Jack Woodward: 'Infectious diseases are part of our lives'

Opinion: Emeritus Professor Jack Woodward was born in 1926, so has lived through many societal hardships. He reflects on the challenges created by Covid-19.

Emeritus Professor Jack Woodward
Emeritus Professor Jack Woodward

Personal experience over a long life inevitably affects my reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

I grew up between the wars in a small town in the North Island. One-tenth of New Zealanders served during the Great War: 17,000 young men died and 41,000 were wounded, many grievously.

The annual Anzac Day parade at the Cenotaph, in my memory always held in drizzling rain, was a time for deep grieving. Times were hard even before the country’s descent into the Depression. The transformation heralded by the election of the first Labour Government in 1935 was wonderful beyond belief. Michael Joseph Savage was deified, Uncle Scrim preached ‘social justice’ in his Sunday evening broadcasts, and the seeds of the Welfare State and our national health service were sown. I was incredibly privileged to grow up during the decades when these principles were still the dominant drivers of our society.

When nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan, I was an Engineering student at Canterbury University College (CUC). I graduated with a University of New Zealand degree, as did all New Zealand graduates until university colleges became autonomous in 1961. That, and my subsequent service as a professor at Auckland, means that I am an Auckland Golden Graduate. Furthermore, half my final year class at CUC were from Auckland University College, which was not yet accredited to award electrical degrees, until, I think, Gordon Bogle was appointed as the first Professor of Electrical Engineering. I succeeded him in 1977.

Containing this novel coronavirus until a vaccine is developed poses a massive challenge.

Emeritus Professor Jack Woodward Former HoD of Electrical and Electronic Engineering

My first job was with the State Hydro Electric Department which, together with the Ministry of Works, built the hydroelectric system that is still the renewable core of our energy supply.

I went on to Canada to work in industry and then study. The unfamiliar sight there of beggars on the streets shocked me, but many beggars and homeless people now occupy the streets of Auckland.

Infectious diseases are part of our lives. In 1937, my wife, Mary, drove with her family from Kaitaia to their new home in Invercargill during one of the polio epidemics, a trip complicated by travel restrictions. Schools and cinemas were closed. Around 700 young people were paralysed and 46 died that year. Regular epidemics persisted until an oral polio vaccine became available in 1961. People important to me still suffer from the crippling effects of polio.

In 1940, my young sisters contracted scarlet fever, a deadly epidemic disease until the advent of antibiotics. One suffered the complication of acute rheumatic fever. Other diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid and measles exhibited the same epidemic cycles until they could be brought under control.

Containing this novel coronavirus until a vaccine is developed poses a massive challenge. Infection by Covid-19 will be disastrous for underdeveloped countries lacking functional public health systems. One such is Papua New Guinea (PNG), where I worked for seven years at the PNG University of Technology. Involvement with rural aid projects has taken me back often to PNG.

We know that New Zealand will be changed massively by the pandemic. I hope that the country my grandchildren and great grandchildren inherit can be sustainable, fair and carbon neutral. In its own way, Covid-19 provides that opportunity.

Emeritus Professor Jack Woodward is Golden Graduate of the University of Auckland. A Golden Graduate graduated 50 years ago or is 70-plus. 

He is a former HoD of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and was also a member of the University Council and a Pro-Chancellor.

This article first appeared in the winter edition of the Ingenio magazine.