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Obituary: Ida Bell Matthews OAM (aka Dr Ida Bell Brodrick), 21-7-1919 – 31-5-2011

Bell was the middle child of Robert (Bob) and Milly Brodrick.  Bob’s family came from Yarrawonga and Milly grew up in a Victorian terrace house with a ballroom in Parkville.  That sounded hugely romantic to us children when we were young.

Bell adored her Brighton childhood.  She only ever reminisced about it with joy in her heart.  Bell cherished all her memories of that early family life.  To us it sounded idyllic – absolutely perfect.  Bell was very close to both her siblings, her elder brother Warren, and her younger sister Phil, and the children spent much time at Brighton Beach, only 100 metres from their home.  The family loved being by the sea and, even in Winter, Gran would march them down for a compulsory swim.  Bell talked fondly of hours spent playing cowboys and Indians with Warren and Phil.  She was always an Indian, and Indians held a special place in her heart throughout her life.  Bell also loved dogs, and drawing and painting them.  This week we looked at a beautiful book she made as a girl of ‘Famous Dogs in Literature’, with her own handwritten text and wonderful paintings and drawings.  This was one of Bell’s labours of love.   Her life was filled with labours of love.

From the outset, Bell was a determined, single-minded, independent and purposeful child.  Her first great passion was learning and study, qualities that would remain core ingredients of her life.  She loved her time at Elwood Central School and later at Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC), a school her mother had attended, and later her daughters, Anne and Kay.  Throughout her life Bell held very fond memories of her school years.  She would talk joyfully, her face aglow, about the magic her ancient history teacher inspired and the wonder and excitement of opening an atlas to discover new lands.  Until relatively recently, Bell would attend old girl events and reunions with her close friend, Mary Meadley.

After finishing secondary school, Bell attended Melbourne University.  Initially she had wanted to be a Vet but, as I recall, no degree course was available in Melbourne at that time, and her father did not want her travelling to Sydney alone.  Instead she commenced a Science course at Melbourne University, receiving an Exhibition for Zoology.    It was there she met our father, her beloved Rodney, the only man she ever loved.  He was a fellow Science student whom she eventually married in 1948.  Bell was attracted by his voice.  To catch Dad, Mum would seek his assistance with her studies, pretending to need help, so they could spend time together alone.  After completing a Science Honours degree, mum completed a medical degree, like her brother Warren, and became a doctor.

Bell’s professional and family lives were extraordinary for a woman of her generation.  For someone who was traditional and conservative in so many ways, and, like most of her generation very British, having grown up with the Empire and Anglo Australia (Bell loved anything Royal), in both her professional and family lives, she was a woman beyond her time, unquestionably a trailblazer, yet also a woman who certainly did not consider herself a women’s libber.

I recall when we were travelling together in the Galapagos Islands 20 years ago, a young male Sydney doctor we had met asked Bell how she had competed with the men.  Looking puzzled, Bell responded, ‘I haven’t ever thought about that.  It never crossed my mind.  I just got on with what I wanted to do.’ That was certainly how Bell lived.  She always did what she wanted to do.  In adult life, for us, that was sometimes incredibly frustrating.     

After graduating in 1944, Bell commenced a career focussed on paediatrics and later women’s and public health.  She did residencies at St Vincent’s, the Queen Victoria and the Royal Children’s Hospitals.  In 1951 she joined the Melbourne City Council as a medical officer in communicable diseases.  Subsequently she was medical officer for maternal and child welfare for many years.  In that position, among many other things, she was instrumental in developing infant welfare centres in inner Melbourne.  She would often remark on how well the so called ‘New Australian’ women, often Greek and Italian, cared for their children.  Eventually Bell was appointed Chief Medical Officer for the City of Melbourne, Head of the City Health Department, in charge of more than 200 people in many health-related fields, including health inspectors, nurses, kindergarten teachers, dental and childcare workers and others.  In the 100 years or so that position existed, she was the final incumbent, and the only woman ever to hold it.

Bell was also interested in preventative medicine, particularly as it applied to women and children.   She was awarded scholarships and travelled overseas on various occasions to further her knowledge in that field and in maternal and child health.

