Student memorials

Medical students are inevitably a close-knit cohort, living and working together for six or more years before qualifying and going their own ways. It is not surprising, therefore, that the sudden loss of one of their number is often commemorated in some tangible form.

The first example of this in the Auckland Medical School was the case of Warren Matthias, a student who died tragically in the mid-1970s, partway through the course. Warren was a pillion passenger on an excursion to view the new motorway under construction in the Grafton valley when the motorcycle slipped on loose gravel. Warren snapped his brain stem in the resulting fall and was placed on life support, to no avail. One of his former classmates later recalled going to visit him in the Intensive Care Unit:

There was no one around and I pulled his sheet back. There was not a mark on his body, except for a graze on his cheek.

After Warren’s death his classmates contributed £250 – `quite a bit of money for us then’ – to purchased Gretchen Albrecht’s painting, Early Morning Rising, in his memory. (Albrecht, one of whose wall hangings had been commissioned for the new School in 1975, was an acquaintance of Warren’s fellow student, Sally Conolly.)

When the 1976 graduates held their 30th anniversary reunion in early 2007 the organisers wrote to Dean Iain Martin, pointing out that the Albrecht painting was now displayed on the Fifth Floor, and made the following suggestion:

The painting was originally in the common room. It would be good to know that as originally intended a plaque or notice could be placed with the picture again.

In the event the administration went one better, and the painting, complete with explanatory plaque, now hangs in the vestibule of the Philson Library.

Directly opposite the Albrecht painting, though separated by the width of the vestibule, is another tribute to a deceased student. Street Scene (1980) by Ian Jervis, now a senior lecturer in Visual Arts at AUT, was presented by his fellow students in memory of Michael Mespel, `A scholar and a friend’. Mespel, a member of the 1977 intake, died in 1979 aged 20 as a result of a parachute accident.

A third medical student’s death struck at the heart of the School in 1986. Tim Scott (1964-86) was the son of Dr David Scott (1930-2007), a senior lecturer in medicine since the early 1970s. Tragically, two of David’s sons, including Tim, lost their lives in road traffic accidents. Tim’s life is marked by a memorial plaque in the grounds of the FMHS, graced with the inscription He was a gentleman because his nature was kind and affable to every creature.

There is also a memorial outside the University premises which bears the name of an early medical student. The name of David Finlayson MB ChB 1977 is inscribed on the New Zealand Circle of Friends memorial in Western Springs Park, which was erected in 2001 to commemorate those New Zealanders who had died of AIDS.

In some instances the death of a medical student resulted in the creation of a memorial with a tangible benefit for those who followed. In July 2009 22-year-old 4th year student Zachary Gravatt died of meningococcal septicaemia just hours after being admitted to Auckland City Hospital. There was considerable criticism of hospital protocols at the initial coroner’s inquest in 2011 and the inquest was re-opened in late 2018 after further allegations about the treatment Zachary received.

On a more positive note, in 2010 family and friends founded the Zachary Gravatt Memorial Scholarship. Zachary had overcome dyslexia to achieve his dream of entering the medical course and the one-year scholarship named in his memory is available to a University of Auckland MB ChB student in year 5-6 who displays excellent clinical skills and has succeeded despite `a significant personal challenge’.

The first Zachary Gravatt Memorial Scholarship was awarded to Timothy Hopgood, of Tongan, Pakeha and Māori descent, to enable him to undertake research in paediatrics and Pacific Island health. Hopgood, founding chair of the student Paediatric Interest Group established to promote awareness in children’s health, was also an active member of the Pasifika Medical Association. After qualifying in 2011 he obtained a postgraduate Diploma in Paediatrics and later worked as a paediatric registrar in Auckland’s children’s hospitals.

In 2011 the sudden death of Laurel Jones, a 5th year medical student, shocked family and friends. Laurel was taken back to the USA where her parents lived but her memory lives on in Auckland with the establishment in 2013 of the Laurel Jones Memorial Fellowship for MB ChB students, with eligibility based on both financial need and academic merit.

