Story: Suckling, Sophia Lois

Page 1 - Biography

Suckling, Sophia Lois

1893–1990

Optician, family planning reformer

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

Sophia Lois Anthony was born on 12 August 1893 in Bondi, Sydney, Australia, the daughter of Stephen Anthony (formerly Nowinsky), a Polish draughtsman, and his wife, Clara Emma Ackland. She travelled to New Zealand in 1900 with her family, who settled in Amodeo Bay, on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Her father was a scholar and a linguist but no farmer. The land he had bought unseen was poor and he became an inventive apiarist. Her mother disliked the remote farm life, but books were her sustenance, and Lois (as she was known) inherited her parents' love of literature. Despite little formal schooling she was to educate herself throughout her long life. Her family, like other settlers of the area, belonged to the rigid Plymouth Brethren sect.

On 22 September 1914 at Amodeo Bay Lois Anthony married Walter Edgar Suckling, an optician and fellow Brethren. They settled in Auckland, but in 1918 moved to Wellington where eventually they set up the firm of Suckling and Suckling, opticians, in Brandon Street. Edgar, who had qualified in England, began to teach his wife the profession as there was no formal training in New Zealand.

Lois had had four of her five children when Edgar was found to have a degenerative disease that would severely curtail his working life. Determining to qualify as an optometrist, she registered in 1924: the first woman in the country to do so, and the only one in practice for some years. A conference photograph taken around 1933 shows her as the only woman in a group of 32. She encountered opposition from some male colleagues.

Edgar Suckling had for some years been in the forefront of a struggle to have the optical profession legally recognised, in spite of opposition from the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association, who saw the move as an encroachment on medical practice. As secretary of the Institute of Optometrists of New Zealand Edgar was concerned about standards, examinations and training. He organised correspondence classes and set the examination schedule and Lois conducted a clinic for practical examinations. The Opticians Act giving legal recognition was passed in 1928.

By the early 1930s Lois Suckling had rejected her former religious beliefs. Her humanitarian principles and liberal outlook motivated her to help found the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society (now the New Zealand Family Planning Association) in 1936. The first president, she conducted the meetings in her consulting rooms, with Elsie Freeman (later Locke) as secretary. Their objective was to 'educate and enlighten the people of New Zealand on the need for birth-control and sex education…so that married people may space or limit their families, and so mitigate the evils of ill-health and poverty.'

The shocking revelations of the 1937 report of the committee of inquiry into abortion in New Zealand aroused public concern: it was found that one pregnancy in five ended in abortion and that a quarter of maternal deaths were caused by septic abortions. But in spite of the ensuing public controversy, which was underpinned by apprehension over the declining birth rate, the association grew steadily throughout New Zealand. It was supported by sympathetic doctors such as Sylvia Chapman and Welton Hogg.

By this time Edgar was confined to a wheelchair and Lois ran the practice by herself. However, she continued to be active in many fields. She was involved with the Wellington branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, and a founding member of Soroptomist International (New Zealand), where she was an advocate for women combining a career with marriage. She also attended Victoria University College literature classes and read widely, strongly influenced by her friend Maud England. Her politics were liberal: she supported the New Zealand Labour Party, the Friends of the Soviet Union (New Zealand Section), and the local Fabian Society, holding discussion meetings in her rooms.

Lois Suckling was a good looking, lively woman with an acerbic wit. Her interests and friends were many. Her courage, strength and conviction enabled her to support her husband and children through the difficult depression years. After Edgar's death in 1944 she went to England, where she practised for some 18 years, mainly in Camden, and travelled in Britain and on the Continent. She returned to New Zealand to retire in Auckland, where she died on 20 June 1990, survived by four daughters and a son.