Story: Chapman, Sylvia Gytha de Lancey

Page 1 - Biography

Chapman, Sylvia Gytha de Lancey

1896–1995

Doctor, medical superintendent, welfare worker

This biography was written by Esther Irving and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Sylvia Gytha de Lancey Chapman was born in Dunedin on 27 November 1896, the youngest of five children of Clara Jane Cook and her husband, Frederick Revans Chapman, a barrister, who in 1903 was to become the first New Zealand-born Supreme Court judge. She was educated at Woodford House from 1912 to 1914, Victoria University College in 1915, and the University of Otago from 1916 to 1920, from where she graduated MB, ChB in 1921. She spent two years at Cook Hospital, Gisborne, before becoming a general practitioner in Wellington.

Sylvia Chapman became involved with organisations dealing with health, women's affairs, and humanitarian work, including the Lepers' Trust Board and the South Pacific Health Service, where she was a strong driving force. In 1923 she became the first woman to represent the New Zealand Federation of University Women in London; she also represented it in Oslo the following year. Later she became president of the Wellington branch. In 1925 Chapman attended the Social Hygiene Congress, London, as delegate for the New Zealand Medical Women's Association. With her extensive knowledge of community life, and her Christian principles, Chapman was an enthusiastic worker for the YWCA, becoming at 29 its youngest president. She believed in the efficacy of prayer, with which she started meetings, giving strong leadership in spiritual as well as practical matters.

In 1934 Sylvia Chapman gained an MD from the University of New Zealand, an unusual feat for a woman at that time. Her thesis, containing research into perinatal toxaemia, laid the foundation for the life-saving discovery of the Rh factor. From hospitals in Paris, Dublin and Vienna she obtained practical experience in obstetrics and gynaecology. In 1936 she was appointed medical superintendent of St Helens Hospital, Wellington, succeeding Dr Agnes Bennett. Until 1945 she taught New Zealand midwifery, examined student nurses and introduced Margaret Morris's antenatal exercises, which reduced forceps deliveries by more than half. Always concerned with pain relief, she advocated 'twilight sleep' anaesthesia.

With Dr T. F. Corkill, she worked on an investigation into toxaemia in pregnancy. This led to a committee of inquiry in 1936–37, with an exhaustive examination of various aspects of abortion in New Zealand. At this time the reported incidence of illegal abortion, particularly among women with families, was very high. The main causes, apparently, were economic hardship and ignorance of safe contraception. The committee recommended free contraceptive advice and the establishment of birth-control clinics to assist married women in some circumstances, such as when their health was at risk. Chapman and T. L. Paget, a fellow committee member, urged further research into pain relief and maternity benefits. When the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society (later the New Zealand Family Planning Association) was formed in 1936, Chapman was one of several doctors who offered advice. She also sat on the 1938 inquiry into maternity services. The committee recommended the attendance of doctors at births, but Chapman and Paget expressed reservations about the practicality of this, especially in country districts. They argued that a properly trained midwife, with a doctor available in emergencies, was sufficient.

By now highly regarded in parliamentary circles, in 1938 Chapman was appointed government nominee to the Senate of the University of New Zealand, the first woman to have this honour. She was respected for her liberal outlook, integrity of mind and ability to express herself clearly and decisively. She had a mild, diplomatic manner.

During the Second World War Chapman represented the YWCA as a member and medical adviser of the Polish Children's Hospitality Committee. She studied Polish, hoping to visit Poland after the war, and also assisted many of the German refugees immigrating to New Zealand. On 16 August 1944 a historic meeting took place in Chapman's sitting room. Representatives of 12 churches and welfare organisations were concerned at the difficulty of giving aid to the millions of war sufferers: the homeless, the starving, and the desperately ill. That evening, the New Zealand Council of Organisations for Relief Service Overseas (CORSO) was born. The United Nations was founded in 1945, and CORSO agreed to combine with its Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to send a medical team, led by Chapman, to Greece. Here privation, inadequate resources, difficult transport and lack of hospitals made the work gruelling, especially in remote mountain areas. She travelled extensively, instituting blood transfusions and a mobile laboratory, inspecting equipment and supervising a training school in Salonika. When UNRRA decided to leave Greece in 1946, the CORSO team, left without funding, recommended repatriation. Chapman, now unable to visit Poland as intended, spent the rest of her days in England.

She worked for some years in Dulwich hospital, first as anaesthetist and then as obstetrical officer. During this time she became interested in the newly formed College of General Practitioners, whose object was to raise the status and standards of the family doctor. She became the honorary assistant secretary and later the registrar. At first medical supervisor for a home for the elderly at Bexhill-on-Sea, she later retired there herself. She never married.

In spite of her high public profile and ability to direct, inspire, and lead, Sylvia Chapman was a quiet, almost shy person. She had a capacity for deep friendships, and maintained her strong spiritual faith, a public conscience, compassion and a determination to alleviate pain and suffering. She died at Bexhill-on-Sea on 1 September 1995 at the age of 98.