Jean Mary Sandel was born at Kaiti, Gisborne, on 26 December 1916, to Mary Jessie Gow and her husband, Arthur Sandel, a licensed surveyor. The family soon moved to Taumarunui. From there Jean was sent to board at New Plymouth Girls’ High School: she was dux in 1932 and 1933, and in the latter year was head girl and the recipient of the cup for excellence in work and sport. She was also the first girl at the school to gain the Royal Life Saving Society’s diploma. In 1933 she sat the matriculation examination and gained a Junior Scholarship.
The following year she began studying at the University of Otago Medical School. She completed the five-year course with ease, writing her thesis on the state of health of King Country Maori. She completed her MB, ChB in 1939, winning the Senior Scholarship in medicine and the highest prize, the Travelling Scholarship. The Second World War prevented her from taking up these awards, and she spent the war years as a surgeon at Wellington Hospital. In 1946 she began four years’ postgraduate work in England where she broke new ground as a female surgical registrar in London and became an FRCS in 1947 – the first New Zealand woman to do so. Her presence, personality and femininity endeared her to staff at many London hospitals.
On her return to New Zealand late in 1950 she joined the staff at New Plymouth Hospital. One of two surgeons employed by the Taranaki Hospital Board, she rapidly established a reputation for her ability and diligence; by 1964 she was the leader of the surgical department’s staff of eight. The two operating theatres at New Plymouth Hospital lacked many modern facilities and the building of a new hospital became a major focus for Sandel. She was delighted when Taranaki Base Hospital opened in 1972 with seven operating theatres.
Not much over five feet in height with steady brown eyes and dark hair, Jean Sandel had no pretensions and would often operate standing on a box so that her taller – usually male – assistant would not have to endure a stooped back throughout a long operation. She was a steady and meticulous operator: patience and stamina, combined with technical skill and knowledge of surgical anatomy, were hallmarks of her work. In her later years she became interested in cardiovascular surgery and pioneered this type of work for provincial hospitals.
In the administrative office Sandel allowed surgical staff to comment on roster arrangements she had drawn up; in spite of this genuine consultation, the end result was usually as Jean had predicted. In the wards she was a strict disciplinarian with resident doctors and nurses. Her industry, clarity of thought and fearless determination required, and resulted in, the highest skill and care from all staff. Sandel was a devout Presbyterian, and her Christian principles meant she willingly performed more emergency duties than required and attended her patients at all hours. She encouraged her staff to write articles for journals, and co-authored an article for the New Zealand Medical Journal in 1967. In 1957 she had become a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.
Sandel actively encouraged young women to further their academic studies through her involvement with the New Zealand Federation of University Women and the local soroptimist club, by lecturing and tutoring nurses at the hospital and by speaking at graduation ceremonies. Tending the garden that surrounded her century-old black and white cottage, golf, bridge and watching rugby and cricket were her chief leisure pursuits, although in her later years much of her time was devoted to caring for her aged parents. She never married. When working at the old hospital she was known to sneak away to Pukekura Park to watch cricket matches from the grassed terraces. A match commentator would hang a white towel out of the commentary box if the hospital needed her urgently and she would scurry back up the hill.
Ill health, which required regular radiation therapy, marred the last years of Jean Sandel’s life, yet she continued to meet her surgery obligations. She was found dead in her bedroom on 4 November 1974; she was 57 years old. Her memory is perpetuated at Taranaki Base Hospital by a garden and an operating theatre named in her honour, and in the community by a window in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and a memorial wing in Chalmers home for the aged.