Unpretentious, meticulous and dedicated is how the petite, cricket-loving first Kiwi woman to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) was described.
Jean Sandel was born in 1916 near Gisborne, raised in Taumaranui and educated at New Plymouth Girls High before heading to Otago to study medicine where she graduated in 1939 winning the Senior Scholarship in medicine and the highest prize, the Travelling Scholarship. Despite her success she many years later admitted to close friends, reported the Daily News, that she found her medical studies, “a struggle” – mostly due to the attitude towards women studying to become doctors at that time.
World War Two intervened to stop her taking up the scholarship and she spent the war years working as a house surgeon in Wellington before heading to London in 1946 where she broke new ground as a female surgical registrar. In 1947 she became the first New Zealand woman to become an FRCS.
Returning to New Zealand after four years postgraduate study she joined the staff of the Taranaki Hospital Board as one of only two surgeons. She quickly gained a reputation for her ability and diligence and 1964 she was the leader of the surgical department staff of eight surgeons.
Not much over five foot in height she would often operate standing on a wooden box, later a stool, so her usually taller assistants didn’t have to stoop during a long operation.
As a school girl she was the first girl in Taranaki to be awarded the Royal Life Saving Society’s Diploma and sport remained a passion all her life – playing golf and watching rugby and cricket (the Daily News reported she had a lifetime box at Eden Park).
When working at the old New Plymouth hospital she was known to sneak away to Pukekura Park to watch cricket matches from the grassed terraces. A match commentator would hang a white towel out of the commentary box if the hospital needed her urgently and she would scurry back up the hill.
Fellow Taranaki surgeon Victor Hadlow described in his Dictionary of New Zealand biography of Sandel that she was “a steady and meticulous operator: patience and stamina, combined with technical skill and knowledge of surgical anatomy, were hallmarks of her work”. She later became interested in cardiovascular surgery and had pioneered this type of work for provincial hospitals.
Sandel actively encouraged young women to further their academic studies through her involvement with the New Zealand Federation of University Women and the local soroptimist club, by lecturing and tutoring nurses at the hospital and by speaking at graduation ceremonies.
The last years of her life were marred by radiotherapy for cancer but she continued working until her premature death at age 57 in 1974. There is a garden dedicated to her at Taranaki Base Hospital, and one of the operating theatres was named in her honour (although no longer in use).