farmer for a small herd of approximately 50 cows. Dan’s father had been a farmer, though there had been a tragedy that meant the family did not talk about him too much. Dan’s mother lived in New Plymouth in a beachside cottage (about 20 miles away from the family farm) and they visited her quite often.

Margaret’s mother, Jessie, was from a Scottish family and had been raised in Gisborne. Jessie moved to work in Taranaki, so they did not remain very close with this side of the family while the children grew up – at this time it was quite an expedition to get from one side of New Zealand to the other. Nevertheless, the children upheld their Scottish heritage. As Margaret was growing up, she learned about her Scottish heritage and she later wore the McMillan tartan. Jessie’s father was a farmer. Margaret’s mother trained and worked as a midwife before she married. She was the second oldest child of eleven and stayed at home for a long time to help look after her younger siblings. Her plan was to become a nurse, however, restricted by the conservatism at this time you could not train to be a nurse until you were 21, as young women might see things they shouldn’t.

Overall, Margaret had a happy childhood. The children spent much time at the river and beach. They learnt to ride bikes and fish with a line or fishing net. They sometimes went fishing for flounders in the river at night. The family also had pet lambs and calves that the children raised for AG days at school. Many of the activities they did were outside, though Margaret generally preferred indoor activities like reading.

The family was not necessarily poor, but they did not have much, especially when she compared what she had to some of the wealthy children on neighbouring farms. For most of Margaret’s childhood, they did not have a car. They also did not have ‘extras’ such as books. As a child, Margaret became quite close with a friend of her mothers who worked as a librarian in the Inglewood library. Margaret stayed with her once or twice in the school holidays and these created some of her favourite memories growing up. She thought her profession as a librarian was marvellous; she got to spend all of her days surrounded by books. Because they had no books at home (except the Bible and her mother’s obstetric textbooks, hidden away in a cupboard) Margaret would bring back lots of books from the library and from school: including comics, annuals, horror, etc. There were few restrictions placed on the types of books allowed so Margaret would read anything she could get her hands on.

Though Margaret was young, she remembers the war years. Her father was unable to be sent to war because of an old leg injury; invaliding him. Instead, he joined the home guard. Margaret would do all of his exercises with him, and she learnt morse code. They would sit together in the evenings listening to and translating the morse code practice sessions over the radio. Margaret also remembers the rationing. Sugar was not able to be bought and coupon books were necessary. Overall, there was a feeling of restraint, though the rest of life continued relatively the same. At school, trench drills were added to the already common earthquake drills. When the trench drill bell rang, the students would run outside and hide in the trenches. Because their farm was on the coast, the family also had to black out all of the windows at night-time in case the Japanese war ships came. Heavy blinds were installed that would be pulled down so lights could not be seen.

Margaret recalls that it was common for families to read the newspapers every day to find out who had been killed in action. Her mother would bake cakes and send them to the soldiers they knew who were fighting overseas. She would place them in tins and cover them with flour bags. One of the frequent recipients was Jessie’s brother who was based in Egypt. In return, he would send letters. Sometimes words were blacked out, but she remembers thinking it was special for the children to be receiving mail from all of these foreign places overseas. Margaret also remembers Victory Day. Planes flew over the school dropping leaflets announcing the end of the war.

Margaret barely remembers the family visiting a doctor. There was one time that she hit someone at primary school during a basketball game and she cracked a finger. However, doctors were a luxury that her family could not generally afford.

Attending Various Schools

Margaret attended Urenui Primary School for her early schooling, as it was the closest primary to the family farm. Following this, she attended Waitara District High School which had opened the year before in 1948. In the summer of 1948-9 there was a polio epidemic and schools were closed until the first week in April. The school was co-educational and in the first few years went through to the fifth form only. To finish her schooling, Margaret attended New Plymouth Girls’ High School. As this was quite a distance from home, Margaret boarded with a close family of her mother Monday to Friday. She was thankful to have been taught by some excellent role models at all of the schools she attended and kept in contact with some of them for a very long time, including her primary school head mistress Miss Mabel Jones. In the 1940s it was very rare for a primary school to have a female principal.

While at Girls’ High school, she studied: Chemistry, English, French, Geography, and Mathematics. Margaret did not have any set plan for what she wanted to study at university. She did not know any women doctors and so she did not consider medicine as an option. She had not received very good career advice but was drawn to the careers of librarian or teacher. She felt that she was a natural born teacher; the incredible women teachers growing up had been very inspiring to her. She also remembered that one of her favourite games growing up was to put some chairs in a circle so she could ‘teach’ her friends who were pretending to be pupils.

Bachelor of Science at Victoria University & Decision to Enter Medical School

Margaret entered university the year after she finished High School. She won a Taranaki Scholarship, which enabled her to get a bursary. She decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science at Victoria University of Wellington. Initially, she did not know what field she wanted to specialise in and so entered a general science degree, studying: Botany, Zoology, Chemistry and Psychology.

Margaret enjoyed living in Wellington and she enjoyed her time at the university. She stayed in a hostel, Helen Lowry Hall, run by Quaker wardens. There were about 30 girls staying there each year, and the atmosphere was very warm, caring, and supportive. Margaret remembers her time there fondly.

In 1954 at the age of 19 Margaret remembers well the release of Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents better known as the Mazengarb Report, an enquiry into teenage behaviour at the time. The most egregious response of the Government was to prohibit contraceptive education or services for under 16s. The legislation had a negative effect on sexuality education, but its impact was most keenly felt by those engaged in HIV prevention as condoms could not be publicised where under 16s might be exposed to the information. For over three decades Margaret was involved in numerous submissions to reverse this legislation which was finally repealed in 1990 through the initiative of Minister of Health, Helen Clark.