Bell had a special interest in women in prison, particularly those mothering children.  She advocated successfully for the right of women to keep their babies when entering prison, rather than having them distressingly removed from their arms ‘at the court door’ when being taken into custody.  She helped develop parenting and child rearing programs for these women.  And these initiatives came at a time when most people were shocked at the thought of babies in prison.  For a time she was a member of the Victorian Women’s Prison Council, working closely with Dame Phyllis Frost, a PLC colleague, to improve the lot of women inside.  She served on a plethora of Boards and committees during her career and in 1985-86 was President of the Victorian Medical Women’s Society.  In her later years, at The Company of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Canterbury (colloquially known as the Grey Sisters for the colour of the nun’s habits) she counselled women suffering post-natal depression.  Bell was there for 11 years, working 4 days a week, until in December 2002 she retired from her role of medical counsellor at 83 years of age.  While we children certainly all held doubts about our mother’s counselling expertise when it came to us, we did agree that she was the world’s best listener.  And in undertaking her counselling, often that was what was required most.   Someone who would listen and understand.  In addition to her Grey Sisters counselling role, for some time Bell also held a part-time position in the post-natal disorders clinic at the Mercy Hospital for Women.

During her working life, which spanned more than half a century, Bell assisted thousands of women and children in countless ways.   Numerous people who worked with her, have told me how good she was with the mothers and babies at the clinics and how well other women responded to her.  They all speak of her skills and her compassion and her kindness.  And as children, we sometimes delivered small hampers to underprivileged families.  I remember visiting one inner city home and being struck by how much it smelt and also the fact that they had a TV and smoked!  In 2005 Bell was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for service to the community through the administration of public health programs, particularly in the areas of maternal and child health.

With regard to family life, after their marriage in 1948, Bell and Rodney purchased the family home in East Kew (later Kew) and began their married life.  Thus commenced the halcyon years, Bell’s happiest years, the family years.  They bought our home in Campbell Street from the Kings, who operated a wood yard across the road on the Outer Circle Railway.  The railway transported wood from Gippsland.  Also a passenger train once ran there.  The Kings were sympathetic to the fact that Rodney had spent three and a half years as a Japanese prisoner of war in Changi Prison in Singapore during WW11 and wanted their house to go to mum and dad.  They sold it to them for a very reasonable price.  Bell adored the new house and life with Rodney.  But she wanted to make it a family home.  However to her great regret she was unable to have children.  So the young female doctor and the agricultural/horticultural journalist adopted four.  In her mind she was going to create a perfect family.  Bell’s life revolved around family and work.  She enjoyed social activities but those two essential priorities always came first.  In order to continue working, in our younger years Bell employed live-in mothercraft nurses, most of whom remained family friends.  They include Ina Kelly and Margaret McPhee, who could not be with us today, and also Joy Ratcliffe, who is here today.  Serving for a time as State Commissioner for Extension (Disabled) Girl Guides, Bell met Joy when Joy was a young girl hospitalised with polio, who had been in state care.  They formed a firm bond, and Joy became a de facto family member who mum mentored and guided through her mothercraft nursing and later university studies.  Bell was always helping people in all kinds of ways.

Bell loved Campbell Street, her family life there, and the close knit neighbourhood in which we lived.  It was a real community.  Families stayed for generations.  The longest connections stretch back more than 60 years, over several generations, including the Macs, Langlands, Dunlops and Denni Thompson.  Later the Hirsch’s arrived next door, and for 30 years after dad died, Ben Hirsch helped mum with anything that needed fixing around the house.  The Outer Circle Railway, vacant land directly across the road, which we called the tip, provided a focus for all our childhood pursuits.  It was our playground.  And we felt we owned it.  We built cubby houses in the tall wild fennel that grew there, rode our bikes up and down the railway cutting, caught tadpoles to hatch in jars in our bedrooms and built bonfires on Empire and Guy Fawkes Days, using tyres dumped illegally and old railway sleepers which we dug up.  We smoked our first illicit cigarettes.  My sisters kept horses in the paddock behind St Georges Hospital, now a car park, which they rode down Normanby Road to the Outer Circle every day after school.  Other local girls also had horses.  We bred animals and weekends were often spent at rural agricultural shows where we competed.  In those days, everyone knew all the neighbours and was involved with each other.  On Christmas day we would visit every house in the street with a basketful of wrapped presents and return with the same.  We children were constantly in and out of the neighbour’s houses, and families often knew private family matters and sometimes were trusted with deep secrets.  Mum often provided advice and other assistance to different families in the area.  The spirit of community and neighbourhood surrounded us.  It permeated everything.  This was the world that Bell adored and which, sadly, has disappeared.

In addition to her family and career, Bell had a house husband before almost anyone did.  In their professional lives, Bell and Rodney complemented each other perfectly.  Rodney had a successful career as a journalist, but his working life revolved around Bell’s.  He supported her, a remarkable arrangement for the 1950s, but one which suited them both, given Rodney’s damaged health from his time as a prisoner-of-war.  Rodney’s working day comprised a half day at the Herald Sun Building and a half day working at home.  That allowed him to manage the children in the afternoon.  Rodney shopped for food and on every weekday evening was in the kitchen preparing dinner when mum returned from work to plonk herself in a lounge-room chair and await a cup of tea.  Dad also did all the food shopping and managed much of mum’s personal administration.  I have no memory of my mother visiting a supermarket or a bank.  In our house, these activities belonged in dad’s domain.   However Bell did cook on important occasions.  She prepared the Sunday roast, made apple pie and loved the ritual involved in making delicious Christmas food – Christmas cake, pudding and shortbread.  Nothing was more important to her than special family celebrations and on those days she took care of every detail.  

For my mother, the interior of our home was a sacred place, crammed with special objects, some of material value, others not, but all of enormous emotional significance.  Bell was not materialistic in any way, but her possessions were important to her.   They tracked the past and enriched her spirit as did everything within her home.  They say the only two certainties are taxes and death.  I disagree.  Some people avoid paying taxes.  In my opinion, life’s two certainties are change and death.  Bell hated change, and in many ways, as the years passed by, our home became a time capsule preserving a bygone era.  The 1950s gas oven remains, probably the oldest kitchen oven in Kew.  Rotting lino could not be changed because Bell’s father had laid it.  Even the lino was importan!.  It represented her father there with her in her home.  Wherever possible, Bell always wanted things to remain the same.

When we were young, long before we all grew into the four incredibly different people we became as adults, not surprising considering our separate genes, our home was a hive of happy activity.  Last week, Phyllis Jaensch, who will speak shortly, recalled the joy she remembered on Bell’s face as she watched her children in the backroom, a harbour for our activities, with things being created and each painting displayed proudly on the wall.  In her eyes, we children were her world and Bell loved us all equally and unconditionally.  Bell had no expectations in relation to any of us and our interests were all supported.  There was never any pressure to be professionals or anything else.  Whatever we wanted to do or be in life was ok.  She thought we were just perfect.  In later years she thought of grandchildren and great grandchildren in that same way.

School holidays were always spent at our holiday house at Anglesea and those times were among Bell’s most treasured memories.  The deposit for that house had been provided by a much loved aunt and that too meant the house was special for Bell.  Our next door neighbours for more than 6 decades, the Jones family, are still next door, and are represented here today.  Bell inherited two shops in the main street of Yarrawonga from her father.  They have now been in the family for around 120 years. Like all mum’s property, their financial value was irrelevant.  They tracked her history and, in her time, could never be sold.  

Bell didn’t care about appearances.  Things like clothes and make-up and how someone spoke counted for nothing.   While she took care with her appearance and had her favourite clothes, in her later years the most essential ingredient for mum of any garment was that it was drip dry.  Makeup, very now and then, comprised a bit of powder and a touch of lipstick for a special occasion.  She judged no-one by their appearance, their social class, what they did or how the spoke.  Although a professional, private school educated woman she hated snobbery and loved working class people.  The diverse range of people here today, provides ample testament to the huge range of lives she touched.

In addition to her family and medical career, the main pillars of her life, another passion for Bell was study and the acquisition of new knowledge.  While she was working and raising a family, she also studied.  She revered the acquisition of knowledge.  In addition to her Science Honours and medical degrees from Melbourne University, Bell also completed a Diploma in Child Health in London, a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Diploma in Criminology at Melbourne University, and at 70 years of age a Master of Psychological Medicine degree.  Incredible!

