Barbara Farnsworth Heslop CBE, MD, FRCPath, FRACS, FRSNZ
26 January 1925 - 20 December 2013
Immunologist and Researcher
Barbara Heslop was truly a renaissance figure. To her colleagues she was best known as a pioneering immunologist. To her students, a teacher of rare distinction, whose remarkable knowledge was matched only by the clarity of her delivery. Her close friends though knew of other talents; she was a musician, a chef, a short story writer and a sometime inveterate entrant in "purple prose" contests. She had a formidable intellect and was capable of demolishing poor arguments with a few incisive comments. She was also an exceptionally generous person who contrived to combine marriage and motherhood with an outstanding career at a time when this was almost unthinkable.
Barbara Heslop, was born in Auckland, January 25 1925. Isobel and John Cupit (who had emigrated from Derbyshire, UK) had two children - Barbara and a younger brother, Austin. Her parents and especially her father, who worked in the child welfare department in Auckland, had a major influence on her life through their love of literature. Barbara attended Epsom Girls Grammar School, with her parents' expectation that she would go on to university as well, even though for most girls in the 1930s that was not a realistic goal. After winning a University Entrance scholarship, Barbara moved south to Dunedin to attend Otago University - finding student life in the south greatly agreed with her.
Barbara gained entry into the Medical School, graduating MB ChB in 1948. House surgeon years were completed in Dunedin Hospital and in that role she met her future husband, John Heslop, who was one year behind her at medical school. In 1950 Barbara was appointed assistant lecturer in the Medical School Department of Pathology remaining there until 1953, when she and John married and later sailed on a cargo ship, the Port Vindex, to the UK (John as the ship's surgeon), fulfilling a directive from her mother years earlier that she "must travel".
Barbara and John settled in London where Barbara commenced a research job organised for her by Charles Hercus at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, while John became a surgical officer at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Ealing. At the end of 1956, following John's appointment as senior register and surgical tutor at Dunedin Hospital, the Heslops returned to New Zealand, with 10-day-old baby daughter Helen in hand. Barbara was very quickly encouraged to return to work with John's mother assisting in Helen's care. Following the birth of their second daughter, Hilary, Barbara confidently expected to become the traditional homemaker. However, it wasn't long before her medical credentials were in demand again, and she returned to the pathology department as a lecturer. The following year, she became a senior research officer in the department of surgery, working with the Transplantation Research Group alongside orthopaedics professor, Norman Nisbet. "It was the early days of transplantation, and it all felt a bit more intellectually alive," she wrote. "It was necessary to learn a lot of new stuff, and it was nice to think about Mendelian genetics again."
Barbara became head of the Transplantation Research Group, holding the position until her retirement in 1990, and publishing more than 130 research papers. Her major contributions to immunology reflected her research on how to prolong organ graft survival, with a focus on allogeneic lymphocyte cytotoxicity, the development of immunosuppressive regimens for organ transplants and the H-Y antigen. With research costly, Barbara developed an entrepreneurial talent for securing and managing funding. In addition to the usual biomedical research funding sources (where she was extraordinarily successful) she drew upon her earlier experiences and found new income streams. For example, rat and pig skins were harvested and used in application to severely burned patients - much more effective than the traditional dressings. In 1972 Barbara was made an associate professor, at that time believed to be the first woman in New Zealand to achieve this status in a department of surgery, and in 1984 was appointed professor of surgery. Barbara served as President of the New Zealand Immunological Association in 1985 and was instrumental in its amalgamation with its Australian counterpart to form the Australasian Immunological Society.
Barbara and John Heslop became key participants in the lives of many aspiring surgeons as they prepared for the daunting Part 1 Fellowship Examination. A pre-exam course (the Dunedin Basic Medical Sciences Course) was developed and over an intensive six week period the essentials of anatomy, physiology and pathology were provided in a well-structured programme of tutorials. A key factor in the success of many participants was Barbara's tips on how to succeed in multi-choice questions with marginal knowledge! In 1978, following the retirement of Assoc Prof John Borrie, Barbara became the convenor of this valued course. "At its height we were running two courses a year for a total of about 130-odd students, most from Australia," she wrote. "It made a significant profit-enough to donate $300,000 to the neurosurgery appeal in 2012 - without impairing its capacity to issue smallish annual scholarships." Barbara was made a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons for her contribution to surgical science. In addition, in 1990, she and John were jointly made the first recipients of the Louis Barnett Medal established by Council as "a single honour, bestowed on persons who have made outstanding contributions to education, training and advancement to surgery".
Both Barbara and John were heavily involved with the Cancer Society (being made life members in the 1990s). In 1993, following her retirement from the department of surgery three years earlier, Barbara commenced a term on the regional Crown Health Enterprise. She continued to participate actively in the basic sciences course until 1995. In retirement Barbara remained intensely interested and committed to research and education - perhaps best exemplified by the 15-page paper, published in 2004 in the New Zealand Medical Journal, entitledAll About Research-looking back at the 1987 Cervical Cancer Inquiry,in which she examined the controversial work of Dr Herbert Green and the subsequent Cartwright Inquiry. Barbara's considerable contributions were recognised nationally when she was made CBE in 1990. In the same period she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Barbara enjoying writing and had three or four entries for the non-fiction Manhire Prize short-listed, her favourite being Eomaia's Children, a 2008 work about rats, the laboratory animal she had worked with for so many years. In a more recent development, Barbara had her own Wikipedia page, this being mentioned in the Guardian newspaper shortly before her death in a story titled "Don't just use women in science - listen to them too." On the rare occasions when she wasn't writing, Barbara enjoyed music - she was an accomplished pianist - cooking, and spoiling her dogs, Sam and Henry.
Knowing her death was imminent, Barbara's attention to detail continued, leaving clear instructions there was to be no funeral, rather a private cremation. However she wanted her family, old friends and colleagues to enjoy a get-together in Dunedin where the life of a truly remarkable woman was celebrated - and a fine time had by all.
Barbara Heslop, an outstanding researcher and teacher, is survived by her daughters Helen (Professor Paediatrics and Medicine, Houston Texas) and Hilary (Food product developer, Melbourne), John having died just a few months after her in June 2014.
Barbara's significant contributions to surgery are commemorated in the Heslop medal which was approved by RACS Council in 2004 to "commemorate the work of Barbara and John Heslop in association with the Board of Basic Surgical Training (2000-2007) and its predecessor bodies".
There was probably very little possibility the University of Otago would forget one of its most brilliant graduates-and academics-but in establishing the Barbara Heslop Memorial Fund it has wisely left nothing to chance. The fund has been set up to support a scholarship for research students at Otago, a thoroughly appropriate purpose given Emeritus Prof Heslop's outstanding record as a medical researcher.
This obituary is based upon that prepared by Dave Cannan for the Otago Daily Times with significant contribution by Margaret Baird.