Brian Neill

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In 2014 Nelson Youth Council conducted a series of interviews for Heritage Week 2015. They spoke with people involved in areas of health and medicine. This is one of a number of stories which were displayed in Elma Turner Library.

Brian Neill  - Obstetrician and Gynaecologist

Doctor Brian Neill worked as a specialist Obstetrician and Gynaecologist for several decades (1962-1994). He came into the world prematurely, causing great concern to his family and spent some time under Karitane specialist care. His five year old brother recalls being very impressed when the doctor pronounced, “this baby will live”; and said this influenced him in his choice of career.  Their father was an optometrist and encouraged both Brian and his brother in medical careers.

Brian Neill and interviewersBrian Neill and interviewers, 2014
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After completing his studies in 1954, Neill found himself working at Wellington Hospital as a house surgeon. Working on a medical ward in winter was depressing. He far preferred the obstetrics ward, and a “visibly lighter environment, a young place, where everyone was doing something good. Instead of toiling for a sad pre-medicated conclusion; the doctors were working towards something amazing”. Obstetrics was something he could walk away from each day knowing he had made a positive contribution to the world. It was an inspiring field that brought joy to all those involved.

In 1957 Neill travelled to Britain and began further training for his Obstetrics and Gynaecology qualifications. He later returned to New Zealand and came to Nelson and worked at the local hospital as an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, so specialising in the care of mothers giving birth and other women’s problems. For the next ten years he was constantly on call. No cell-phones existed then, so he took innovative measures to ensure he was always contactable. Neill was a keen sailor and out on the water in his spare time on Saturdays. He and his wife developed a system where, if he were called whilst on the water, she was to wave a sheet from shore to advise him to return.

Neill’s career had an impact on two generations, and he was involved in both an advisory and hands on capacity in thousands of births. The length of his career meant he saw multiple changes in his line of work. None were more notable than Helen Clark’s reforms of the hospital system, during her time as Minister of Health in 1990. Clark viewed the role of family doctors in childbirth as questionable, and the system changed. Many family doctors ceased delivering their patients babies after this time, which Neill sees as a sad loss.

Another significant change was that today mothers only stay in hospital for a day or two after giving, birth rather than the option of up to two weeks in the 1950’s when Neill started his career.  A positive change since the 1970’s is the reduction in prenatal mortality i.e. the numbers of stillborn babies or those that die within a week of delivery. This reduced from 20 out of every 1000 babies delivered in 1962, to 6 out of every 1000 in 1994. This survival rate has been aided by medical staff becoming more able to communicate with the baby in utero and seeing foetal distress through measures like ultra sound scans, and reading blood and urine samples. Other changes included the increased role of Paediatricians, the ability to resuscitate babies and the use of hi-tech incubators. When Neill began, if a baby was born after less than 28 weeks gestation, it would be deemed unable to survive; now babies born as early as 23 weeks can survive.

Neill has been enjoying an active retirement since 1994. He often gets pleasure from seeing the many babies he had a hand in delivering, growing into adults. “None of the successes in my career could have occurred without the love and dedication of my devoted wife Ruth for almost 60 years and her bringing up our family of four children. Also my dedicated receptionist Peggy Garguilio, and of course the wonderful team of midwives and doctors with whom I worked.”

Interview by Sophie Smith & Sam M, December 2014; Edited Debbie Daniell-Smith

Sources used in this story

  • Interview with Brian Neill, December 2014

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