Lives of the fellows

Neil Colquhoun (Sir) Begg

b.13 April 1915 d.25 June 1995
KBE(1986) OBE(1973) MB ChB 0tago(1940) DCH(1947) MRCP(1948) Hon MRCP Edin(1948) Hon FRCP Edin(1958) FRCP(1977)

Neil Begg’s family traced their roots to small landowners in Lanarkshire, oppressed as Reformed Presbyterians. One branch of the family emigrated to Dunedin, New Zealand. Neil Begg’s father, Charles Mackie Begg, studied medicine at the newly established Otago University and then went to the UK, graduating from Edinburgh University in 1903. He married Lillian Helen Lawrence Treadwell, a talented musician, and served with distinction in the First World War. He died of fulminating influenzal pneumonia in February 1919. Lillian decided to return to New Zealand with her two young sons, Charles and Neil, and re-settled in Dunedin.

Neil Begg decided to continue with the family tradition of medicine, but before entering the University of Otago he set out to gain wide general experience. His love of travel, history and the study of the effects of environment on people and populations developed at this stage of his life and he maintained these interests throughout his life. He started his medical studies in 1936 and was awarded the Marjorie McCallum prize in medicine and the senior clinical prize in his final year. Following qualification and junior resident medical officer posts, he enlisted and was posted to the 21st Light Field Ambulance. He married his wife Margaret Milne before heading overseas in 1942.

After demobilization he continued with postgraduate studies in the UK and decided to specialize in paediatrics. At this time he was a member of a notable cricketing side, made up of ex-patriot New Zealanders. Despite a busy social, sporting and professional life, he passed all his examinations, seemingly with ease. In 1947 he and his young family returned to Dunedin. His subsequent career was based there and in the Otago Medical School. He was a paediatrician to the Dunedin Public Hospital between 1949 and 1956 and was a consultant to the Karitane Hospitals of New Zealand from 1950 to 1977. He took an interest in medical politics and was a president of the New Zealand Medical Association.

In 1956 he succeeded a famous New Zealander, Helen Deem, as medical adviser to the Plunket Society, an organization helping educate mothers in aspects of child care, a post he held until 1976. He radically altered many aspects of the procedures and also the general philosophy of the Plunket Society. He served on numerous committees advising local authorities and governments on aspects of paediatrics.

Sir Neil was very active in promoting the use of the Salk vaccine. He was a staunch proponent of fluoridation of water supplies and the control of bovine TB. He was a supporter of BCG vaccination. He also worked to introduce measures which progressively eliminated hydatid disease and other major causes of morbidity and mortality in New Zealand. Through the Plunket Society he worked to reduce hazards for children from inflammable clothing, poisoning and drowning.

With his brother Charles, a radiologist at Dunedin Hospital, he developed the skills which were to make him a notable historian. The brothers developed a major interest in Dusky Bay, a site of considerable significance to Captain James Cook. They published a series of books detailing their research, including Dusky Bay, James Cook and New Zealand, Christchurch, Whitcombe and Tombs, 1966, Port Preservation, Christchurch, Whitcombe and Tombs, 1973, and The world of James Boultbee, Christchurch, Whitcoulls, 1979. Neil Begg also wrote The New Zealand child and his family, Christchurch, Whitcombe and Tombs for the New Zealand Plunket Society, 1970, The important years, Dunedin, Plunket Society, 1974, and The intervening years, Dunedin, J Mclndoe, 1992.

Neil Begg’s significant international reputation came from a period of intense involvement in world-wide problems of infant and childhood nutrition in the 1960s. He undertook overseas work in South East Asia, Malaysia and India and was also involved in consultation with authorities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Sir Neil retired in 1977. He continued his historical studies while maintaining a major interest in all areas of paediatrics and particularly in medical education. He was also a major contributor to the Historic Places Trust movement in New Zealand, particularly in relation to aspects of Maori history and culture, and was chairman of the organization between 1978 and 1986. He was awarded the OBE in 1973 and the KBE in 1986 for his contribution to the New Zealand community generally and for his work with the Trust.

Sir P John Scott

(Volume X, page 26)

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