Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Inspirational Woman

Dr Helen Pearl Mackenzie

Dr Helen Pearl Mackenzie MBE MB BS FRANZCOG (Hon )

Born, Busan 6 October 1913; died, Melbourne 18 September 2009.

Dr Helen Mackenzie, a great human being, missionary, surgeon and devoted member of the Deepdene Uniting Church in Melbourne died on 18 September aged 95, after a long life of Christian discipleship and service.

Helen was born in Busan, Korea, in 1913, the eldest of four daughters and one son of missionary parents, Rev James Noble and Mrs Mary Mackenzie. She studied in Pyeng Yang and then Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne before studying medicine at Melbourne University. She wanted to return to Korea as a missionary, but was delayed by World War II. She worked in the Bendigo Hospital, and later became acting medical superintendent of the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne.

In 1945, Helen and her sister, Catherine, went to south-west China at the invitation of the Church of Christ in China, where they established a hospital in an old Taoist temple in Kienshui. They ran the hospital till forced out by the communist army in 1950. The hospital has since become the Kienshui People’s Hospital and is flourishing.

After returning to Australia, Helen and Catherine Mackenzie – a trained nurse-midwife educator – tried again to go to Korea, but were prevented by the Korean War. They finally arrived in Busan in February 1952 to a city crowded with refugees and, after consulting the Ministry of Health and United Nations agencies, set to work to establish a hospital where they could relieve the suffering of the women and their children. The only building they could obtain at the beginning was the Busanjin Church kindergarten building, which they had attended thirty years before. There they established a small 20 bed unit, from which the Il Sin (New Every Day) Christian Hospital grew.

Helen established a policy at the hospital that women and children should receive the best medical treatment possible within the limits of the finance available, without discrimination on the basis of their faith or lack thereof, and irrespective of their ability to pay for the treatment provided. She also considered that all who came to the hospital should have the opportunity to hear the Gospel of the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Helen and Cath had a second aim in establishing the hospital. They wanted to open up career paths for women by training nurse midwives and specialist obstetricians and gynaecologists. Helen was a strong feminist before feminism became fashionable. She believed strongly in and promoted the rights of women. Ability has nothing to do with gender, and therefore women must be given every opportunity to develop and utilize their abilities. Perhaps this seems obvious 50 years later, but it was a conviction that had to be affirmed and defended in the 1950s.

Since the hospital was established, more than 285,000 women have been delivered of their babies at the hospital, 2600 nurse midwives have graduated and 132 specialist obstetrician and gynaecologists have been trained in the hospital.

Helen was a brilliant surgeon and a great educator. She was an extraordinarily hard worker, carrying both heavy clinical and teaching loads, as well as responsibility for the administration of the hospital. But she was never too busy or tired to show profound compassion towards the most desperate women.

I remember one such woman coming from Chinju on the recommendation of someone who had received help at Il Sin Hospital. The woman had been driven out of several homes because she was suffering from a fistula, which made her incontinent. She arrived at the hospital desperate, homeless and penniless. Helen carried out surgery successfully. The woman’s problem and shame were cured. She left with confidence and profound gratitude.

Helen’s energy and single-minded devotion to her work derived from a strong Christian faith, learned from childhood, strengthened in her days in the Student Christian Movement and nourished throughout her life. She held a senior office in the Busanjin Church during her later years in Busan. After retiring in 1976, she undertook theological studies at Ormond College.

Dr Mackenzie received many awards – an MBE from the Queen in 1962, awards from the Korean Government, and finally an Honorary Fellowship in the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Helen had many interests. She was a keen bush-walker and loved walking in the Korean mountains. She was a good photographer and particularly enjoyed photographing wild flowers. She was fond of classical music and had a good knowledge of it, and enjoyed playing a number of musical instruments. She wrote a beautiful biography of her father – Mackenzie Man of Mission. She was a meticulous researcher and recorder of history.

Of all the Australian missionaries who worked in Korea after the Second World War, none was greater in vision, energy or achievement than Dr Helen Pearl Mackenzie.

Dr Mackenzie died peacefully in an aged care facility on 18 September 2009.

John P Brown

(Missionary colleague)