Page 1: Biography
Begg, Alexander Charles
Radiologist, historian, conservationist
Begg, Neil Colquhoun
Paediatrician, historian, conservationist
This biography, written by Linda Bryder, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Charles and Neil Begg came from a well-known Dunedin family, their paternal grandparents having been among the early Scottish settlers of Otago. Their father, Charles Mackie Begg, was a physician and surgeon, who married Lillian Helen Lawrance Treadwell in 1909. Alexander Charles (known as Charles) was born in Wellington on 28 February 1912, and Neil Colquhoun in Dunedin on 13 April 1915.
During the First World War their father became director of medical services to the New Zealand Defence Forces. He died in London in 1919 during the influenza pandemic, prompting the two boys and their mother to return to New Zealand. Here they were taken under the wing of the extended family, living in their grandmother’s house. They were educated at John McGlashan College, Dunedin, and both studied medicine at the University of Otago Medical School. Neil later commented that entering the medical school was a ‘me-too’ decision rather than the result of any burning desire to study medicine, though this soon changed. Neil represented the university at golf, skiing and cricket. Later he played cricket for Otago and represented New Zealand Services against the MCC at Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, in 1945. Charles was an Otago representative at golf.
Charles graduated MB, ChB in 1936. After a period as house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital, he decided to pursue a surgical career and travelled to London in 1937. The Second World War broke out before he had the chance to take the final fellowship examination, and he was invalided back to New Zealand in 1941 having contracted acute rheumatic fever. He married Margaret Annie Birks, a doctor, at Silverstream on 1 February 1941; they were to have four daughters and a son.
Once home, Charles decided to pursue a career in the comparatively new field of radiology. At Dunedin Hospital he became part of a team which developed neurosurgical services. He was the first person to pass the University of Otago’s newly instituted diploma of diagnostic radiology in 1946. His MD was awarded with distinction for his thesis on degeneration of the intervertebral disc. He was also awarded one of the first Nuffield travelling fellowships, which took him to Britain, America and Scandinavia in 1949–50.
Neuroradiology was always Charles Begg’s major interest, but there were few aspects of radiology in which he did not have great competence. In 1956 he became head of Dunedin Hospital’s department of diagnostic radiology. In 1971 he became an associate professor of diagnostic radiology at the Otago Medical School. He was actively involved in the Royal College of Radiologists of Australasia and played an important part in the establishment of the Neurological Association of New Zealand in 1957. He retired on his birthday in 1977 from what had become, under his stewardship, a large and flourishing department. He was one of a small select group that turned radiology into an independent speciality.
Neil Begg graduated MB, ChB in 1941. He married Margaret Milne MacLean (known as Margot), a librarian and a granddaughter of one of the original professors at the University of Otago, at Dunedin, on 11 April 1942; they were to have two daughters and two sons. During the Second World War he served with the medical corps of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Middle East, Italy and Britain, reaching the rank of major. After the war he decided to specialise in paediatrics and trained in London, Edinburgh and Stockholm from 1946 to 1948. In 1947 he gained the diploma in child health. The following year he attained membership of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of Edinburgh and London (becoming a fellow in 1957 and 1977 respectively). In 1949 he returned as a paediatrician to Dunedin Hospital, the Karitane-Harris Hospital and Queen Mary Maternity Hospital. He also set up a private paediatric practice, and was a lecturer in paediatrics at the medical school from 1949 to 1976. In 1956 he became director of medical services to the Royal New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children (Plunket Society), a post he held until he retired in 1977.
Neil Begg was a great admirer of the Plunket Society’s founder, Truby King, and particularly of his philosophy relating to public participation in preventive medicine. He viewed Plunket as a ‘first class instrument of child health’, especially with its vast army of enthusiastic volunteers. Like King, he believed it important to retain the independence of the Plunket Society from the Department of Health and as a result had what he described as a ‘long and frustrating relationship’ with the latter. As medical director of Plunket he was able to put into practice many of his beliefs relating to preventive medicine.
Neil Begg took a leading part in several important health campaigns, including the fluoridation of water supplies and the eradication of bovine tuberculosis and hydatid disease. For the latter campaign he successfully mobilised Federated Farmers of New Zealand. He persuaded the New Zealand Dairy Production and Marketing Board to develop a milk biscuit for protein-starved children overseas, which he personally introduced to various parts of South East Asia during a tour in 1965. From 1971 to 1976 he was medical adviser to the New Zealand Food Bank, an organisation set up to distribute the biscuits overseas.
Begg’s comprehensive reference book for parents on child care, The New Zealand child and his family , was published in 1970, with a revised edition in 1974, The child and his family. The book was dedicated to his own family, which he described as ‘a fine teaching unit’. He established an international reputation in child health, lecturing widely overseas and acting as consultant to several paediatric organisations, including the American Medical Association’s Committee on Maternal and Child Care. For his work in the Plunket Society he was made an OBE in 1972. He was at one time president of the Paediatric Society of New Zealand, chairman of the council of the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association (1964–66), and president of the New Zealand Medical Association (1974). He was made a fellow of the association in 1976.
Charles and Neil Begg were close brothers, sharing a passionate interest in local and natural history. They became authorities on the history of Fiordland, co-authoring four books on the area. The first, Dusky Bay (1966), won the Hubert Church Memorial Award for Prose. James Cook and New Zealand was specially commissioned by the government to commemorate the bicentenary of Cook’s circumnavigation of New Zealand in 1769. Port Preservation (1973) was a lavishly illustrated and comprehensive account of the history of the south-western sounds. Their last book, which appeared in 1979, was concerned with the life and work of one of the earliest Pākehā settlers of Murihiku, John Boultbee, as well as the history of sealing.
A strong interest in the environment led Charles to become local president of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand. Neil was a council member of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (1970–78) and chairman (1978–86). He had a special interest in Māori affairs, joining the trust’s Māori advisory committee. His services to the trust and to the community were recognised by his being appointed KBE in 1986. He went on to write a semi-autobiographical book, The intervening years (1992).
Charles and Neil Begg were tall men, Charles being described as a magisterial figure. They excelled in their chosen fields of neuroradiology and paediatrics respectively. Charles was described as a master craftsman at work and in his hobbies of woodturning and pottery; Neil as a good communicator, though with a quiet manner. Charles Begg died at Nelson on 23 June 1991, survived by his children. His wife had died in 1989. Neil Begg died at Dunedin on 25 June 1995, survived by his wife and three children.