In a reversal of the Jones scenario, one Auckland medical graduate is commemorated in the USA. Iain Hardy, the son of two Auckland doctors, graduated in 1982 and a decade later became an epidemiologist attached to the National Immunization Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Hardy died in 1995 while swimming in a lake in southern France. His family and friends established the Iain Hardy Memorial Award, presented annually at the Epidemic Intelligence Service conference for contributions to the control of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Returning to Auckland, Dr Peter Christie, who graduated in 1980, two years before Hardy, made a significant contribution to the establishment of liver transplantation in New Zealand. After he died of cancer in 2005 friends and colleagues set up the Peter Christie Award, an engraved plaque given to the student obtaining the highest overall marks during the MB ChB Part IV in the general surgical attachment.

Another 1980s graduate is remembered in a somewhat bizarre manner. Peter Douglas Coop, whose parents were both eye specialists, registered to attend an ophthalmology course in Dunedin in 1989 but went missing on the day of his arrival and there have been no confirmed sightings of him since that date. Police believed at the time that he probably staged his disappearance because he felt under pressure to follow in the family tradition.

Over the past three decades there has been repeated speculation about what really happened, including a television documentary in 2010 and an appeal for information from his sister in 2012, on what would have been his 55th birthday. The following year The Sunday Times reported that Peter had been performing vanishing acts since his school days, that he had disappeared for a number of weeks while a student at the Auckland Medical School, and that he `once took off on a two-month bike ride from Canberra to Queensland without telling his family’.

In 2008 Peter’s family and friends set up fFOMPA, the Friends and Family of Missing Persons Charitable Trust to provide `ongoing support, information and education’ to those left behind when a loved one went missing. Douglas Coop, his father, also published a book on the topic – Gone Missing: A Guide for Those Left Behind, with the proceeds going to the Trust.

In 2019, Peter Coop is still listed on the New Zealand Police database of missing persons. On a final poignant note, Peter’s mother, Margaret, had been a classmate at the Otago Medical School with Kaye Ibbertson, Derek North and Jack Sinclair, three of the foundation staff of the Auckland Medical School.

Finally, there is one very different memorial, compiled by the subject himself. Jared Noel worked as a forensic scientist for a year after completing his Master’s degree, before gaining admission to the Auckland Medical School at the third attempt. Part-way through his course he met and married Auckland medical graduate Hannah Ross, who shared his strong Christian faith.

Eleven months later, on the eve of their planned elective trip to Zambia, Jared was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Aggressive chemotherapy forced him to take a one-year break from his studies, before completing his medical degree in 2010. By 2013, in spite of a draining 66 rounds of chemotherapy, the cancer had been classified as terminal and the couple were warned it was unlikely that Jared would survive until the birth of his daughter, scheduled to occur in January 2014.

Determined to survive long enough to meet her birth, Jared launched a Givealittle page to try and raise $60,000 to purchase Avastin, which might slow the tumour growth for long enough achieve this goal; the money was pledged within hours of the appeal.

During his illness Jared had penned a blog, largely to relieve the boredom encountered during treatment sessions. Encouraged by the responses to the blog, Jared then began collaborating with Auckland writer David Williams to turn his thoughts into book form.

Against all expectations, Jared was able to be present to help deliver his daughter Elise, and to share her first eight months before his death on 8 October 2014, aged just 33. As the FMHS Dean’s Diary reported two days later:
It was sad news this week to hear that Dr Jared Noel lost his battle with bowel cancer on Wednesday.  Jared was a graduate from our medical programme and a physician at Auckland City Hospital.  He showed great strength and resilience in his battle with bowel cancer and spoke out to help raise awareness of the disease. 

The website for Bowel Cancer New Zealand described Jared Noel as a `truly inspirational ambassador … [who had brought] … bowel cancer out from the shadows’.

Jared’s book, Message to My Girl: A dying father’s powerful legacy of hope was published by Annen & Unwin a week before the first anniversary of his death and made an immediate impact, selling out within days.

Warren Matthias, Human Biology III `mugshot’, 1973.

Zachary Gravatt in theatre scrubs.

Peter Coop, New Zealand Police missing persons, 2019.