Liggins Institute namesake’s and director’s daughters graduate

03 October 2016
Professor Frank Bloomfield and daughter Eleanor Bloomfield at spring 2016 graduation
Professor Frank Bloomfield and daughter Eleanor Bloomfield at spring 2016 graduation

Daughters of two prominent Liggins Institute figures both graduated from the University of Auckland last week.

Eleanor Bloomfield, whose father Frank is the Institute director and a neonatologist at National Women’s Health, graduated with a first class Masters in English. Her thesis was on the medieval mystery plays that were once performed in the streets of York, England – a topic she wryly admits seems obscure in New Zealand.

Jackie Liggins, whose late father Sir Graham (Mont) Liggins was a scientific giant and the Institute’s namesake, graduated with a PhD in Psychiatry wearing the same gown and hood that her father wore back in 1970, when he became the first graduate ever to receive a degree from the University of Auckland’s just-established School of Medicine.

Eleanor, 24, learnt Middle English in order to read the medieval plays, a collection of short linked pageants which together tell the Biblical story of salvation history, from Creation to the Last Judgement. The plays were performed on the streets of York from at least the late 14th century through to the mid-16th, when they were heavily censured under the Reformation and eventually died out.

“I like the rhythm and alliteration of Middle English,” she says. “Once you get the hang of that, it's surprisingly easy to understand.”

Her thesis examined the performance of piety in medieval York, focusing on the relationship between the mystery plays and the Mass, the most important ritual of medieval Catholicism. Her research analysed how different areas of the city - the cathedral, the smaller parish churches, and the city streets - functioned as focal points for the medieval display of devotion.

She visited York for her research, and timed a return trip this year to see one of the semi-regular revivals of the mystery plays. That production staged the plays inside the city's cathedral, York Minster, instead of in the streets.

“It was amazing,” she says. “The scale of the production was huge but at the same time it was very much a local affair.” Of the hundred and forty-five cast members, all except one - the actor playing Christ - were volunteer amateurs from the York community.

Eleanor is the eldest of six. All the children were, or are still being, home-schooled by their mother, Kate, who also has a medical degree. Two of her brothers are also studying at the university – one in history and film, one in sports and exercise science. (Frank: “I was thinking of asking the VC for a discount for the fourth one.”)

Jackie Liggins, daughter of Sir Graham "Mont" Liggins
Jackie Liggins, daughter of Sir Graham "Mont" Liggins

The old rivalry between the arts and sciences has no place at this family’s dinner table. Kate is passionate about English, and Frank values good writing across all fields. “I tell my students that although they’re doing science, they have to know how to write.”

Jackie, 57, has been working as a psychiatrist for 20 years. Before that, she was a GP and worked a while in obstetrics.

Her PhD questioned how well the current structures of acute mental health units and similar facilities support healing and recovery in mental health care.  She wove her own story of mental illness and recovery through the thesis. The most powerful places for healing emerged as “places offering both a safe haven and support for the hard work of exploration of self that is integral to recovery,” she says.

“Healing is not just about taking medication; it takes work and time.”

Wearing her father’s gown and hood for her own graduation was a profound experience, she says.

“Dad died about three months into my PhD, but we’d had lots of conversations about it, he was very excited and supportive.”

Sir Graham is internationally renowned for his research into fetal and newborn health. Described by friend Sir Peter Gluckman as a “scientific giant”, he pioneered a treatment that has saved thousands of premature babies’ lives around the world. Today, a new generation of researchers at the Liggins Institute follow the ongoing effects of preterm birth on children in Sir Graham’s original trial, and in their children.

Jackie says both her parents inspired her to do medicine – her mother was an obstetrician and gynaecologist.

“Until the day he died Dad was a great thinker,” she says. “I’m sure there was some of his influence in prompting me to think further about things and ending up doing a PhD.”

Jackie retains active ties to the Institute, sitting on the Advisory Board of the Liggins Institute.

 

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Nicola Shepheard

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Emailn.shepheard@auckland.ac.nz