Irwin Faris

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Obstetrician and gynaecologist
10 December 1918 - October 2009

Bill Faris was an important figure in the service for women in Auckland during the latter part of the 20th century. He was born in Dunedin on 10 December, 1918 and, after his secondary education at the New Plymouth Boys High School from 1930 to 1935, he was awarded a Taranaki Travelling Scholarship which he used to go to the University of Otago in 1936.  He graduated MB ChB in 1947 and gained general registration in March 1942.

After graduation he joined the New Zealand Army then transferred to New Zealand Air Force, he went overseas to serve in the New Hebrides and was in an air force plane that went down into the sea near a remote island. With the others, Bill survived for four days before being rescued by a Catalina Flying Boat.

After serving as a registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology in Dunedin Public hospital he was awarded a Doris Gordon travelling scholarship which took him to Crown Street Women's hospital in Sydney, followed by postgraduate study in the United Kingdom. He gained the MRCOG in 1949 and the Edinburgh FRCS in 1950.  In the UK he met Gabrielle, another New Zealander, whom he married in Wellington in 1952. They had two daughters and four sons, none of whom went into medicine.

Returning to New Zealand he went into general practice in Takapuna, in partnership with his father and, about two years later was appointed to a fulltime position at what was the Cornwall hospital, later to become National Women's hospital, participating in clinical work, teaching and research. He was appointed to the part-time staff in 1955 and built up a private practice in central Auckland. He continued to study, gaining the FRACS in 1961, the same year as he was awarded the FRCOG. Bill was foundation member of the RNZCOG and retired from practice in 1990.

The position he held included Head of one of the clinical teams at National Women's and from 1963 to 1983 was medical superintendent at St Helens hospital, which provided excellent experience and training in maternity care. He was a member of the New Zealand Council of the RCOG between 1956 and 1969. He was an elected member of the Auckland Hospital Board, serving as deputy chairman during the late 1970s. For his services to medicine Bill was awarded the Queens Service Order in 1977.

He enjoyed skiing and spending time on his small farm in South Auckland but his retirement was marred by censure from the Medical Council in the wake of the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into allegations concerning the treatment of cervical cancer and into other related matters. Bill Faris was a member of the sub-committee that was established in 1975 at National Women's hospital to review the care of women with cervical dysplasia and, subsequently, was found guilty of "conduct unbecoming a medical practitioner" in July 1995 - 20 years later. 

The relatively minor nature of the breach is demonstrated by the modest penalty of a fine of $500.00. Despite this, Bill continued to deny that he was in any way responsible, pointing out that the programme had stopped two years before he and a colleague were asked to read certain selected cases.

The Medical Council relied heavily on the report of the Committee of Inquiry, itself flawed and inaccurate in many ways - the censure of Bill Faris was unfair and yet could not be challenged. The sub-committee ended the observational study conducted by Associate Professor Herb Green and the recent publication by historian Linda Bryder called "A History of the Unfortunate Experiment at National Women's hospital" has contributed reality and a balance.

This includes the comment "The Cartwright Inquiry was not just about the research of one individual and his approach to female patients, it was the combination of a clash of ideologies and approaches to medicine, with women's bodies having become highly politicised".

It is a shame that Bill Faris did not live long enough to see this book, nor to have his fine contribution to obstetrics and gynaecology fully recognised.

Prepared by MAH(Tony) Baird FRANZCOG with assistance from Bill's sister, Felicity Tompkins.