Bell was also passionate about travel.  She loved to explore the world.  As I have mentioned already, her career provided an opportunity for a great deal of travel.  So did my Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade career.  Bell visited me on postings in Nigeria, Argentina and Iran.  By local taxi we travelled together from northern to central Nigeria, hopping from place to place, visiting villages and markets seeing all kinds of fascinating things.  In Argentina we travelled to places including Iguacu Falls.  In Ecuador we explored colonial Quito and the incredible Amazonian rainforest where Bell, already ageing, had no option but to crawl out of our canoe at the jungle lagoon landing.  She couldn’t stand up.  What a sight that was!  She caught a piranha fish in that lagoon and later during the same trip she marvelled at the Galapagos Islands wildlife and swam with penguins there.  Not much more than a decade ago, we travelled around Iran, including Isfahan and Shiraz, and in  Central Asia, marvelling at Islamic architectural treasures in romantic, magical Silk Road places, such as Samarkand and Bukhara.  Not many children have the privilege of doing amazing things like that with their parents.  Those trips were wonderful.

But without a doubt, Bell’s most treasured trip, and mine also, was her first trip overseas in 1963, when after being awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council Fellowship to study in London, Bell packed up her husband and children to travel by ship to the UK.  This initiated a year of pure magic for us four children.  At a time when few travelled overseas, and ship travel was still the main means of travel, and when most Australians had not even travelled interstate, the family spent a year abroad thanks to Bell.  We had wonderful experiences and saw amazing places.  For a time we attended school in England, visited the pyramids, saw Tutankhamen’s treasures in Cairo, the colour and chaos of Bombay, we visited Pompeii, fjords in Norway, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, we climbed the leaning tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, rode in gondoliers in Venice, kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland and visited numerous famous places and historical monuments and buildings and so much more.  Bell was absolutely right.  That year was the best.  

In later years, Bell travelled overseas again, often with her sister-in-law, Phil Matthews.  She also travelled extensively around Australia, including to Uluru and the Kimberley Region.    The final trip she had hoped to take was to travel on the Ghan.  She talked about that a lot during her final years.  Unfortunately her ever declining mobility, and the difficulty of moving her around, even with carers, prevented that.  One day I’ll do it for her.  

In terms of character, without a doubt, Bell was the strongest person I have ever met.  She was soft and sensitive and she certainly felt emotional pain.  But whatever she faced her she never broke.  Her willpower and her emotional resilience were extraordinary.  She survived everything.  Rodney’s death almost 33 years ago was a great tragedy for her.  And so was the premature death of her brother Warren in his 20s when whilst an Air Force doctor, he was killed in a light plane which crashed into Mount Macedon.  At the time, Bell had been on a rural property in South Australia.  She would talk about how she lay in a haystack and sobbed her heart out.  She also felt keenly the death of her sister Phil.  The two sisters were extremely close and Bell always remained close to Phil’s daughter Kim.

I envied her ability not to worry about things that she could not change.  She never ever did that.  She was a master at organising the world around her and created her own universe and reality and censored it as required.  For us, this could be maddening.  It was often difficult to engage on issues.  She was incredibly stubborn and I don’t believe my mother ever did a single thing in her life that she did not want to.  She was master of her universe.  She controlled the world she inhabited.   She constantly had people running around her, doing her bidding, both in her private and professional lives.  She was a master at that.  When Bell snapped her fingers everyone came running but when she thanked them with that lovely smile they never seemed to mind.  She also could be incredibly difficult to deal with sometimes.  For example, in Bell speak, ‘I hear you’ meant ‘I’m listening, I don’t agree with you, I don’t accept what you say, and now I’m dismissing that information from my mind.’  That could be incredibly frustrating.  Long ago Bell also mastered the art of illusion.  She could turn anything into anything –night into day.  She filtered information and usually only ever accepted the good.   Bell could find the best in everyone and she never held grudges.  The serious criminal may have had a difficult childhood, the slack, under-performing child was good at something else and of course the Royal Family could do no wrong.  Appropriately, we chose music from the Royal Wedding for today’s service.  Bell would have loved that.

