Hello Cruel World
Monday, April 28, 2003
A saviour of many women, and an art lover's delight
Dr Mary J. Heseltine
Dr Mary Heseltine, who has died at 91, was an eminent pathologist and an early and forceful proponent of the adoption and use in Australia of the Pap smear for detecting cervical cancer.
An only child, Mary was educated at PLC Melbourne and gained her medical degree at Melbourne University in 1934.
She became a resident clinical pathologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1936, moving to Sydney in 1937 to the Royal Hospital for Women, and in 1943 was chosen by Sir Herbert Schlink to be a staff specialist pathologist at King George V Hospital, where she remained until 1975.
Among the earliest Australian doctors to do so, Mary travelled in 1955 to Cornell University Medical School in the United States to study cytology with Dr George N. Papanicolaou, the father of the Pap smear.
On her return, she established at King George V Hospital the first gynaecological cytology unit in Australia and there trained the first NSW cyto-technologists.
An articulate advocate for cervical screening, she generously provided slides and other materials for teaching purposes and gladly gave lectures without payment. Her clinical colleagues found her to be a good communicator and held her in great respect as part of the team.
She was also concerned to include people with disabilities among her staff: an excellent secretary of hers was almost blind; one of the young women she trained in cytotechnology was wheelchair bound with badly deformed hands; another was deaf.
The last, at Mary's request, taught her sign language, and sometimes when they were driving home together she would become so absorbed in their signing conversation at the traffic lights that it took a toot from behind to remind her about driving again.
In 1975, Mary retired from King George V and took the position of staff specialist pathologist at St Margaret's Hospital in Darlinghurst.
She also launched herself into a whole new career when she became a volunteer guide at the Art Gallery of NSW.
With her enthusiasm, crisp insights and humour she drew large numbers on her tours and set a cracking pace through the gallery that younger people often found hard to keep up with.
To the amusement of visitors and colleagues, she would offer diagnoses of the ailments and conditions suffered by various people in the paintings and regularly remarked as she passed Frederick McCubbin's "On the Wallaby Track" at how grossly overweight that child was.
She met her match, though, in a schoolboy one day when she described the stretcher case in Streeton's "Fire's On" as an injured worker. "No, Miss," he corrected her. "It's a stiff."
Tall, slim and elegant, Mary was a private person but confessed to enhoying two main extravagances: clothes, especially well-cut Italian ones, and camellias, of which she grew dozens of varieties in her garden at Pymble
She would bring basketfuls of these to scatter generously about the gallery, and for the gallery guides' 30th birthday party last year, 140 of her blooms decorated the tables, though she herself was too frail to attend.
Mary Heseltine was a bird of very bright passage who earned the high respect of visitors to the gallery for more than a decade. She has left the proceeds of her estate to the gallery.
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