A review of Active Labour: Memoirs of a Working-Class Doctor by Percy Rogers

Reviewed by Sue Bond

Active Labour: Memoirs of a Working-Class Doctor
By Percy Rogers
Nero (imprint of Schwartz Publishing)
ISBN: 978 1760640842, 214 pages, 2018

I haven’t seen much publicity for this humane and simply-told memoir but it deserves a wide readership. The working life of this particular general practitioner is exemplary. He is now into his nineties and although no longer practising as a doctor (after fifty-nine years of medical practise, he is now an advisor to international doctors working in Indigenous communities), this book shows that he still has plenty to contribute to society.

Percy Rogers was born in Perth and grew up in a working class family. His schooling was interrupted by his having to work to support the family. Nevertheless, Rogers entered the University of Western Australia to study science, with his fees and living allowance paid from a benevolent scheme of the then Chifley government (and he notes that this was stopped when Menzies attained government in 1949). He initially began studying education but changed to medicine as he felt that the education system was ‘not the basic agent of social change’. This was the first of six degrees that the author was to gain during his life.

The death of his father in 1945 from a heart attack when he was in his fifties was not talked about in the family and it had a profound effect upon Rogers, who was given compassionate leave from his studies: ‘Grieving was carried out in private, and what discussion there was tended to be about the end of the war, not about the end of my father’s life’. He joined the Communist Party but did not remain a member for long, mainly because he found the leadership problematic. ASIO tracked him for being a member, and he was banned from government jobs until the Whitlam government ‘put a stop to that sort of mindless paranoia’. He rejoined in 1951 because he believed that it was the only party ‘opposing the repressive social policies and warlike foreign stance of the Menzies government’.

His early experiences shaped his political views, with the wealth he saw in his college at university and the way working class patients were treated in hospital appearing to him as unjust. When he began work as a GP, there was no national insurance scheme so he had to charge a fee despite having misgivings about doing so. Rogers’ made many contributions to medicine, but one of his greatest was introducing the Lamaze method of childbirth—which involved breathing to control pain—to women in his care. He was concerned about women’s health generally, and the need for education in contraception and sex as well as pregnancy and childbirth. He was instrumental in setting up a childcare centre in Coburg which was funded by the Whitlam government.

By this stage, Rogers had been married and divorced, and had two children. He does not give the name of his first wife, probably for privacy reasons, and expresses his feelings of grief at the ending of his relationship and the effect on his children. His second wife (also not named) he met through studying law, and they had three children, the first born premature and not surviving. Eventually this marriage also ended, his wife stating that she was unhappy with family life and he ‘had no intention of being anyone’s oppressor’. He became the single parent of two small boys and obtained a job that would enable him to care for them, in tandem with their mother. He writes of learning how to cook with the help of Margaret Fulton’s cookbooks!

He works as a locum overseas, and buys a farm where he plants nut trees, focusing especially on chestnuts. Rogers is concerned with lead toxicity in Melbourne in the 1970s and forms, with Frank Burden and Margaret Fallshaw, an organisation called NALFE, the National Association for a Lead-Free Environment, which works to decrease the lead in petrol. Another area in which he focuses his efforts is the effects of cytotoxic drugs on pharmacists preparing them, and he spends much time as a locum in Indigenous communities.

Rogers also spends some time in the ‘corporate world of medicine’ in Melbourne but practises his way and bulk bills his patients. He leaves this clinic after twelve years in 2009, much to the dismay of his patients, to work in remote Aboriginal communities, accompanied by Roz, his third wife, to whom he remains married, and who is an artist. The author writes movingly and powerfully about his time serving Indigenous communities, providing commentary on the injustices meted out to them since European colonisation, such as in the following passage:

Oenpelli was spared the worst of the British invasion as the land was not that suitable for grazing or cultivation. Therefore, Aboriginal culture in Oenpelli has remained intact longer than in other parts of Australia. This is unlike more fertile country, where, following white invasion, Aboriginal people were either murdered or concentrated in camps, euphemistically called reserves or missions, at the slightest sign of resistance.

This is an eloquent and delightful book to read, and is rich with compassion, humour, and experience. Percy Rogers is careful not to use jargon and explains medical disease and treatment and procedures simply and clearly. His description, for example, of a case of appendicitis in a young boy shows how a diagnosis should be made, in a way that the general reader can comprehend, touched with humour—‘His breath was a bit whiffy (this is not a medical term)’. Long live Dr Percy Rogers and the spirit with which he has lived and practised medicine and life in general.

About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane.