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‘That old bastard, he knew’ ‘Is [the doctor] safe?’ Joe asked, a little suspiciously … ’That doesn’t matter,’ Rennie said quickly. The End of the Road (1958), John Barth When The Sydney Morning Herald awarded Ruth Park its inaugural fiction prize in 1948 for The Harp in the South, it was unprepared for the outraged reaction. The novel places heroine Roie on the path to a Surry Hills abortionist, egged on by thoughts of the proud working-class women she knows: ‘Didn’t old Mrs Campion next door openly boast of her fifteen misses? She took something …’ Clawed at by her Catholicism, Roie baulks at the last moment, only to be beaten by marauding sailors. But her mother has already experienced a shock ‘which was never altogether to leave her’—and the same applied to the readership. Cascades of correspondence ensued. ‘The book was immoral, filthy in fact, though no specific filth was ever mentioned’, Park recalled. ‘Some letters were well- intentioned and written by people who gave their names and addresses. The filth- protestors mostly signed their letters Yours Prayerfully, A Christian. Or, Catholic Mother, and gave no addresses.’ Yet by the late 1940s, the face of abortion was changing. Doctors were suddenly perceiving its attractions. Many were dealing with the impact of penicillin, which made treatments simpler, but also shorter, and thus cheaper. To move into abortion was to go with the flow: to take advantage of the power of antibiotics to curb infection, which had been the procedure’s gravest risk. The chief beneficiaries of the illegality of abortion would henceforward be doctors, able to extract super profits from medicine becoming increasingly exoteric. Chief among them in Melbourne would be Dr John Heath. Nobody meeting the upstanding Heath would have guessed his tawdry upbringing. John Read William Allan was born in Northcote on 10 April 1902. His father was 22-year-old journalist James Alexander Allan, his mother 16-year-old Ignez Louise nee Heath. Theirs had been a rush to the altar in October 1901, followed by a brief marriage that ended when James cast Ignez out, and she fell back on her builder father Bill. Then, when John was not quite two, his mother died of typhoid; his earliest memory would be of people crying at Heidelberg Cemetery as what he took to be a box was carried past. John was uneasily incorporated into his grandfather’s family, taking their name, and treating Bill’s children as siblings. Enrolled first at Alexandra College, a small Northcote school, he was then grudged a couple of years at Geelong College before being pressed into a real estate apprenticeship he disliked intensely. It was on taking a lowly job with a chemist that he resolved to bootstrap himself up in the world by tackling medicine at Melbourne University. His self-propelling upward mobility paid off. On 25 July 1928, after spells as a resident medical officer at the Alfred Hospital and a GP in Mooroopna, he married Olive Baird, daughter of a family wealthy from the grain trade: he borrowed £200 from his new father-in-law to open rooms in Rathdowne Street, Carlton. Abortion came to Heath rather than the other way round. With the benefit of a year at Edinburgh Infirmary, he started work as a gynaecologist at Burlington Chambers, 94 Collins Street. Like Sir Hugh Devine, the much-admired founder of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, who operated nearby, Heath equipped an operating theatre on the premises. Then, around 1940, his uncle/brother Bill Jnr, now a pilot, approached him. He had a girl in trouble. John was a doctor: couldn’t something be done? In fact, Heath found he had an aptitude for abortion, not to mention some personal insight into inopportune pregnancies. ‘I am a strict disciplinarian’, Heath said of himself, ‘and insist on efficiency in every way’. He was strict not least with himself, keeping a tight lid on his background. Silvering, moustachioed and dapper, Heath oozed rectitude. He became a major in the Army Medical Corps and a Justice of the Peace, joined the Naval and Military Club, and helped found the White Ensign Club, providing comfortable lodgings for visiting naval personnel. He was a dedicated supporter of the Newsboys Club, the charity for underprivileged youth run by Edith Onians. He belonged to the ‘Pups’, a group of wealthy businessmen, doctors and lawyers who held an annual lunch to pool money for good works. He could afford to be a generous benefactor, because in abortion he had the sleekest of cash cows. And whatever his charitable instincts, charity for Heath began at home—or, to be more exact, homes. For from 1951, he was leading a curious double life. Heath’s marriage was never happy. Olive had a sister in a mental institution, and punished her husband for inattention with brooding and rage; daughter Patricia was moody and intractable. Corinne Blackwell, a former hostess with Australian National Airways, joined his practice as a receptionist; pretty, shrewd and strong-willed, she became his partner in every respect but marriage. He already owned ‘Mowbray’, a two- storey Toorak mansion in cream rendered brick with a U-shaped driveway and tennis court, and ‘Los Angeles’, a teeming St Kilda boarding house. Now he acquired Burlington Chambers, Collins Street’s only remaining single-storey building, a nearby Alfred Place nightclub called ‘The Delphic’, and a bluestone retreat off Camp Road in Campbellfield called ‘The Manor House’. Abandoning Olive to rattle around in Mowbray, Heath spent most of his time at the last with Corinne. On The Manor House’s 4 hectares, they began an adjunct to their business. Girls whose pregnancies were too advanced for termination could live in as domestics until they reached full term, when Heath would deliver them at Coburg Hospital. As many as six at a time were billeted, their occupancy highly ritualised. On Sunday mornings, Heath would take them to church; after serving the Sunday lunch, they would give a concert in the rumpus room, into which Heath joined with recitations from Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. A personal favourite was ‘The Sick Stockrider’: I’ve had my share of pastime, and I’ve done my share of toil And life is short—the longest life a span; I care not now to tarry for the corn or for the oil, Or for the wine that maketh glad the heart of man. For good undone and gifts misspent and resolutions vain, ’Tis somewhat late to trouble. This I know— I should live the same life over, if I had to live again; And the chances are I go where most men go. The offspring would then be placed with wealthy Catholic families through the St Vincent’s Hospital matron. The scenes as the girls gave up their babies were often heart- rending, but, Corinne recalls: ‘It had to be done’.
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