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OBITUARY : Dr Erich Geiringer

Fritz Spiegl
Thursday 07 September 1995 23:02 BST

It was no exaggeration when it was said that, single-handed, Erich Geiringer dragged New Zealand medicine into the 19th century.

When in 1962 he got his students to distribute pamphlets advocating cervical smears, a university edict banned them as obscene. He campaigned for abortion law reform, measles vaccinations and population control - all things now taken for granted. The British Medical Association New Zealand Branch (as it then still was) blackballed him from membership - ostensibly on the grounds that he published under his own name, not anonymously as "A Doctor writes"; and the New Zealand Medical Journal refused to print his articles.

A senior research appointment at the Dunedin Medical School in 1959 had taken Geiringer to New Zealand, where he found medicine as well as medical training in disarray - controlled by a small, self-perpetuating oligarchy. There was a shortage of both GPs and specialists; only one medical school in the entire country; medical research was underfunded, hospital doctors grossly underpaid, abortion laws antiquated, the Mental Hygiene Division of the Department of Health run down; and, incredibly, the government had powers to direct medical labour to where it thought desirable.

Almost overnight Geiringer became a politician, to the fury of the medical establishment. His politics were non-party, although his medico-political open meetings managed to bring about a spectacular upset in a safe National seat.

Undaunted by his opponents, he founded the New Zealand Medical Association (making unavailable to the BMA-NZ the name it would have chosen when, inevitably, it left the aegis of the London BMA) and with his wife Carol published and edited a rival Journal. His breakaway NZMA attracted a wide membership from disenchanted progressive GPs and consultants. His colleague Dr Roger Ridley-Smith wrote, "The collected issues of his journal, plus one or two of his books, are a very readable record of medicine in the Sixties and Seventies - a publishing tour de force that we are unlikely to see again."

For years he remained a thorn in the side of the conservative establishment, and the cry "Get Geiringer!" went up, culminating in 1976 in the worst nightmare a doctor can face: an accusation of patient-rape. It was thrown out by the court.

Erich Geiringer was born in Vienna in 1917, and with his three siblings, all later distinguished in their field, cut his teeth on the socialist intellectual discussions they overheard in the Cafe Geiringer, run by his politically active father (it is still there, but now a gambling-den for Turkish guest-workers). When his medical studies were interrupted by the Nazis in March 1938 Geiringer escaped across the border by outwitting frontier guards and hitch-hiked to England, where he arrived in October, after a stop in Belgium. He obtained a job as a laboratory assistant in Birmingham, but on the outbreak of war was for six months interned (for part of the time, with three-quarters of the Amadeus Quartet and half the former Viennese intelligentsia, in a camp near Liverpool known as the "University of Huyton").

On release he took a job as a science master at Chislehurst County School for Boys, teaching them biology (and himself, using the school's laboratory facilities, chemistry, physiology and biology) before starting his medical studies all over again, at the School of Medicine of the Royal Colleges, Surgeons' Hall, Edinburgh. He was a Whaitt Scholar at the Gerontological Research Institute at Edinburgh University; Research Registrar in Pathology at Glasgow; a Fulbright Scholar in Boston, Massachusetts, and Registrar at Whipps Cross Hospital, London. All this time he published prolifically on an astonishing range of medical and sociomedical subjects.

Erich Geiringer was a man of boundless energy and inexhaustible wit, a walking encyclopaedia who seemed to know everything about everything with instant and total recall. In addition to all his other activities he was, between 1973 and 1984, a radio phone-in host, several times censured for overstepping the bounds: though not his bounds. He was "forthright to a fault, never one to whisper in the presence of wrong", to quote the In Memoriam of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, of which he was the NZ delegate.

Geiringer never lost his booming Viennese accent, which - overlaid with the remains of a Scottish burr and then an antipodean twang - was instantly recognisable, but he always kept the affinity with Scotland acquired in his student days, and never failed to celebrate Burns Night. He was utterly without small talk, never at a loss for a reply or repartee (sometimes in verse - he was also a wicked parodist) and unshakeably unselfconscious and unembarrassable.

He was a born teacher and extraordinarily patient with the young. In my youth he took me to a Prom (he was my cousin though we met only a dozen times in 50 years), and afterwards, on the way to the Underground, I asked him about some exam problem. To my embarrassment he took a piece of chalk from his pocket, sat down on the ground oblivious of the waves of home- going promenaders parting round us, and demonstrated the solution on a paving-stone.

When his teenage son went through a hair-dyeing period, Geiringer showed his disapproval by dyeing his own beard orange - and also the cat's legs.

In recent years he devoted most of his energy to the cause of nuclear disarmament and attended numerous international medical conferences as New Zealand representative of IPPNW; and in 1985 published an anti-nuclear primer: Malice in Blunderland. His final efforts until four days before he died last week were to try to persuade the Security Council to stop the French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

In 1964 he married Carol Shand, the daughter of a Minister of Labour and a GP herself, and for 30 years they ran a general practice in Wellington. They had three children, one of whom is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. In the garden of their house in Wellington they regularly staged plays and put on concerts. He idolised Schubert, born exactly 120 years before him and in the same place.

Erich's elder brother, Alfred Geiringer OBE, was European Editor of Reuters and later founded his own news agency, Enternews; his younger sister Trude became a scientist in America; and the elder, Martha, a biochemist, fled to Manila but mysteriously returned to occupied Belgium during the war - possibly as an agent - but was betrayed to the Nazis by her female lover's husband and died in Auschwitz: a story that would make a lurid film. Erich Geiringer's father, an early and clandestine socialist in Imperial Vienna, would have been proud of his son's achievements in social medicine.

Fritz Spiegl

Erich Geiringer, physician, writer, publisher: born Vienna 31 January 1917; married secondly 1964 Carol Shand (two sons, one daughter); died Wellington, New Zealand 24 August 1995.

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