Page 1: Biography
Mason, Diana Manby
Medical practitioner, anti-abortion campaigner
This biography, written by Sarah Burgess, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2020.
Diana Mason was one of the country’s best-known obstetricians, delivering countless babies in a medical career spanning more than 50 years. Talented and ambitious, she built a successful practice at a time when there were few woman doctors. Her absolute belief in the sanctity of life led her to publicly oppose the liberalisation of abortion laws during the heated abortion debates of the 1970s.
Diana Manby Shaw was born in Wellington on 29 July 1922, the second daughter of Englishman Charles Bertram Shaw and his Australian wife, Frieda Charlotte Manby Todd. Charles was director of an import and export firm, while Frieda ran a physical culture studio for women. Frieda Shaw was determined that her daughters would receive a good education and realise their ambitions; Karori, where they lived, lacked suitable early childhood education facilities, so she established a kindergarten in her home.
After a year at Karori School both girls were enrolled in Samuel Marsden Collegiate, a private girls’ school within walking distance of the family home. Diana thrived at Marsden. Naturally clever and hungry for knowledge, she excelled in her studies and was named dux in 1938, her final year at the school.
Medical training and early career
Diana aspired to be a doctor from an early age, and enrolled in the medical intermediate course at Victoria University College in 1939. She quickly discovered that her Marsden education had neglected the sciences, but with the aid of a tutor she was able to pass her exams. She then spent several months in Sydney before enrolling for second-year science at Victoria in 1940. She threw herself into extra-curricular activities, such as debating and drama, and met the aspiring playwright Bruce Mason at a ‘hop’. They began a romantic relationship.
In 1941 Diana moved her studies to the Otago University medical school in Dunedin, where she was one of about nine women in a class of 100. Diana never felt she was discriminated against on the basis of gender, though she did feel pressure to out-perform her male counterparts to justify her presence. She would always maintain that hard work was the best answer to discrimination, and could be unsympathetic to accusations of gender discrimination in medicine. In the early 1970s she asserted that women doctors could succeed in the toughest branches of medicine if they were prepared to work for it, remaining unmoved by complaints from married mothers about the barriers they faced in advancing their careers.
Diana continued to take part in various extra-curricular activities during her Otago years; she studied music and German, and edited the student magazine Critic. She qualified as a doctor in 1945, after completing her final year at Wellington Hospital. She had returned to Wellington to be close to Bruce, who was due to return from overseas war service. The pair had corresponded throughout her time in Dunedin and became engaged during her fourth year of study. On 17 December 1945, a few days after Diana’s final exams, she and Bruce were married at her parents’ orchard in Tauranga. They would have two daughters and a son together.
The newlyweds lived in Thorndon for two years while Diana worked as a house surgeon at Wellington Hospital, before shifting to Newtown when she joined the large practice of Dr William (Bill) Shirer in 1948. Shirer became a mentor, sharing his knowledge and expertise and introducing Diana to obstetrics, which she came to love. She worked long hours, including nights and weekends, and made house calls across the city.
In May 1949, Diana and Bruce voyaged to London with their six-week-old daughter Belinda. They shared a house in Chelsea with future New Zealand theatre luminaries Richard and Edith Campion, and Diana, intent on a career in paediatrics, undertook a diploma in child health at the prestigious Great Ormond Street Hospital. After more than two years in London, where Diana also worked for London City Council’s Infant Welfare Clinics, she and Bruce returned to New Zealand to take over the management of her parents’ Tauranga orchard and await the birth of their second child, Julian.
Diana soon grew restless in Tauranga, and when her son was six months old she decided to resume her medical career. In 1952 the family returned to Wellington, living above Bill Shirer’s Newtown practice, where Diana was once again employed. She gradually took over all of Shirer’s obstetrics patients, discovering her passion lay there rather than in paediatrics. The hours were demanding, and though Bruce worked from home when not touring his plays, arranging childcare was frustrating and difficult at times. Both Diana and Bruce were ambitious and focused on their careers and, as it was unusual for mothers to work, full-time childcare centres were rare. They relied on live-in nannies while the children were young.
In 1954, after the birth of their third child Rebecca, the family moved to Kilbirnie, and their literary and theatre friends often gathered in their art- and book-filled home. Diana’s reputation as an obstetrician grew, and in 1958 she was appointed medical superintendent of the Alexandra Maternity Hospital and Home for Unmarried Mothers in Wellington. Diana later estimated that she was delivering an average of 300 babies a year at this point, between Alexandra and her private practice. She also became involved in the establishment of the student medical service at Victoria University College, where she occasionally worked as an obstetrics advisor.
