October 6 –  Helen Pearl Mackenzie

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Helen Pearl Mackenzie (1913-2009), medical missionary and educator

HELEN Mackenzie, who was instrumental in bringing life and health to many mothers and babies, and training women doctors in obstetrics and gynaecology in postwar Korea, has died at an aged-care facility in Kew. She was 95.

Born in Pusan, Korea, the eldest daughter of five children of the Reverend James and Mary Mackenzie, missionaries of the Presbyterian Church, she was educated at the American Missionary School in Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea. She completed her schooling with one year at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne.

Helen and her younger sister, Cath, felt called to return to Korea as missionaries and from their childhood experience were convinced that they needed medical training. Helen studied medicine at Melbourne University, and with a friend during holidays she rode a bicycle once to Adelaide and twice to Sydney; they slept in barns and church halls along the way. In her pack was a dress and hat for when she attended church.

Helen graduated as one of the few women do so in medicine in 1938. World War II prevented her from going to Korea, but she gained invaluable experience at Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne, where she became acting medical superintendent. In 1944, Helen and Cath accepted a call from the Church of Christ in China and the following year they established a small hospital in an old Taoist temple in Jianshui, Yunnan. It took some time but the facility was accepted by the people; it was the only “Western medicine” within a three-day journey. Much to their sorrow, they had to leave in 1950 after the communist takeover, not knowing what would happen to the hospital. (In 2007, a colleague travelled to Jianshui and found that the hospital had continued to grow and was now a major part of the provincial hospital.)

On return to Australia, the Mackenzie sisters again hoped to go to Korea, but this time were frustrated by the Korean War. However, in 1951, they were appointed by the Australian Presbyterian Mission Board and in February 1952 eventually landed in Pusan, at that time a city of refugees with overwhelming medical needs. The Korean Ministry of Health and United Nations agencies advised them that the main need was for maternal and child health, something for which the sisters were well suited.

On September 17, 1952, Il Sin Women’s Hospital was opened in a kindergarten hall with 20 beds and a staff of five. The name “Il Sin” was chosen because it was the name of the pre-war Australian mission school, and very appropriate for an obstetric hospital as it means “Daily New”. There were two main objectives. One was to accept anyone who came, irrespective of that person’s ability to pay and regardless of their religion, or lack of any faith. This differed from the local system in which a person had to pay first, and the local church, which felt that a Christian hospital was primarily for Christians.

The Mackenzies, however, were convinced that through the healing ministry, God’s love should be to shown to all. The other main objective was to train women doctors in obstetrics and gynaecology, and nurses in midwifery.

At that time it was difficult for women doctors to get good post-graduate training, and with changes in nursing education, nurses were being given midwifery certificates along with their basic certificate, sometimes not even having seen a normal delivery. Through hard work and determination, using limited and basic resources, the Mackenzies, along with the Korean staff, built the hospital into one that was highly regarded throughout Korea for training and for expert care.

Helen was a brilliant surgeon and a great educator; although often tired given the constant load, she gave of herself for hours in the operating theatre or delivery room. When Helen retired in February 1976, 12 doctors had been trained in obstetrics and gynaecology – and since then another 120 have graduated. Other doctors have been trained in pediatrics, family medicine and anaesthetics, all women except for three or four. By last month, 2599 nurses had graduated as midwives, and 284,655 women delivered of their babies.

After she retired, Helen studied theology at the Melbourne College of Divinity, and wrote a biography of her father titled Mackenzie – Man of Mission (Hyland House, 1995). She also continued her love of music as someone who was able to play many instruments: tuba in her school band, then cello, clarinet, piano, and in her 70s she learnt to play the pipe organ.

Helen received many awards from the Korean Government and in 1962, along with Cath, she was awarded the MBE. In October 2002, she was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in recognition not only of her expertise in this field, although she had not received specialist training, but also of all that she did to train women in that specialty.

Helen is survived by her sisters Lucy Lane and Sheila Krysz, and their families.

Lucy Lane (Helen Mackenzie’s sister)

and Dr Barbara Martin (a colleague)