This International Women’s Day I read a re-post of a wonderful article about Otago University women in science. I thought I’d add another one, my Aunt Cecily, or to the rest of the world Dame Cecily Pickerill.
Aunty Cecily was clever, determined, and, yes, a tough woman. It was those qualities that helped her to help many people.
She was born, Cecily Mary Aroha Wise Clarkson in Taihape in 1903 less than 18 months after her parents had arrived from England. Taihape in those days was forests, mud, a building boom and horses. It appears to have also been a place she could get a good education. At a young age, just 18, she made it all the way to Dunedin to attend Otago Medical School. By then her family was in Auckland. I don’t know what drew her to medicine. Perhaps it was through world war 1 or the flu epidemic that followed that influenced her. Her own Father had been at Gallipoli as a chaplain with the NZ armed forces during the war and invalided home in late 1915. Just a year after Cecily started University her parents took her two younger sisters and left New Zealand permanently, ending up in Laguna Beach in California. Her two, slightly older, brothers remained in New Zealand. She needed to be independent at a young age.
She first came across the art and science of plastic surgery while a house surgeon under the tutelage of Professor Henry Pickerill. Pickerill was the first director of the Otago dental school. During World War I he became one of the pioneers in facial and reconstructive surgery while with the New Zealand Medical Corp. Many of the men being treated were transferred to Dunedin at the end of the war.
Cecily spent a few years in California working and living with her family before joining Henry in Sydney in about 1933. She married Henry at the end of 1934. Later they moved back to Wellington and both worked as plastic surgeons in Wellington and at Middlemore. In 1942 they set up Bassam hospital in Lower Hutt for plastic surgery on children – mainly repairing cleft palates and the like.
One of the remarkable features of their work in Bassam was the elimination of hospital cross-infection in children. They wrote of this in the Lancet in 1954 (Pickerill, C. M., & Pickerill, H. P. (1954). Elimination of hospital cross-infection in children: nursing by the mother. Lancet, 266(6809), 425–429.)
In that article they wrote “what chance of success has a plastic operation on the plate or lip if the child contracts a mixed viral and bacterial infection of the field of operation …” They noted the lavish use of chromium plating, enamel and wearing of masks… but still there was infection. The Pickerill’s solution was both simple and innovative – they brought the mother in to nurse the child and gave mother and infant a room to themselves. “Not only do they live together in their own room, but nobody except the mother bathes, dresses, or feeds the patient or changes his nappies.” This, and other measures, resulted in the remarkable result that after 11 year’s work they had “no single case of cross-infection.”
Science and the love of science are for life
Aunt Cecily was intelligent, and caring, but also strict (ask my mother about the spider in the bathroom if you want a story about just how strict). It was that strictness which meant Bassam could be a tight ship and produce such remarkable results.
She was also a woman who loved to travel and garden. She brought rocks home from travels overseas which ended up as part of her fireplace in a house, Beechdale, designed by my grandfather, in Silverstream. Her beautiful garden featured in magazines and TV shows.
I recall visiting her in the mid ‘80s at Beechdale when I was in my first job after graduating with a BSc(Hons). I wasn’t particularly happy with the job at the time. She was sitting in a comfortable chair in her lounge with a magnifying glass and an open scientific journal. I realised then, that science and the love of science are for life.
Later when I was doing my PhD on the use of a copper vapour laser to remove birthmarks, I felt even closer to her when one of the patients we treated had had the birthmark partly removed by her surgically. Many years later a little of it had regrown around the edges which we were able to treat with the laser.
My last memory of her was when she was in her last few weeks of life. She was in a room in Bassam hospital which was had by then been turned into a hospice. She had the radio going with some very modern music – which we joked about. It was fitting that she spent her final days being cared for in the place that she had spent so many days caring for others.