At the beginning of her third year, Margaret met Peter Charles Methven Sparrow while in Christchurch for a holiday job. She was working as a nurse aid at Burwood Hospital then at Aulsebrooks Biscuit factory. The money she saved from this time went towards her living expenses the following year, as the Bursary covered only her fees and accommodation. Peter was working as a carpenter but was considering pursuing a medical degree after going through psychotherapy. Peter was also influenced by his own medical history: he was a severe asthmatic and believed there was a psychological component to asthma – a thought that Margaret believed was very ahead of its time. While talking about his future plans, Margaret commented that she could never do a medical degree because she had never done physics, neither at school nor university. He told her that she could definitely do it and so she decided to enrol in Stage One Physics without having any background knowledge. It was the hardest paper she had ever taken, though she passed!

During the final year of her Bachelor’s, Margaret and Peter wrote letters to each other twice a week, letters that Margaret treasured for many years. Their relationship continued to develop, and they decided to get married in January 1956, after she completed her studies. Her parents were supportive of her decision to marry at 20, though they did express some concerns at the age gap – Peter was twelve years older than her. Nevertheless, they gave their blessing to the couple.

During 1955, Margaret determined that she would in fact pursue a medical degree the following year. She thought that if her fiancé could do it after working in carpentry, there was nothing stopping her. Furthermore, just as at the beginning of her degree, she still did not have any clear direction of what she wanted to do with her science degree. Enrolling in medical school was a good, clear, and challenging direction. The only downside was that she would be undertaking the medical degree without the Bursary, which she lost when she married.

Margaret had preferential entry to Medical School because she had completed a Bachelor of Science. Her intention was to enter the Otago Medical School with Peter in 1956, though an accident put a pause on her plans. The night before the couple was due to move to Dunedin, Peter’s father came to collect her from her place of work, and they ended up in a car crash. Her pelvis was fractured in the crash and the treatment was to lie in bed and wait for it to heal. And so, as a newly married woman looking forward to starting a new life in Dunedin, Margaret found herself in Christchurch Hospital surrounded by victims of one of the last polio epidemics to hit New Zealand. Unfortunately, this injury delayed her entry to Medical School by a full year.


Moving to Dunedin, Working as a Research Assistant, & Beginning Medical School

Peter moved to Dunedin in 1956 without Margaret so that he could begin his studies, and when she was able to move, Margaret joined him there. She saw an advert for a research assistant position at the Medical School and applied so that she would have something to do for the remainder of the year. The position was advertised by the Professor of Surgery, Professor Michael Woodruff who gave her the position. [In 1969 he was knighted in the UK Honours.] The research focused on tissue transplantation in rats. She found this very interesting, more so than the idea of teaching, which only reinforced her decision to pursue medicine. Her position also meant that she was on campus, and so it allowed Peter and Margaret to have lunch together. Reflecting on this job, Margaret saw it as the time that allowed her to recognise her own skills. She was not a born researcher or independent thinker. She described the researchers who surrounded her as ‘lateral thinkers’ who would think about and formulate grand ideas with creative approaches. Instead, Margaret was the meticulous one. She would ‘grasp onto’ the grand ideas and consolidate them into a methodological plan. Her colleagues did not have consistency and they needed someone like her to carry out the ideas. All in all, they came together as a highly effective team.

The couple lived in a flat that was the downstairs part of a house in Queen Street. They stayed here in this flat until they had enough money to buy a house. Peter worked hard during the holidays, returning to carpentry. They were both very thrifty and the house at 679 Castle Street, near the Botanic Gardens was very cheap. They also took in a boarder to make ends meet. The years were difficult, but they made it work.

During this year, Margaret became pregnant despite having been fitted with a diaphragm. All forms of contraception were unreliable at this point. Unfortunately, she was still recovering from her injury and at this point, she was the only breadwinner, so she felt that it was not an ideal time to be pregnant. She also wanted to prioritise her career at this time in her life. However, abortion was illegal; the penalty for self abortion was seven years in jail. Seeing a doctor was out of the question. At first, she tried some of the old wives’ tales, such as vigorous exercise and taking a bottle of DeWitt’s pills, none of which worked. Therefore, she resorted to a back channel. George Bettle was a well-known chemist in Christchurch who provided an illegal abortion service. Margaret received a large bottle full of a black mixture that she was instructed to take three times a day until it worked. She was not sure what the mixture contained. Even though Peter was the son of a vicar, he was supportive of Margaret’s decision – in fact, he was the one who knew how to get an illegal abortion. Neither of them was overly concerned about the risks.

Margaret entered Medical School in 1957. Ten percent of Margaret’s class were women. Though there was a small, mixed common room, the students were expected to spend the majority of their time in the separate common rooms to prevent them mixing with the opposite sex. Margaret commented that this separation led to great bonding between the women students, although Margaret often spent time in the shared common room with her husband. There were also a lot of other superficial divisions between the men and women, such as women having a strict dress code for exams (they had to wear a grey suit). Despite the rules, men and women were generally treated equally by the staff. Margaret felt that there were underlying pressures placed on women, but she believed that this was not restricted to the medical school.

