Published: 19 August 1998 PhD adds another chapter to Dr Spencer's eventful story
Dr Margaret Spencer, urged on for most of her 82 years by a love of learning and a passion for writing, shows no signs of slowing down. In a life of many achievements, Dr Spencer completed another aim recently when she received her PhD from the Tropical Health Program at the University of Queensland.
This latest academic honour sits well with her 1997 OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia), a master of science in 1939 from the University of Sydney, and her FACTM - Fellow of the Australasian College of Tropical Medicine - in 1993. Her PhD thesis, on the early development of health services in Papua New Guinea between 1870 and 1939, earned glowing reports from her examiners and Dr Spencer did not have to make any corrections.
That might seem an almost unattainable goal to many students but for Dr Spencer such accuracy and attention to detail is by now just second nature. "I do a lot of writing and I just can't help but proof-read as I go," she said. "Also I belong to a generation which was trained to write good English." It was her passion for learning which led her to embark on the PhD in 1994. She also wanted to set the record straight, though she is much too polite to put things quite so bluntly.
"Let's just say I didn't agree with some of the writing on the subject. I wanted to present an alternative viewpoint and perhaps a more accurate one." Dr Spencer said that even today, with all the benefits of modern understanding, infrastructure and technology, the world had not yet solved the problem of providing continuous, adequate health services to remote communities. "In the history of Papua New Guinea we can seen the problem, as it was, at its maximum," she said. "Insufficient finance, unfamiliar and formidable terrain, unfamiliar peoples and languages, unfamiliar diseases and initially few means of determining what they were, no roads, no modern transport, slow communication. The challenge was large, the resources small."
Besides research in archives in Canberra and Sydney, together with reading a wide range of other books and journals, Dr Spencer was able to draw on her considerable first-hand experience of Papua New Guinea. She and her husband Terry, a medical officer specialising in malariology, were employed on and off for 25 years by the Public Health Department in PNG. Their first tour of duty in the islands, where Dr Spencer worked as an entomologist studying malaria-carrying mosquitoes, began at the end of 1953. They returned to PNG for the last time in 1978, three years after the country gained independence. Over the years the couple moved around the country, working in areas as different as the Highlands and small offshore islands, gathering many experiences and insights which Dr Spencer set down in three books about Papua New Guinea. "It was an unforgettable experience, a very rich experience. It was fascinating having close contact with village people who were living much as they used to 100 years ago," she said. "They had to be very self-sufficient. Everything they used came from the bush or the sea."
Dr Spencer said that on the outstations she and her husband had food shipped in to them though there was sometimes a problem with supplies. In addition, they enjoyed such home comforts as a kerosene fridge, a kerosene iron and piped water - "that was really something".
In 1979 they returned to the New South Wales railway town of Werris Creek where Dr Terry Spencer was general practitioner and his wife the practice manager. While they were in Werris Creek Dr Spencer wrote her fourth book, a biography of her father Dr J H L Cumpston, the first Australian Director-General of Public Health.
"He built the federal health system in this country and really sparked my own interest in public health," she said. The couple moved to their present home at Tenterfield, New South Wales, in 1987 and soon after Dr Spencer was working on book number five, a history of the Australian experience of malaria. With a handful books under her belt and the ink hardly dry on her PhD, Dr Spencer is already quietly eyeing her next project. This could well be another book, a family history focusing on her six distinguished siblings and intended "for posterity rather than the public". Her three brothers and three sisters have all made their mark.
Her late brother John Cumpston was an expert on Antarctic history and had a massif on Antarctica named after him; Bruce, also dead now, was a public health officer while Alan is a retired specialist occupational health officer who worked mostly in the mining industry. Her sister Mary is an author and was reader in history at the University of London; Amy, also an author, gained a PhD in history; and Maeva, a physiotherapist, was for many years manager of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.
For more information, contact Dr Margaret Spencer (telephone 02 6736 1602).