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Dame gets her hands dirty to honour sexual health trailblazer

Jun 6th, 2013 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features, Front Page Layout

BEFORE THE RESTORATION: Dame Margaret Sparrow at the gravesite in Avarua

IN the late winter Rarotongan sunshine, a tall woman stands before an overgrown grave and wonders how the burial site of a New Zealand war heroine could be so neglected.

Here lies Ettie Annie Rout, who ended her life on this island in 1936 and the woman standing at her burial place is New Zealand sexual health doctor, Dame Margaret Sparrow.

“I was struck by the simplicity of Ettie’s grave.” Dame Margaret will later recall, “I cannot say which was the stronger feeling – sadness for the lonely end to her life or a great respect for such a brave pioneer.”

Early in the 20th century, when few women worked outside their homes, Ettie Rout, left, was exceptional. By 1915, when she was 38, she was an accomplished journalist and newspaper editor. She excelled as a shorthand typist and was a government appointee at the Supreme Court and worked on Commissions of inquiry. In her “free” time, she worked for the early NZ Labour movement.

When World War I was gaining momentum in 1915, she formed the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood to provide nursing care for New Zealand Expeditionary Forces. Ettie sailed to Egypt in 1916 with a group of her recruits to care for the men stationed there.

It soon became apparent that there was a high rate of venereal disease amongst the troops. She saw this as a medical problem and advised the issue of prophylactic kits. New Zealand Medical Corps officers were not willing to follow her advice.

When the rate of syphilis and gonorrhea had not decreased by 1917, Ettie went to London where she renewed her efforts to persuade the NZ Medical Corps to adopt her recommendations.

After research and consultation with doctors who were working in the field of venereal treatment, she developed a kit containing condoms, calomel ointment which was an effective preventive for syphilis, and Condy’s crystals, a curative for gonorrhea. By the end of the year, the NZEF had adopted the kit and its distribution was made compulsory for soldiers on leave. Ettie Rout’s development of the kit was not officially acknowledged by the military.

After moving to Paris in 1918, she set up a welfare service to assist NZ troops on leave in Paris. She greeted them at the railway station and directed them to a safe brothel, Madame Yvonne’s which she visited for regular inspections. At the end of the war, Ettie stayed in France where she ran a Red Cross depot in the ruined Somme town, Villers Brettoneux.

Her efforts were not acknowledged in New Zealand where she was vilified for her stance on venereal disease and a conservative society took umbrage at her pragmatic approach.

Returning to New Zealand from England in 1936, Ettie found herself persona non grata with the press and a conformist society.

The move to Rarotonga, intended to revitalise, seems to have made her feel more dejected, and it was there she decided to end her life. She took an overdose of the quinine she had been prescribed to treat malaria.

When Ettie Rout took her fatal dose, she had boarded a ship sailing between the islands surrounding Rarotonga.

Before leaving Avarua, she had left telegrams to be sent after her departure, the messages all read: ETTIE DIED AT SEA.

As it set sail from the island of Aitutaki, the ship ran on to a reef. Ettie was rescued along with all the other passengers and taken back to Avarua, where she died that night.

Dame Margaret Sparrow, a few weeks after her return from Rarotonga, says Ettie’s heroism was not appreciated during her lifetime and her own recent journey was a gesture towards making amends for that.

“I wanted to ensure she wasn’t neglected in her death as well, that’s why I set out to restore her grave. She was such an important person to those of us involved in sexual health.”

THE AUTHOR AND THE DOCTOR: Jane Tolerton (left) with Dame Margaret Sparrow.

The journey to Rarotonga’s main town, Avarua, took far longer than the four-hour plane trip from New Zealand; it had been four years in the planning. The project would involve a series of lucky coincidences and several key players who offered help and expertise.Although it was known that Ettie was buried in Rarotonga, the exact location of the grave was not well known. It was thanks to Australian venereologist, David Bradford, who visited Avarua in 2008, that the grave was found.

Their tour bus did not stop at the churchyard, so Dr Bradford and his partner Michael walked back to the cemetery to look for the grave.

“We had a lot of trouble finding the grave at first until Michael remembered that suspected suicides were always buried at the very back of the churchyard, and sure enough there it was almost against the back fence behind the church.”

When Dame Margaret heard the story, she started a plan to restore Ettie’s final resting place. She spread the word by speaking at conferences and in an article published in the New Zealand Sexual Health Society’s newsletter of March 2010.

Author Jane Tolerton had already played a significant role in restoring Ettie’s reputation with her biography Ettie: A Life of Ettie Rout, which won the New Zealand Book of the Year award in 1993.

Jane teamed up with Dame Margaret to deliver a presentation at the annual conference of the New Zealand Sexual Health Society in September 2010.

At that conference was one Twiggy Johnson, Pacific Sexual Health Advisor with the Hutt Valley District Health Board.

“My ears pricked up when I heard them talking about Ettie, as I didn’t know much about her,” says Twiggy.

“When they said she was buried in Avarua, my ears pricked up even further because I am Rarotongan and I have family there.”

Twiggy put Dame Margaret in touch with her cousin Autiare Luke in Avarua and an offer of accommodation was made.

The next port of call was stonemason Grant Clark at Wellington Memorials in Newtown.

“I was happy to help with it,” says Grant “We ship a lot of headstones to the islands, and as this one was already there, I couldn’t do it myself.”

Grant invited Dame Margaret to come to his workshop, where he demonstrated how she could do it herself.

“He showed me how to clean it and repaint it. I needed to take some things with me, including pumice stone, which is not available in Rarotonga.”

Grant says he was really pleased to receive a photo of the restored grave later.

“It was really thoughtful of her. A lot of people come and ask for advice and that’s usually the last I hear from them.  She did a really nice job.”

Ettie’s grave had not one but two headstones. Jane Tolerton had discovered the reason while researching
her book. World War I veteran, Leslie Grange had been nursed by Ettie when he contracted influenza in France at the end of the war.

He visited Rarotonga in the 1950s, and out of gratitude went to visit her grave. He knew she was buried on the island but was unable to find the grave. Believing there was no headstone, he ordered a new one when he returned to New Zealand and had it shipped over.

The inscription on both headstones has her married name, Hornibrook. In her 40s, she had married her long-time companion Fred Hornibrook, a proponent of physical fitness and notable for his discouragement of women wearing corsets. The marriage had ended before Ettie returned to New Zealand.

It has been said of Ettie Rout that she was a woman ahead of her time, a belief she herself expressed. If she were able to step in to the 21st century, it is likely that she would be gratified to see that so many of the ideas she promoted have been realised.

Jane Tolerton believes there are some aspects of modern society that she may find disappointing.

“She believed in love and that people should marry for love. I don’t know how she would feel about people engaging in heavy drinking and one night stands.”

It is likely she would approve of Dr Margaret Sparrow and applaud her work. Dame Margaret’s ground breaking work in making contraception freely available in the 1960s, campaigning for safe and legal abortion and promoting and performing vasectomies is a natural progression from the work Ettie did in her time.

“I think they would understand each other very well,” says Jane “They have the same sort of drive and determination.”

Although Dame Margaret has withstood an amount of moral backlash from sectors of New Zealand society, she began her work at a time when the tide was beginning to turn.

The tide was very much against Ettie Rout and some women doctors of her time formed part of that tide. One of those was British doctor, Marie Stopes, whose book The Truth About Venereal Disease was published in 1920.

In her biography, Jane Tolerton says that although Ettie publicly endorsed the book, she privately believed it missed the point; that venereal disease was a medical problem, not a moral one. Ettie would eventually fall out with Dr Stopes due their philosophical differences.

Ettie’s name had all but disappeared from the New Zealand consciousness until the 1980s when Aids proved resistant to antibiotics and the need for safe sex practice became vital. When the Aids Foundation opened its Christchurch branch in 1985, it was named The Ettie Rout Centre.

The publication of the biography in the 90s brought further belated recognition while her grave still lay untended until Margaret Sparrow’s arrival in August last year.

Russian venereologist Alex Bolotovski and his wife Irina accompanied Dr Sparrow to Rarotonga.

They met with John Carter, New Zealand’s high commissioner to the Cook Islands before beginning work on the grave.

“I wanted to let him know that we were there and what we were doing,” she says. “He knew little about Ettie but he was interested and I left a copy of Jane’s book with him.”

At Autiare Luke’s house, Dame Margaret met Teva Simiona, also a guest there.

“It was serendipity,” she says. “He was an old friend of the family from the island of Aitutaki staying for a few days while he had tasks in Rarotonga. He had the spare time and the interest to help me.

“Teva accompanied me to a church service in the Avarua Christian Church, which was notable for the strong and enthusiastic singing by the congregation. He then escorted me to see the grave in the far corner of the graveyard near where some of his relatives are buried.”

With help from the Bolotovskis and Teva, Dame Margaret carried out the headstone restoration. The addition of sand to keep the weeds down and a vase of local flora saw the work completed.

The local RSA agreed to include Ettie’s grave on their list when tending those of their own WWI soldiers.

Visitors to the little Christian church at Avarua will now find a brochure with a brief life history and can visit the grave easily.

Although Ettie is recognised in Australia’s official war history and the French decorated her with the Reconnaissance Française medal for her work during and after the war, her name remains absent from New Zealand’s official war history.

Dame Margaret believes this should be rectified and she should be recognised as a national icon.

“Who knows how many countless men and women have been saved the ravages of sexually transmitted infections and, more latterly, HIV/Aids by her wonderful example and courageous fighting spirit?”

Jane says: “If her solutions had been applied when she first suggested them, about 10,000 New Zealand soldiers could have been saved from syphilis, then a fatal disease, and gonorrhoea.”

As decedents of WWI soldiers gathered at cenotaphs around the country this year, it is worth remembering that some would not be there if it weren’t for Ettie Rout. Some of these people may not exist today if their forefather had not been issued with one of her kits.

Twiggy Johnson goes to the dawn parade each year with her husband and always has someone else with her.

“I take Ettie along in my pocket, she says, the lives she saved are worth remembering on the day.”

Dame Margaret continues to work towards greater recognition for Ettie Rout and Jane Tolerton has begun work on a condensed version of the biography for the Australian market.



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  1. Thankyou for this I remember Margaret Sparrow in her surgery Wellington in 1978 when I worked there. As I get older (70yrs) I realise the importance of condoms for health reasons but also slowing down the world population and creating only WANTED children. I live in hope that this new Pope St. Francis will go down in history and be as brave as Ette Rout. This could have a huge impact especially on poor people in Catholic countries.

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