Their situation was slightly different to the others in their classes because they were one of only a few married students. They were also amongst the oldest in the class – the majority of students having entered Medical School straight from school. The other mature students in their year levels were generally qualified European immigrants who had moved to New Zealand following political events in their own country. As their medical degrees were not recognised in New Zealand, they had to resit the latter years of the program to qualify in New Zealand. One who had no previous medical training was Mirdza Palmer (nee Robins), a refugee from Latvia.

Many of the students came from medical families or had some sort of a connection to a medical person who had influenced their decision to enter medical school. In this respect, Margaret felt a bit out of place as she had entered Medical School with no familial connection to medicine.

In her first year they took the common subjects of anatomy and physiology. In fifth year, they studied pharmacy. There were a few lectures on women’s health, but nothing advanced. They had one lecture a year on contraception delivered by Professor Laurie Wright. Margaret remembers this lecture was always crowded out with visitors plus every enrolled medical student – nobody missed this class! Margaret believed that everyone attended this class because they wanted tips; it was difficult to get any information elsewhere. With regard to sexual and reproductive health the only other notable lecture was in medical jurisprudence where they had one mention of abortions in regard to illegal abortions, and menopause was not mentioned at all.

Margaret’s experience of Medical School also differed from others in her class as she was pregnant in her second year. When she got married in Christchurch, she had visited Dr Eleanor Mears to be fitted for a diaphragm. Because the couple was poor, Margaret did not have an engagement ring and so had to find another way to prove that she was indeed getting married. Thankfully, her father-in-law had put an announcement in the parish magazine which she was able to take along as proof. She was able to hide her pregnancy for the first few months because she was tall, and people did not expect women medical students to be pregnant during their studies. However, she had to announce her condition during one of her rounds. She was assigned to do paediatrics at Waikari Hospital under Doctor McGeorge. On their first day he ran through all the housekeeping and mentioned that they all had to put in a certain amount of money for morning tea, which someone in the group had to organise. Being the only woman in the group, he turned to her and asked her to organise the morning teas. Margaret responded that she could not because she was having a baby and she believed she would not be there for the full term. It just so happened that she was a month out with her dates. Either way, she decided that it was about time someone knew.

Their first child, Graeme, was born in October 1958. Margaret took approximately one week off and then they organised a babysitting schedule. This was difficult because neither Peter nor Margaret had family in Dunedin. They ended up making arrangements with friends, primarily with another medical student Dr Ian Prangnell whose wife Joan had also recently had a baby and so she was happy to help out. With this arrangement, Margaret was able to continue with the year. The following year, Tanya Hillerby and her baby Kolya came to live with them. They then had a group of three people on a schedule for the same classes – Peter, Margaret and Tanya. Two would attend a lecture, then come home and teach the one who stayed at home. They would discuss and talk about the lecture which meant that they all understood the content extremely well. It was busy, but they were all very determined to finish their degrees. Margaret had sat her First Professional Exam while pregnant with Graeme and by the time of her Second Professional Exam she was pregnant with her second child. (She remembers that one of the questions was to describe the relations of the diaphragm.) After Beryl’s birth, she found that it was too difficult to organise childcare for two and felt that her medical degree was at an end. She ended up taking two years off her studies but decided that she did indeed want to continue with them. Part of this was motivated by the fact that Peter was failing his exams without the help of the study trio.

Another contributing factor was the arrival of the contraceptive pill. In 1961 Peter was a 5th year medical student and as part of his training he was doing some sessions in a general practice. One day he came home with samples of the Pill, Anovlar, which a drug representative had left at the surgery for the doctors to gain experience with this new method of contraception. Margaret readily agreed to give it a trial. She saw no qualified doctor and had none of the recommended medical checks. Anovlar was a high-dose pill and many women experienced side effects, but Margaret had none, other than the desired effect of controlling her fertility. If she had seen a doctor, she may well have been prescribed the Pill (or perhaps been given free samples) because she was the ideal candidate – young, healthy, with no pre-existing medical conditions, married, with two normal births, not wanting more children and prepared to take the risk with an experimental new drug. One of the important boxes that she ticked was ‘married’. In the early years it was very difficult for single or unmarried women to obtain the Pill. The New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association considered it was unethical for doctors to prescribe the Pill for the unmarried.

At the end of it all, though Margaret had taken two years off and Peter had started a year earlier, they ended up graduating in the same year together in 1963.

When they both qualified, it got local attention. Both of their mothers came down for graduation because they were both enormously proud of their achievement. Margaret’s mother had helped out with childcare for the last phase of their degree. The children would go up to Margaret’s family’s farm in Taranaki for extended holidays so Margaret could study. This meant that the children ended up with a strong bond with their grandmother.

Early Career in Masterton and Stratford

The family moved to Masterton after Peter and Margaret’s graduation, as Peter had managed to secure a position in the hospital there. Margaret had not been able to find a position so at first, she stayed at home to look after the children. This lasted about six weeks. Problems had been brewing between the couple for a long time and they decided mutually to part ways. They were going in different directions and wanted different things out of this next stage of life. It seemed as if they had stuck together while students because they could not afford to do anything else. While the split was the correct thing for their marriage, Margaret remembers feeling humiliation and shame. Neither of them came from broken families and both had been raised with the idea that you ‘stuck it out’. Margaret felt that she had failed, and she was not used to failing. This was a difficult time for her, and it took a long time to process it.

Nevertheless, Margaret found a good position that moved her away from Masterton. She obtained a job at Stratford Hospital. Her colleagues were extremely supportive of her situation and helped her to make arrangements for the two children. Home was a flat in the hospital grounds and she was allowed to work from there in some situations. Sometimes the radiologist would send one of the nurses with the patient’s X-rays to her flat to ask her questions so that she did not have to go into the hospital. This position was a temporary vacancy for six months while the Medical Superintendent was away on overseas study leave.

During this period, Margaret’s first child (Graeme) became extremely ill. He developed a cerebral tumour, which was diagnosed by Dr Eric Bird, one of Margaret’s colleagues at Stratford Hospital. She was thankful that the Hospital was so supportive and flexible with her. They allowed her to travel to Auckland for Graeme to undergo surgery and radiotherapy. During this time, Beryl (Margaret’s youngest child) went to live with Margaret’s mother and father. Upon returning to Stratford, Margaret continued with her work at Stratford Hospital.

After her six-month contract was over, she obtained a job-sharing position at Hawera Hospital. Dr Tom Atkinson was the Superintendent and he and his wife Joan, also a doctor, had three children, one of them autistic, although the diagnosis was not made until they returned to the UK from where they had come. The position of house surgeon was split between Margaret and Joan. It was a unique situation, but they worked well together, and the arrangement was of benefit to the hospital as both contributed generous half time hours. By the end of her time at Hawera, Margaret had completed her two years of registration and so could enter any field that fitted in with childcare. She did not want to pursue a career in a hospital because of the demands of hospital life. Instead, she opted for a nine to five position with the Health Department in New Plymouth. Her role was as the Child Health Medical Officer, and she specialised in the examination of children with disabilities. Among other duties such as Plunket Clinics and vaccinations, she monitored the hearing and vision program. Margaret is still reminded of her Public Health career when she enters a toilet having inspected every school toilet from the Mokau River to the Waitotara Valley. The hours were regular, which suited her so she could continue to care for Graeme, and it was interesting enough to keep her engaged. As well as child health, she learnt much about sexual education, public health, and public speaking.

She worked alongside Grace Taylor (an education officer) to develop a comprehensive program in sexual education – something that had never been done before. Margaret remembers vividly her first solo lecture on the changes at puberty. Grace had previously come to help with the setting up of the room and electrical equipment. This time she was on her own. It was wintertime and the lecture was held in a large hall. Margaret soon realised that people were arriving early and by the beginning of the lecture, the hall was so overcrowded they were breaching the fire regulations. Margaret remembers bluffing her way through the whole lecture, trying to make sure that she was using accessible language. She showed pictures and played a film on the topic. It had a great reception, and for months afterwards she would meet people in the street asking when the next one was going to be held. Margaret realised that there was a great need for this in the area.

Margaret began an education program on venereal disease shortly after this. The Health Department provided two American films on the topic (that she showed to the secondary school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) for approval). With this approval, she would show them in schools.

This sex education work was ground-breaking, and she was thankful to be working alongside some progressive teachers and school counsellors. Mr Black, the Principal at Inglewood High School, was one of these who on 10 April 1968 was tragically shot and killed by a 15-year-old student with a rifle, on the same day that the Wahine disaster was unfolding in Wellington harbour. Another was Mr Tunnicliffe, headmaster at Hawera Intermediate.

Transitioning to Student Health in Wellington

After four years in New Plymouth, Margaret was approached by a mentor in the medical field, Dr Ernst Philipp. Dr Philipp was the student hostel doctor when Margaret was a resident at Helen Lowry Hall. The students got on well with him; they would invite him to the annual dinner and Margaret was one of the babysitters for his children. He believed that Margaret was languishing in her Public Health job and was not doing ‘real’ medicine. Dr Philipp sent her an application form for a student health job at Victoria University of Wellington. Her first thought was that she did not want a job like this, she was settled in her current position, and it worked for her time of life – the babysitting arrangements were adequate, her mother was now living with her in a Granny flat downstairs after being widowed, and her son’s health had improved. Despite this, Margaret submitted an application for the position and was thankful that she applied because she received the position.

In 1969 the whole family moved down to Wellington into the house that Margaret still occupies today. The students were a wonderful group to work with and her work comprised mostly of general practice, a nine to five job, and rostered on-call work evenings and weekends. There were two general practitioners working full-time (Dr Jock Fleming and Margaret), and Dr Diana Mason came in once a week. There was also a psychiatrist who came in occasionally. Despite the shift to general practice, public health was still important to her, and she was able to continue her work in sexual education. This was especially important because of the demographic with whom Margaret was working. Later Dr Eric Bird, the physician from Stratford Hospital joined the full-time staff at Student Health. (Bird/Sparrow jokes were common and at one stage one of the nurses was a Drake.)

Margaret had been raised in the days when topics like abortion were illegal, and she felt affronted when patients would ask her about it.[1] She did not have answers for them, though a few would mention some addresses in Australia they had heard of. At first Margaret did not want to get involved. One message that came across from the stories she heard was that this journey was not safe. Some students would go over undiagnosed and some of the places were not verified locations. Eventually, the student welfare officer, Mike McCallum, asked Margaret if she would get involved by at least diagnosing if the women were pregnant; she did not have to be involved after this. To this, Margaret agreed. Pregnancy tests were still being done in the laboratory using frogs and the tests were not accurate until at least two or three weeks after the last menstrual period and sometimes there was a delay in getting the result.

One day, Margaret received a toll call from Melbourne from one of the students who she had positively diagnosed as being pregnant. The student said that she had turned up at one of the addresses she had been given but it did not exist. Margaret said that she did not know what to do and suggested she go to Family Planning. Looking back on this Margaret regards this as a turning point and she felt that she needed to get involved. Margaret knew that most students in need of help for contraception would go up the road from the university to see Dr Erich Geiringer or his wife Dr Carol Shand. They did not charge students.

Margaret decided to get involved in the Family Planning clinic so that she could bring the knowledge gained to the university. She did not see why students should have to go up the road just because the Director of the University felt uncomfortable about the fact that they were not supposed to give contraception to unmarried women as per the medical ethics of the day.

Margaret approached Family Planning, asked for help, and was invited to attend an upcoming annual conference where she would be able to meet other doctors working in this field, such as Dr Alice Bush. Networking among this group of mostly women doctors not only provided Margaret with role models, but it also put her in contact with other doctors who were grappling with the same issues regarding sexual education, contraception, and abortion. Attending the conference also gave her more confidence in speaking with students who needed advice.

Dr Gordon McDougall was the part-time Medical Director of the Wellington Family Planning Clinic. Margaret sat in on his clinics until he invited her to do a few of her own, as that was the best way to get experience. Thankfully, her contract at the university was relatively flexible because it was recognised that the job description was quite limited. This made it possible for the doctors working there to practice another branch of medicine on one half day per week. At first Margaret conducted Nurses Health Clinics at Wellington Hospital but then she chose to dedicate some time to Family Planning to improve her knowledge in this area. As well as learning more about the contraceptive pill she was trained in the insertion of IUDs (intrauterine devices) using the Lippes Loop and the fitting of diaphragms and cervical caps.  Outside of just providing information for students, the toll call from Melbourne had caused Margaret to feel that not enough was being done to actually help these students in need. Not only was the refusal of doctors to help with these issues not useful, but she also felt that it was not ethical. Thus, Margaret reached out to the Samaritans’ who, as well as their recognised support for those who were suicidal, received many requests for contraception and abortion. She ended up in contact with Valerie Scott, one of the directors. Margaret found Valerie was more supportive than anyone else in the medical field at the time, because she dealt personally with those who actually needed the help but were unable to receive it in New Zealand.

At first, Margaret and Valerie would meet at Valerie’s home with Cherry Raymond who had a regular column in the Women’s Weekly. The three of them would meet and talk about a lot of these issues. The group then decided to take further action. Valerie reached out to her legal advisor at the Samaritans, saying that they wanted to send these women to Australia with an official letter and verified address so that they would be treated like regular patients with a professional medical referral. This was possible because Australia had made some progress in the provision of abortion services.

The change in Australia was by in large due to two big court cases that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first case occurred in Melbourne, when Dr Charles Davidson was charged with ‘four counts of unlawfully using an instrument or other means with intent to procure the miscarriage of a woman and one count of conspiring unlawfully to procure the miscarriage of a woman.[2] In 1968, the police raided his clinic in Melbourne to ‘prove’ that police were not being bought off by abortionists and to provide evidence for his unlawful behaviour. Justice Menhennitt ruled that an abortion was considered lawful ‘if the accused held an honest and reasonable belief that the abortion was both “necessary” and “proportionate”,’ in other words ‘that the abortion was necessary to prevent serious harm to the woman’s life and/or physical or mental health, beyond the normal dangers of pregnancy and childbirth.’[3] This case became a landmark that set the precedent for the future of abortion law in Australia.

The next notable case occurred in one of the well-known clinics in Australia for medical abortions, the Sydney-based Heatherbrae clinic. In comparison to other clinics which were described as ‘ghastly and seedy’ with doctors who were ‘unsympathetic’, the Heatherbrae clinic was described as ‘a completely different atmosphere – sympathetic and kindly’.[4] On 11 May 1970, the Heatherbrae clinic was raided after a former police officer and then Federal Labour Member Bert James “exposed” the clinic. ‘The trial was unlikely to secure a conviction. The doctors were professional and concerned; the female witnesses were tragic and sincere; the police had been brutal in their raid; unsurprisingly Judge Levine had both Bourne and Davidson in mind, and the jury did not convict.’[5]Judge Levine, who presided over the case at the New South Whales District Court ruled ‘that an abortion performed by a medical practitioner is lawful in New South Whales if there is “any economic, social or medical ground or reason” for the practitioner to hold an honest and reasonable belief that a termination at any stage of the pregnancy was required to avoid “serious danger to the pregnant woman’s life or to her physical or mental health”.’[6]

Both of these cases meant that, while abortions were still illegal in New Zealand, doctors in New Zealand were now able to write legitimate referrals to clinics in Melbourne and Sydney. In 1973, Margaret travelled to Australia for a Student Health Conference as part of her role at the University. She remembers the conference erupting with applause when word came through that Roe.v.Wade had passed into law in the US. After the conference she visited as many abortion clinics in Sydney and Melbourne as possible. This was so that she could establish personal contacts with those working there. Margaret then became a type of travel agent, organising addresses, travel to Australia, the estimated cost of taxi rides in the destination city, as well as looking after the medical aspects and writing referral letters.

Taking a Stand for Abortion Law in New Zealand

Around the same time that Australia was making some progress, New Zealand was experiencing the emergence of the pro-life movement. Margaret was disturbed by much of the misinformation she heard coming out of this movement and so decided it was time she took a public stand. Her first step in 1972 was to join the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRANZ). This allowed her to connect with other committed people to the cause. In 1973 she was invited to become one of the Honorary Vice Presidents for ALRANZ. In 1974, Margaret was selected as a member of the Government delegation to attend the United Nations World Population Conference in Bucharest, Romania. The Prime Minister was Norman Kirk who sadly died just as the delegation was leaving the conference. The leader of the delegation was Labour MP. Dorothy Jelicich. This was the first all-women delegation selected to attend a UN International Conference. Another medical member of the delegation was Dr Joan Mackay from the Department of Health.