During her years at Alexandra, Diana held a weekly clinic for young mothers, taught midwifery courses and delivered babies. She often developed close relationships with her patients, and many sent gifts or wrote letters of thanks following the birth. She was particularly awed by the often young and impoverished single mothers at Alexandra who, in her view, were heroic in the face of difficult and at times traumatic situations. Social pressures dictated that most of these women gave their babies up for closed adoption, a practice Diana later realised caused much suffering and distress. She occasionally arranged private adoptions, though most adoptions were conducted by the state.
Diana’s professional dealings with pregnancy and childbirth, particularly with the single mothers at Alexandra, informed her personal views on abortion. Though her opinion on sex and contraception was liberal for the time – she prescribed contraceptives to women regardless of their marital status or age – she drew the line at abortion. Diana believed a powerful ‘life force’ flowed through a pregnant woman, who developed an ‘overpowering instinctive concern for the well-being of her baby’ after she had passed through ‘the normal emotional disturbance which her biological changes may bring about during the first trimester.’1 She came to believe that no abortion should be performed, including in cases of incest or rape, unless the mother’s life was at serious risk from a continued pregnancy. She regarded abortion as ‘the deliberate and planned killing of a human being.’2
Diana was soon drawn into the anti-abortion movement led by the controversial Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC). She was first approached by the organisation in the early 1970s when she was invited to speak at its inaugural meeting in Wellington. She became president of the Wellington branch in 1973 and then was national president from May 1974 until late 1976, making her a prominent figure in the bitter and polarised debate about the availability of abortion in New Zealand. She chaired meetings, gave interviews, petitioned politicians, and made speeches. During her presidency, SPUC agitated for greater restrictions on abortion. In September 1974, alongside other prominent members of SPUC such as Ruth Kirk, she led a large anti-abortion march through the streets of Wellington, and the following August presented a petition signed by 113,000 New Zealanders to the government. Diana used her position as a respected obstetrician to present her arguments, and her evidence to the 1975–77 Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion drew heavily on her medical expertise and experience of pregnancy and childbirth.
During Diana’s presidency, SPUC sought to disrupt the Auckland Medical Aid Centre, New Zealand’s first abortion clinic. The centre had eased access to abortion when it opened in May 1974. Soon after, Diana was among a high-powered SPUC delegation which met Prime Minister Norman Kirk and his ministers for health and justice to outline the actions SPUC believed should be taken against the centre. Her Kilbirnie home was also reportedly the site where a draft bill to change the conditions under which an abortion could be performed, drawn up by SPUC member and lawyer Anthony Molloy, was given to Labour MP and SPUC member Dr Gerard Wall. Wall introduced the bill to parliament in late August 1974; it became law in 1975 and forced the centre to close for a short time. Diana denied SPUC involvement in a police raid of the clinic in September 1974, despite rumours that police had acted on information the group had supplied to Kirk. She expressed distress that hundreds of medical files had been seized.
Diana’s involvement in the anti-abortion movement came at a cost, particularly to her relationships with friends and colleagues. She and Bruce considered themselves liberal, but her vocal support for the anti-abortion movement destroyed her liberal credentials for many. She faced antagonism from colleagues, and she and Bruce, a pacifist who supported her stance on abortion, fell out with friends who accused them of conservatism. The two years of her presidency were among her unhappiest professionally.
Later life and career
Diana was superintendent at Alexandra until 1978, when she stood down after 20 years in the position. Her professional reputation continued to grow, and she served on several medical boards and committees. In recognition of her decades of service to obstetrics, she was made an OBE in the 1977 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. A portrait of Diana wearing her OBE perfectly captured her flamboyant dress sense. Outrageous hats, bold prints and long, dangling earrings had become her trademarks, cultivated over years of attending theatre events with Bruce.
These public accomplishments were marred by private tragedy. Bruce was diagnosed with cancer in 1978; his health steadily declined over the next four years and he died on New Year’s Eve 1982. Diana was devastated; she wrote several years later of being ‘left with an aching void that might have surprised even him, and that nothing – no music, no golf, no family, no friends – ever fills. … [E]very ship needs an anchor, and perhaps it is now the destiny of mine to travel aimlessly without him until it also founders on the rock of death.’3
Diana retired from obstetrics in 1988 after more than 30 years of assisting women through pregnancy and childbirth. Around the same time she became the second woman president of the Wellington division of the New Zealand Medical Association. In the last nine years of her medical career she served on the Disciplinary Committee of the New Zealand Medical Association.
After more than 50 years in medicine, Diana finally – and somewhat reluctantly – retired in 2000, at the age of 78. She continued to lead a busy social life and remained interested in the arts, attending plays and concerts and remaining connected to the interests she had shared with Bruce. She lived in an apartment in the city until declining health necessitated a move into the Rita Angus retirement village in Kilbirnie. She died there on 5 June 2007, aged 84, survived by her children and grandchildren.