Tribute To Paediatrician Donald Beasley

Paula Martin,

When Donald Beasley passed away on December 27 2017 at the age of 97, he left behind a legacy of commitment to improving health for children and the disabled. The Donald Beasley Institute, OBE and CBE awards are all testament to Donald’s decades of dedication.

Born April 10 1920, Donald Beasley always called Whangarei home. After studying in the UK under paediatrics pioneers Sir James Calvert Spence and Dr R S Illingworth, Donald brought his knowledge back to NZ where, after six years, he eventually was offered work at Whangarei Hospital in 1961.

Donald soon joined the Society for Intellectually Handicapped Children (later IHC New Zealand) in 1955, became president of the IHC Parent’s Association 1964-1979 and in 1984 – the year he retired from Northland’s hospital board and medical practice – the Donald Beasley Institute for disability research and education was named in his honour.

Northland Medical Museum chair and former surgeon Dr Bill Sugrue described Donald as Northland DHB’s “most decorated affiliate.” Donald was chairman of Northland’s health board for six years, was a board member for decades and was president of Health Boards NZ. Donald even found time to set up Abbeyfield sheltered homes for the elderly. In a speech for the 2001 centenary of Whangarei Hospital, PM Helen Clark singled out Donald and stressed her “great respect” for him and his board management.

“He came idealistically to Northland because the Beasleys had arrived in 1864 and his father had come from here,” Dr Sugrue said. “He had a nostalgic desire to return to remote NZ – where he couldn’t get a job! – and developed IHC camps while he eked out a living as a GP.”

Dr Sugrue remembered Donald’s passion for oratory and scholarships as well as Donald’s fatherly mentoring as they worked together at Whangarei Hospital. “Donald was also fantastic with mothers, he had great empathy.”

IHC chief executive Ralph Jones said under Donald the IHC supported governments and organisations in the Pacific Islands to promote the establishment of services for people with intellectual disabilities. On the IHC’s 40th Anniversary in 1989, Donald said the IHC came together because “by and large people with intellectual handicap had been severely underestimated and changes were necessary,” giving Donald a self-described “conviction, zeal, and fire in the belly” in his work.

Donald’s second cousin, Canterbury DHB Clinical Professor of Paediatric Surgery Spencer Beasley said Whangarei Hospital’s failure in the 1950s to recognise the need for a hospital-based paediatrician was the IHC’s gain.

“It was while he was under-employed in general practice he became increasingly involved in the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Society.

“Throughout this time, he was a tireless but potent advocate for the children of Northland and beyond, especially those who were less fortunate, either socially or because of their disability or health needs. 

“On one of our trips with him through the northern reaches of Northland, he pointed out a rural school which was to be closed because the academic performance of its students was so extraordinarily poor.  He visited it and determined that its students were severely malnourished. He negotiated a reprieve for the school, organised for milk and fresh produce to be delivered to it each day, and watched the consequent improvement in their learning. The school stayed open.”

“Just a month ago, with typical humility, he told me he would be willing for the Donald Beasley Institute to drop his name if it wished to, clearly under-recognising the brand value of its origins and association with him.”

Donald was farewelled on January 6 2018. Donald’s children are Alastair, Michael, Tony and Adrian. His wife, Caroline Graham born in Perth, Scotland, died in 1987. 

Back to the news

Last modified: