Lives of the fellows

Ian Ambury Miller Prior

b.16 October 1923 d.17 February 2009
ONZM(1996) MB ChB NZ(1945) MRCP(1951) MRACP(1954) MD(1954) FRACP(1960) FRCP(1971) FNZCCM(1980) FRS NZ(1981) Hon DSc Victoria University Wellington(1988) FAFPHM(1994)

Ian Ambury Miller Prior was born at home in Masterton in the Wairarapa, the son of Norman Henry Prior, a general practitioner, and his second wife, Jessie Anne (née Miller).

With the build of an athlete, Ian was a very successful sportsman and representative rugby player in his youth. His death in Wellington came after a long period of increasing frailty.

Ian had an older sister, Elaine, and has a younger brother, Owen. Owen followed his father into general practice in Masterton. In turn, Owen’s son, Simon, joined the practice. In 2009 the Prior family practice celebrated 100 years of continuous medical service to the community of Masterton. The Prior family was grounded in Methodism, Christian beliefs, and a strong sense of involvement in and commitment to the local community.

Marriage to Elespie (née Forsyth) in Dunedin in 1946 added a new dimension to Ian’s life. Elespie’s great grandfather was Bendix Hallenstein, well known for successful business enterprise in early New Zealand. The Hallenstein family not only had a strong sense of community responsibility and philanthropy but also had major interests in, and provided support for, arts and culture in New Zealand. Ian, similarly, came to love and support these aspects of society.

After completing the basic medical course in Dunedin, Ian travelled widely, training and working first as a physician, then as a cardiologist. On his return to New Zealand in 1960 he was appointed to establish and lead a Medical Unit at Wellington Hospital.

Ian began to expand his epidemiological interests, carrying out population-based studies of cardiovascular disease initially in the Wairarapa, then more broadly in New Zealand, and later in the islands of the wider Pacific. The outcome of this work was the Tokelau Island Migrant Study.

An Epidemiology Unit under Ian's leadership was established at Wellington Hospital in 1970. Ian was in his element initiating and organising new projects with an ever-widening circle of colleagues, friends and associates, many of whom were prominent internationalists. He was a networking genius. His ability to find and bring people together to achieve common purpose was legendary. In this, Ian’s energy, courage and initiative were amazing. His good will and sincerity could never be questioned. If Ian asked you to do something, you could not refuse – whether to help save Lake Manapouri, join a survey party to a Pacific Island, or go to Geneva to seek the global abolition of nuclear weapons.

Ian was actively involved in the peace movement. In 1981, with a group of physician friends, he co-founded the New Zealand branch of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), and played leading roles in and provided lifelong support for the organisation. In 1985 IPPNW won a Nobel Prize for Peace.

Ian’s creative energy did not, however, come without a cost. In his memoir Ian is frank about this. ‘Moving into what at the time was the new field of epidemiology in New Zealand brought with it stresses for which Ian felt inadequately equipped and ill prepared. At times, this gave him great creative energy, but at other times it brought periods of deep, dark and painful depression. One of Elespie’s great contributions was to help Ian cope with these periodic feelings of inadequacy and depression.’

This insight into Ian’s life deepens our appreciation of what it really took to be the ‘Father of Epidemiology’ in this part of the world (New Zealand and the Pacific) and an innovator and leader in the practice of public health.

Recognition for his long and varied contributions came in 1981 when he was awarded an Honorary DSc from Victoria University Wellington and in 1996 when he was inducted as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM).

Elespie passed away in 2002. Ian and Elespie are survived by their three daughters: Bettina, Susan and Ione.

G Salmond

[Wessen AF (ed), Hooper A, Huntsman J, Prior IAM, Salmond CE. Migration and Health in a Small Society: The Case of Tokelau. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992. Prior, Ian. Elespie & Ian: Memoir of a Marriage. Wellington, Dr Ian Prior, 2006. Reproduced, with permission, from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ College Roll]

(Volume XII, page web)

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