Page 1: Biography
Deem, Muriel Helen
Doctor, medical officer, Plunket medical adviser, university lecturer
This biography, written by Linda Bryder, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was updated in January, 2002.
Muriel Helen Easterfield was born in Wellington on 26 February 1900 to Thomas Hill Easterfield and his wife, Anna Maria Kunigunda Büchel, who came from Bavaria. Her father, who was English, was foundation professor of chemistry and physics at Victoria College and later director of the Cawthron Institute in Nelson (1919–33). Her sister, Theodora (later Theodora Hall), would become a well-known East Coast doctor.
Helen was educated at Wellington Girls’ College, Victoria University College and the University of Otago. After graduating MB, ChB in 1925, she spent a year as house surgeon at Whanganui Hospital and seven months as Ōamaru Hospital’s sole resident medical officer. With a growing interest in infant health, she took the Plunket nurse training course at Kāritane-Harris Hospital in Dunedin. In 1928 she was the first recipient of the Lady King Scholarship of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children (the Plunket Society) at Otago University. This gave her the opportunity to do research on breastfeeding, the basis of her MD thesis, which she completed in 1927; it was published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood in 1931.
On 19 March 1929, at Nelson, Helen married John Stanley Longton Deem, a civil engineer, and moved to his home town of Whanganui. Two years later she gave birth to their daughter. While practising medicine in Whanganui, she was also appointed lecturer and honorary physician to the local Plunket Society hospital, the Stewart Kāritane Home, and in 1933 she became a member of the Plunket Society’s newly formed medical advisory committee. After the tragic death of her husband at the age of 38 during a week’s holiday in 1933 at Mt Ruapehu, Helen moved to Wellington and became senior resident at Wellington Hospital, working in the women’s and children’s wards. After seven months in Wellington, she decided to further her studies in England and gained a free passage as ship’s doctor on board the Port Melbourne in May 1934. In England she worked at a Woolwich hospital for mothers and babies and London’s Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street. In 1935 she gained her diploma of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (England).
Returning to New Zealand in 1936, she was appointed school medical officer to the South Auckland Health District and assistant to Harold Turbott, Hamilton’s medical officer of health. During her 2½ years with the Department of Health she studied nutritional and public health problems among the pre-school and school children of the Taupō–Tokaanu district. She pioneered a dried-milk scheme for Maori schools and a diphtheria immunisation campaign in Waikato.
In 1939 Deem was appointed medical adviser to the Plunket Society. This involved a considerable amount of administration as well as touring Plunket branches, lecturing to and examining Plunket nurse trainees, and acting as consultant to the Kāritane-Harris Hospital in Dunedin. At the same time she kept abreast of modern clinical paediatrics. A medical colleague, Herbert Robertson of Whanganui, said that her mind, rather like that of her father, was adapted to investigation and research matters. She was a member of the Paediatric Society of New Zealand, attending relevant conferences and publishing numerous papers. In 1946 she was appointed lecturer in preventive paediatrics at the University of Otago Medical School. A grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York enabled her to study overseas advances in paediatrics in 1947. She spent four months in the United States and Canada before visiting Britain and Scandinavia. While in New York she represented New Zealand at the International Paediatric Congress.
In the late 1930s the Plunket Society faced considerable opposition from the rising profession of paediatricians, particularly in relation to its recommended infant feeding formulas. Helen Deem’s revised formulas for Plunket gained the endorsement of the Paediatric Society in 1951. In contrast to the stricter prescriptions of Plunket’s earlier years, Deem stressed common sense in routine infant feeding, thus bringing Plunket into line with modern trends in child care. She also revised Plunket’s height and weight tables for New Zealand infants. Together with the society’s recently retired nursing adviser, Nora FitzGibbon, she wrote a new handbook for Plunket, Modern mothercraft, in 1945. This went into its second edition in 1953. She initiated a campaign against preventable accidents in the home, and was responsible for setting up the Dunedin pre-school education centre in 1941. This was maintained jointly by the Plunket Society and the Dunedin Free Kindergarten Association to provide Plunket and kindergarten trainees with instruction and experience in the mental and physical development of children between the ages of three and five. Deem supervised the health of the children and lectured to the trainees. It was initially housed in the grounds of the Kāritane-Harris Hospital, but in February 1955 a new and larger centre was opened in the city. Deem also devised a scheme under which sixth-year medical students would spend time at the Plunket clinics, under the direction of a paediatric consultant.
Regarded as a ‘human dynamo’, Helen Deem was innovative and worked incessantly, walking for relaxation in her limited leisure time. As medical adviser to the Plunket Society, she showed much energy, enthusiasm and initiative, tempered by tact, sound judgement and meticulous attention to detail. She won the confidence of medical colleagues, Plunket nurses and voluntary Plunket committees, thus guiding the society through a difficult phase, ensuring its future and enhancing its public status. The senior medical officer of the Kāritane Hospital and Mothercraft Home, Auckland, Basil Quin, told Deem in 1950: ‘It is not flattery to say that you are the life blood of the Plunket Society as it is now, and if you disappeared from us the Society would assuredly founder’.
In 1952 Helen Deem was made an OBE for her services to child health. She died aged 55 in Dunedin on 26 October 1955, survived by her daughter. Leukaemia having been diagnosed eight months earlier, she spent her remaining time ensuring the smooth transition of the society’s medical administration to her successor.