Taking a public stand brought with it some negative consequences. One night Margaret got a call from a doctor saying that one of her letters was illegal and he was going to inform the police. Thankfully, nothing came of this, though she did receive a lot of other threats. A lot of doors were also shut for her: she was not invited to some committees or invited to speak at events because she was ‘tainted with the abortion brush’. Margaret knew that this was likely to happen, and she was thankful to not be working for a practice or company that would disagree with her actions. The University was supportive and allowed her to practice in the best way she saw fit.

When the Auckland Medical Aid Centre (AMAC) was opened in May 1974, Margaret began to refer patients there in preference to sending women to Australia. When AMAC was raided in September 1974, a court case against the operating doctor, Dr Jim Woolnough, ensued and Margaret was subpoenaed to appear at the trial, as a referring doctor. She had kept a record of all the thirteen referrals she had made to the clinic – some from her university practice and some from Family Planning. The prosecution chose a young university student she had referred and so Margaret and her patient had to travel to Auckland for the depositions in the Magistrate’s Court and then two trials in the High Court. Margaret felt that they had chosen this case because they thought it was the weakest case – ‘a poor young student’. The first trial ended in a hung jury. In the second trial Dr Woolnough, was acquitted, and this decision was confirmed following an appeal. New Zealand was moving in the same direction as Australia. Case law was beginning to change in favour of those supporting abortion but because of intense public controversy a Royal Commission was appointed to look into abortion law.

By now, Margaret was the President of ALRANZ having taken on this role in 1975.  The organisation made a large submission to the Royal Commission recommending changes to the existing legislation. Notably, Dr Malcolm Potts, a world-renowned Family Planning doctor from the UK came out to New Zealand to add to the submission after meeting with Margaret in London.

Taking a Sabbatical in London and India

After seven years at Victoria University, Margaret was eligible for a sabbatical. She decided to go to London in order to do some further training. Her two children came with her. She also had the opportunity to attend student health conferences and visit university student health services.

Margaret also did a twelve-week full-time intensive Diploma in Venereology course in London, organised through the University of London and the Society of Apothecaries. This proved to be a valuable experience and Margaret sat and passed the examination for the Diploma. It was an interesting time as advances in testing technology identified chlamydia as a new sexually transmitted infection. Dr John Keane from the Waikato University Student Health Service was also doing the course.

While in London, Margaret also had the opportunity to work in a London abortion clinic run by the Pregnancy Advisory Service (PAS) in a paid position. This was a valuable experience as she interviewed women seeking an abortion from many parts of the world where services were not available. She also undertook training in Fairfield Private Hospital, under the supervision of Dr Dorothea Kerslake, a pioneer in women’s health. Dr Kerslake had introduced suction abortion into England, and she took Margaret under her wing. She allowed her to work in the hospital so as to learn the technique of suction abortion under local anaesthesia and bring it back to New Zealand. Fairfield Hospital was a busy clinic with twenty cases every morning. Approximately five of these cases were done under local, and the rest under a general anaesthetic. To gain further experience in abortion operations under local anaesthesia Margaret travelled to Nottingham Hospital for several sessions to work with Dr Marcus Filshie in the Public Hospital system.

Dr Potts was a mentor who provided a pathway for her to obtain training in doing vasectomies. She was not able to operate in England because she did not have a surgical qualification. Instead, she was tutored by Dr Pott’s wife, Dr Caroline Deys (an eye surgeon) and observed operations at the Marie Stopes Clinic. Then Dr Potts organised for her to complete the practical component in India on her return journey to New Zealand. Graeme came with her to India, but Beryl had made friends with an English family who invited her to stay with them. In India, Margaret learnt firsthand how to do vasectomies. Her first was on a bus that had been converted into a mobile clinic. During this time, Margaret continued to network with pioneering doctors, such as Dr Pai who had introduced innovative vasectomy programmes in India, setting up a booth at a busy railway station and giving out transistor radios as an incentive.

Returning to New Zealand

After visiting facilities in India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia, Margaret returned to her job at Victoria University in New Zealand in September 1976. She found out that the Royal Commission had not taken much notice of the ALRANZ submission. The Report released in March 1977 was a step backwards. In December 1977 this flawed document was used as the basis for new legislation. Although it got rid of backstreet abortionists by giving doctors a complicated pathway of care, abortion was still a crime and the woman had to have grounds for abortion. Her case had to be approved by two certifying consultants appointed by a three-person Abortion Supervisory Committee which reported annually to Parliament. Most cases were approved by ticking the box that said the abortion was necessary on the ground of a risk to mental health.

Margaret continued to work on changing the laws on abortion and on those restricting contraception for under sixteen-year-olds. Her mother was supportive of her work. She had been a midwife in the 1920s and 1930s and had seen firsthand what septic abortions were like. She had seen young mothers dying and so believed that Margaret’s work was making this procedure safer.

Margaret continued to receive hate mail and leaflets were distributed to neighbours saying that the value of their properties was going down because they lived next to her. Protesters stood outside her property with sayings such as “toot if you believe in fetuses” and one group tried to dump cement on her driveway. Another group planted crosses in her garden carrying the names of children. While this did not affect Margaret too much, she always tried to protect the children from it; it was her decision to pursue this career and they should not have to be affected by it.

