How Christchurch won tug of war for school

Last updated 07:42 17/02/2013

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Otago University's Christchurch medical school spent its 40th birthday scattered about the city in sports clubrooms thanks to earthquakes. But it is back home, beside Christchurch Hospital, in time for a delayed birthday party. MIKE CREAN traces its history.

Chat about birdies, bogies and bunkers was suspended in the Hagley Golf Club pavilion for nearly two years. Discussion of aneurisms, lesions and haemoglobin replaced the usual topics of golfers' afterglow conversation.

Earthquake damage to the main building of the University of Otago, Christchurch, medical school beside Christchurch Hospital, forced students and staff to use the golf pavilion, in North Hagley Park, for lectures.

The netball pavilion and Horticultural Centre in South Hagley Park, several bowling clubrooms, even a stamp club, were also commissioned as temporary lecture rooms.

Repairs to damage from the February 2011 quake and subsequent aftershocks took 20 months to complete. The medical school moved back into its main building at the end of last month.

Not only were lectures, research and other functions of the school disrupted, its 40th anniversary celebrations had to be postponed until next week, two years later than planned.

For 40 years, the medical school has been training young doctors in Christchurch - about 7000 of them. Some Christchurch people call for a return of the (Canterbury) university to the central city, claiming the presence of students would light up the place. But a chunk of Otago University is already there.

The story of why Otago University established a medical school in Dunedin's rival city involves a good, old-fashioned dogfight. And when it came to scrapping, no contenders could hold a bone to Christchurch's George Rolleston, Pat Cotter, Don Beaven and Fred Shannon - "the gang of four", as long-time academic administrator of the school John Riminton labels these eminent medical men.

The government in 1966 decided to expand medical training to boost doctor numbers in New Zealand. Many Dunedin people wanted the existing Otago University medical school to be enlarged. Auckland was already getting a medical school. Many Wellington people wanted one too, as part of Victoria University, while many in Christchurch made a similar claim for the University of Canterbury.

The fight was on. In true New Zealand parochial nature "a bit of a furore", as Riminton describes it, broke out. Clinical teacher and medical researcher Emeritus Professor Eric Espiner calls it "a tug of war between Wellington and Christchurch".

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The "gang of four", says Riminton, had the wisdom to see past provincial jealousies. They realised the best chance to attract a medical school to Christchurch was to co-operate with Otago University. They encouraged the North Canterbury Hospital Board (as it was then) to work with Otago towards a split in doctor training, with part of the course being done in Christchurch.

They knew Dunedin lacked the population growth to justify the hospital expansion necessary to sustain greater numbers of medical students in their clinical training and requiring "hands-on" experience. They saw Christchurch's link with Otago, through having already trained its final-year medical students (interns) for many years, as a strong point in its favour.

Other supporting factors, says Espiner, were Christchurch's excellent hospital administration, that was "very keen" to get a medical school, and the medical research unit that was already running under Beaven. Research would be an essential part of the new school.

Reports and reviews backed the Christchurch option. Riminton says a "marvellous co-operation" developed among Otago University, North Canterbury Hospital Board, the national University Grants Committee and the "gang of four".

In 1970, Otago University agreed to build and equip a "medical centre" in Christchurch. Site work began and Fletcher Construction commenced building in 1971. The school was formally established in 1972, with George Rolleston as its first dean. The official opening followed in 1973, when 43 medical students, who had completed their first three years of study in Dunedin, began their clinical studies (years four, five and six) in Christchurch.

Espiner was involved from the start as a teacher and researcher at what began as the Christchurch Clinical School. He recalls the challenges the staff felt in suddenly facing large groups of students with the responsibility of teaching them and ensuring they met the criteria for passing strict exams.

"We were on our mettle . We wanted to show that we had the wherewithal to teach and that our students did well," Espiner says.

He remembers his own university days when some 20 students would be "piled up in rows well above the patient, well divorced from them, and in the back row people might be doing crossword puzzles or reading Mad magazine".

A well-designed, new building, carefully recruited staff and enlightened teaching techniques all came together to ensure success.

Espiner is still active with the Christchurch Heart Institute, a research group that grew out of the medical school 20 years ago. Institute director Professor Mark Richards says the group has credibility and is recognised internationally for cardiovascular research.

"Our work has made quite a difference to diagnosis and treatment of heart disease," Richards says. He cites the "constant dialogue" between patients, doctors, emergency specialists and researchers as a key to success. The medical school boosts this dialogue.

Other research is also noteworthy. Professor Christine Winterbourn, like Espiner a foundation staff member of the school, says Christchurch Hospital "had a very enlightened attitude of fostering the research" of the strong core of researchers in various disciplines, including Espiner, and Beaven and Shannon of the "gang of four".

These and others "set the ball rolling" for the wide range of research that followed, Winterbourn says. Her own work in free radicals and anti-oxidants has improved the understanding of the importance of free radicals and the ways they can contribute to diseases, and also brought her awards. A group of 25 scientists is now working in this field.

"Over the years, research has become integral to what the university is seen to be doing and researchers have gained a much higher profile," she says.

So successful has the school been that a new, multimillion- dollar building near Christchurch Hospital is planned.

In An Historical Overview, the current dean, Professor Peter Joyce, said architects and project managers had been employed and consultation with staff had started, towards a "bigger and better" building. The exact site could not yet be specified, he said.

Joyce points out that the 40th anniversary celebrations coincide with the second anniversary of 2011's devastating earthquake. This is an appropriate time to congratulate and thank the many medical students who gave selfless service to helping injured and traumatised earthquake victims, he says. He also thanks and congratulates teaching, research and administration staff who coped with "massive disruptions" to ensure the school continued to function - even in sports clubrooms and pavilions.

- The Press

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