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Biographical entry Wright, James Lawrence (1915 - 2011)

MB BS Otago; FRCS 1948; FRACS.

19 May 1915
8 September 2011
Obstetrician and gynaecologist


Professor James Lawrence (Laurie) Wright passed away in Dunedin on 8 September 2011 at the age of 96.

Whether delivering babies, guiding nervous rural GPs, or serving as an army doctor in World War 2, Prof Laurie Wright was guided by a sense of duty.

Professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Otago Medical School from 1951 until he retired in 1980, Prof Wright died in Dunedin in September, aged 96. James Lawrence Wright was born in May 1915, the eldest of William and Helen Wright's five children, whom they raised in Forbury, Dunedin. After attending Forbury School and Otago Boys' High School, he attended Otago Medical School, enlisting with the Otago University Medical Company in 1932. After leaving medical school he worked at Dunedin Hospital for two years, and then as a locum GP in Westport, before being awarded an obstetrics and gynaecology scholarship in Melbourne.

The war prompted his early return to New Zealand, to join the air force, but he was seconded to the army because of its need for medics. Dunedin lawyer Bill Wright said his father was not entirely happy about the secondment, having gained his wings. However, he distinguished himself as an army doctor in the North African campaign, and later in Italy. He attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and was mentioned in dispatches.

In Italy, he married Belle Henderson, a New Zealand war nurse, near Naples in April 1945. Mr Wright said his mother, who was from Central Otago, had followed Prof Wright, determined not to be parted from him. "When he was posted overseas, she determined to follow him and enlisted with the army...she followed him through Africa and Italy and ultimately got her man at the end of the war." Unusually, the two were allowed to serve together for several months, before they were discharged and travelled to London by ship in December, 1945.

After several years at St George's Hospital in London, life back in Dunedin was characterised by hard work, and long night's away delivering babies. His father never glorified his war years, seeing it as a duty, Mr Wright said. He had an excellent recall of detail, and had hoped to write of his war experience, which did not come about. His stories of well-known campaigns instilled in his son a life-long interest in history.

He was strong on ethics, and was not moralistic or judgemental. "He once told me, you should not have to ask what is the correct thing to do, you should instinctively know."

He related well to people from all walks of life. He made time to speak to people, regardless of their place in the hospital hierarchy, Mr Wright said. Former patients had contacted him since his father's death - more than a dozen - to thank him for his father's care. On professional visits to Wellington, he stayed in a state house with his World War 2 driver, with whom he had a firm bond, rather than at a hotel.

Fly fishing was Prof Wright's main passion, although he was also a rugby man, a supporter of Otago rugby, both the university, and the province.

Emeritus Prof Richard Seddon, of Queenstown, said Prof Wright largely dedicated himself to clinical practice, rather than research. However, he was a leader in promoting maternal and perinatal mortality documentation and review to improve clinical safety. Establishing a clinical and academic unit of excellence in Dunedin was his focus, Prof Seddon said. "He was a stickler for form." He was very interested in supporting the role of GPs in obstetric practice, Prof Seddon said.

Dr Brian McMahon, a student of Prof Wright's in the 1950s, who worked as a GP in the 1960s in Cromwell and was superintendent of Cromwell Hospital, said his old teacher helped him with difficult and stressful births. Transport was an issue in those days, and GPs had to cope with a greater number of difficult cases. Dr McMahon served in the Vietnam conflict, leading to a close bond with his old teacher. University students of the 1950s lacked awareness of the older generation's war service. "If only we had known that as students, I think our attitudes would have been different. We would have had a rapport."

In retirement, Prof Wright did not give up medicine, becoming a surgical assistant at Mercy Hospital for a decade, his friend, former student, and colleague, Dr Alan Donoghue, recalled. Prof Wright did not work in the private sector pre-retirement, and thus had no "cushion of continuing practice to soften the abrupt transition". The other doctors at Mercy, nearly all former students, greatly enjoyed his wisdom, humility, and good humour. "He was a marvellous raconteur, and enlivened many hours with fascinating historical anecdotes."

Mrs Wright died in 2008, shortly after the couple moved to Ross Home in late 2007.

Prof Wright is survived by two children, Bill and Catharine, six grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

This was written by Eileen Goodwinand appeared in the Otago Daily Times on 10 December 2011 and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Republished by kind permission of the President and Council of The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons from In Memoriam (].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England