After all of her training overseas, Margaret felt confident to bring this knowledge back to New Zealand. She was involved in setting up and then later became an operating doctor at Parkview Clinic, Wellington Hospital’s abortion clinic. Margaret worked alongside Dr Carol Shand and Leigh Minnitt to open the clinic, which involved organising the premises and negotiating with the hospital board. Though he wasn’t public about his stance at the time, Dr Caleb Tucker, the medical superintendent of Wellington Hospital, was instrumental in setting up the clinic considering it was his duty to help implement the new law. Despite many hurdles, the clinic finally opened in July 1980, and Margaret was the first to operate. Adrian Stewart was also present in the theatre with her during this operation. Carol Shand and Win Kennedy shared the operating load for many years.

The clinic continued to have protestors and she was once subpoenaed to appear at a court case. Margaret never applied to become a certifying consultant, because she considered her views were too liberal. She stayed on at the clinic as an operating doctor for over seventeen years until she was made redundant. This came about because a consultancy firm with the pretentious title of ‘Third Sight’ determined that it was not efficient to employ doctors who could not sign certificates. Dr Win Kennedy was also made redundant.

Immediately on her return to New Zealand Margaret set up a vasectomy service in the Wellington Family Planning Clinic training counsellors and nurses to assist. This reduced the cost of vasectomy for men and was an important extension of services. By the time she retired Margaret had performed over 7,000 vasectomies, initially using the technique that she had learned in India but later changing to the ‘no scalpel’ technique. In this the skin was pierced with the tip of a fine forceps rather than being cut with a scalpel blade.

Alongside her work at Family Planning, Margaret also took up one clinic a week related to Venereology. She was the second woman in New Zealand to qualify and the only practising woman in Wellington (the first woman to qualify was Dr Mavis MacDougall who practised in Auckland). She also became involved in the Venereological Society of New Zealand and was at the inaugural meeting in Wellington in December 1978 when the Society was formed. She served on the committee for many years and was elected President from 1987 to 1989. In 1995 she was made an honorary member. In 2006 the Society changed its name to the more pronounceable New Zealand Sexual Health Society.

Margaret also became involved with the Australasian College of Venereologists and was elected a Fellow in 1991. The College later changed its name to the Australasian College of Sexual Health Physicians and then changed its name again in 2004 when it became a Chapter of Sexual Health Medicine under the Royal College of Physicians (RACP).

In the field of sexual health Margaret recalls several significant events. The emergence of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s changed sexual health practice dramatically, as did the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in July 1986. In 1984 chlamydia tests became available. After she retired Margaret visited Rarotonga in 2012 to restore the inscriptions on the grave of sexual health pioneer Ettie Rout. In 2003 Margaret wrote Milestones in New Zealand Sexual Health, a historical record which was launched at the Australasian Sexual Health Conference held in Christchurch that year.

Margaret became interested in intersex conditions when she was working at the Sexual Health Service. Now the term intersex is being replaced by DSD = differences or disorders of sexual development. On 10 October 1996 Mani Bruce Mitchell came into the clinic seeking information. Margaret knew practically nothing about intersex but together with supportive staff she entered a steep learning curve. Mani was the first intersex person in New Zealand to identify publicly and needed support in the campaign for better medical care. Margaret was an inaugural member of the Intersex Society launched by Minister of Health, Annette King on 7 May 1997 and an inaugural trustee when the Society became a Trust. Margaret served on the Trust for 20 years, resigning in 2017 but she is still interested in advocacy for this group.

Because her interests expanded, Margaret retired from University Student Health in 1981 so that she could juggle three part-time jobs at Family Planning, the Wellington Hospital Abortion Clinic and the Sexual Health Clinic.

After Redundancy: Continuing to Work, Received Awards, and Family

When Margaret finished her time at Parkview Clinic, she did not feel that her job in medicine was over – there was still a lot to do. Margaret believed that the whole certifying consultant system was flawed and should be removed. She spent a considerable amount of time attempting to get the law changed around this. The main issue was that though the system was flawed, it was functioning, and others did not want to ‘rock the boat’.

Margaret has also spent a lot of time improving the accessibility and knowledge of abortion. Throughout her career, Margaret was a lead proponent of spreading information about the pill. She was one of the first to prescribe the emergency contraception pill in New Zealand. She conducted the first New Zealand study on the emergency contraceptive pill and published it in the New Zealand Medical Journal. She also worked hard to increase the availability of it in New Zealand, even though she faced criticism for this work. Many doctors believed she was ‘skating on thin ice’ in regard to the legality of the emergency contraceptive pill, and many of her friends believed she was ‘heading for trouble’ but she gained support from Family Planning. While her focus was on the oral emergency contraceptive pill, also known then as the “morning-after pill”, there was also an injectable form, which Dr Erich Geiringer used.

From 1986 to 1990 Margaret served on the Advisory Committee on IUDs, first as a member then as Chairperson, reporting to the Minister of Health, Helen Clark. This committee was set up following the nationwide removal programme for the problematic Dalkon Shield in July 1985. In 1999, along with Dr Carol Shand, Dr Diana Edwards, Professor Peter Stone, and Mr John Tait, Margaret co-founded ISTAR Ltd, a not-for-profit pharmaceutical company that imported Mifegyne® (mifepristone) from France in order to increase the accessibility of the abortion pill. It was finally approved for use in 2001, which enabled New Zealand women to receive medical rather than surgical abortions for the first time.

Margaret also became very passionate about the quality of medical training. She feels that all areas of sexual health are poorly addressed. This would not only have the affect of providing better training for doctors, but it would mean that patients who had experienced sexual abuse or who had received a poor education about their own sexual health could get help. She instigated a new program in Wellington for fifth year medical students and nurses when undergoing training in how best to conduct a gynaecological examination and how to take a cervical smear. She felt that their training was very hit or miss depending on the patients who turned up for treatment. In response, Margaret wrote a dedicated program and recruited surrogate patients through the Family Planning clinic she ran. The criteria for the patients were: someone who was not working fulltime or had a flexible job so they could get time off; someone who felt comfortable about having an examination by a student under supervision (their partner had to agree as well); someone who was committed to teaching; preferably someone over the age of 30; someone who believed that women’s health was important; and they had to be comfortable giving feedback on how they felt they were treated. The patients received a small recompense for their time.

When she retired from teaching contraception Margaret donated some of her considerable collection of contraceptive items to the Family Planning Clinic which bears her name. These are exhibited in a display cabinet in the waiting room of the clinic. The rest are stored by Te Papa Tongawera and are available online. From May 2015 to February 2016 Te Papa held an exhibition entitled Uncovering the Contraceptives of Dame Margaret Sparrow curated by Stephanie Gibson.

Because of all her contributions to the field of medicine, Margaret received many significant awards. In 1987, Margaret received a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) award. This was significant to her as she felt honoured that the Queen had recognised someone working in such a contentious field. Her mother and two children attended the ceremony. In 1993, she was awarded the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal and in the same year she received an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Victoria University of Wellington. Then on 23 April 1998, she was made Honorary Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (RANZCOG). She had not done Obstetrics, but she felt honoured to be recognised for all her work in the field of Gynaecology. In 2002, Margaret was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s Birthday and Golden Jubilee Honours for her services to medicine and the community then in 2009 this was changed to  a damehood with the return of titular awards by the National Government. In 2012 she was honoured as a Champion of Public Health by the Public Health Association. In 2018 she received an award for services to Women’s Health by Women’s Health Action. In 2020 she received the award of Senior New Zealander of the Year. She is an Honorary Vice President and Life Member of the New Zealand Family Planning Association and is an Honorary Life Member of the New Zealand Sexual Health Society.

Margaret continued to devote time to ALRANZ and served as National President from 1975 to 1980 then again from 1983 to 2011, a total of 33 years. She remained on the executive as Past President until 2015 and remains an active member. A significant step forward occurred in September 2017 during the election campaign when Jacinda Ardern (Labour leader) stated in a television debate against Bill English (National leader) that abortion “shouldn’t be in the Crimes Act.” Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister in October 2017 and the matter of decriminalisation was referred to the Law Commission which led eventually to the passing of the Abortion Legislation Act in March 2020. The provision of safe areas around abortion facilities came later in March 2022 with the passing of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Act. Both Bills were referred to a Select Committee so there was much lobbying of parliamentarians.

Medical Books Margaret has published:

  • Kane P, Sparrow M. Consumer Guide to Birth Control. Auckland: Reed Methven; 1986.
  • Sparrow M. Choosing the Right Contraceptive. Wellington: Government Print 1990.
  • Sparrow M, Bond L. Vasectomy: Practical Information and Advice. Wellington: GP Publications; 1999.
  • Sparrow M. Abortion then and Now: New Zealand abortion stories from 1940 to 1980. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010.
  • Sparrow M. Rough on Women: Abortion in 19th Century New Zealand. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2014.
  • Sparrow M. Risking Their Lives: New Zealand abortion stories 1900 to 1939. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017.

Margaret has felt honoured to work alongside some incredible people throughout her life, who significantly shaped the work she did and encouraged her in her pursuits. She also feels grateful to have received the awards she did during her lifetime. She finds it sad that some people are only appreciated for the work they did after they are gone. Not only did she find it humbling, but also affirming that she had done something worthwhile.

In recent years, Margaret has spent a lot of time with her family and friends. She has three granddaughters who she loves to spend time with.


Bibliography and Footnotes

We would like to acknowledge our thanks to the Alexander Turnbull Library for providing us access to the Oral History recorded between Dr Tree Cocks and Dame Margaret Sparrow:

Interview with Margaret Sparrow. Stories of Diversity and Success oral history project, conducted by the New Zealand Medical Women’s Association. Reference Number: OHInt-0780-03. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/35852527

[1] For further information, please refer to Margaret’s book Abortion Then and Now, specifically page 203.

[2] Victoria Supreme Court, ‘R v. DAVIDSON’, 1969.

[3] Legal Information Institute, ‘R. v. Davidson‘, Accessed March 21, 2022: https://www.law.cornell.edu/women-and-justice/resource/r_v_davidson

[4] Barbara Baird, ‘Abortion and the Limits of the Personal Becoming Political’, Australia Feminist Studies, 33, 95, 2018, pp.137-138.

[5] Kate Gleeson, ‘The Other Abortion Myth–The Failure of the Common Law’, Bioethical Inquiry, 6, 2009, p.73

[6] ‘R V WALD | 28 October 1971’ Legal Helpdesk Lawyers, Published October 28, 2014, Accessed March 21, 2022: https://legalhelpdesklawyers.com.au/2014/10/28/r-v-wald-28-october-1971/

Print Friendly, PDF & Email