She was also amazingly stoic and rarely complained.  She always kept her cards to herself.  There was much she did not reveal about her emotions.  We had to guess about her internal life and only now am I beginning to feel I might understand it.   During her final weeks, when she must have been very unwell, she never said a word and, apart from the fact she was deteriorating, no-one picked up the gravity of the situation.  When asked how she was, she always said she was fine.  The day before her final visit to hospital, 4 days before her death, I was increasingly concerned about her and told her she needed to go to hospital that day.  ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, she replied.  Later that day she had seafood pasta and apple pie and ice cream with visitors, including long-time friend Denise de Gruchy.  Unbeknown to us, that was to be her final meal.   

Except for her final 8 years, mum worked her entire adult life.   Not long before she retired, less than 10 years ago at 83 years of age, I returned to Melbourne after almost 20 years away to commence a new phase of life.  At that point in time, I had no plans to remain in Melbourne and was uncertain what I would do professionally.  I moved in with mum, I believed temporarily, until I sorted things out.  At the time, mum was still working, still drove and was independently mobile.  However things changed dramatically around 1 year later when she contracted meningococcal disease and nearly died.  The fact that she survived was incredible.  But that illness changed the landscape of her health.  After her 8 week hospitalisation, her mobility deteriorated markedly and she commenced using a frame.  From then on, the level of assistance she required slowly increased and there were various hospitalisations.  Except for two stints with UNHCR in South America, I remained living there, because I knew that as mum’s level of disability increased, she needed me there if she was to remain in her home.  And under no circumstances, unless it became unavoidable, was that not going to happen.  Bell hated the idea of care.  So during this final decade mum remained in her home, in her beloved sanctuary, with her memories, and surrounded by her treasures, completely oblivious to the considerable physical decay of the house around her.  It was the spirit of the house that she felt, and the memories that sustained her of family life there with Rodney and her four children who could do no wrong.  Even as she deteriorated significantly, it was inconceivable to remove her from all that.  Despite the sacrifices I was required to make, both personal and professional, I could never have done it.            

During these final years, Bell’s care program, which I oversaw and managed, was bigger than Ben Hur.   We had more than 50 hours of help in the house –  it was a hive of daily activity with carers, physios, cleaners, podiatrist, hairdresser, pharmacy deliveries, GP and gardener visits.  Many wonderful people supported Bell in her final years in a wide range of ways, many of whom are here today, a testament to how mum touched people.  I am not going to try to name everyone because I will certainly miss someone.  You all know who you are, mum knew who you were, and the family knows who you were.  To all of you, our deep gratitude and thanks.  All you did for Bell was appreciated hugely by the family.  Last week I asked Bell’s United Care Community Options Case Manager if any other client received her level of care and support.   ‘Not remotely’, he replied.  In her final years, Bell had people caring for every detail of her life.  She sat in her chair in the lounge room, content with a cup of tea and a biscuit or slice of cake, a rug wrapped around her legs, watching her murder mysteries or UK drama, while delicious food was prepared.  Food was important to Bell.  She absolutely loved it.  I know that doesn’t surprise you.  In particular, special fried rice and seafood.  Except for sometimes something sweet, nothing beat those things.

Bell also enjoyed her own company.  She was always happy by herself.  With regard to her extraordinary talent for illusion, recently Bell informed one carer, “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I have to manage all this by myself”.   Incredible!  I suspect that kind of comment may have been a way of protecting herself from the reality of her situation.  While all this may sound smooth sailing, in typical Bell fashion, she also did not make things easy for me.  Often we were not on the same page.  Sometimes in frustration, I would tell her ‘Mum if your strategic plan is to make this as difficult for me as you possibly can, then you’re certainly succeeding.’  As I’ve said, Bell always did, what Bell wanted to do!  In health terms, the key issue for Bell was her mobility, and managing that was enormously frustrating.   In the years I lived with her, except perhaps for an odd additional circuit of the house with a physio, I never once saw my mother take a single step she could avoid.  Not one step!  Bell always said she would live to 100.   She certainly had the genes.  Her father lived to 93 and her mother to 103.  However, as we told her a million times, having good genes was not enough in itself.  She was required to move.  Frequently Bell would dismiss such advice with a flick of her hand.  She would refer to having walked the dogs in the past and to sport she played in younger years.  ‘Yes mum’, I would say, ’that was nearly three quarters of a century ago.’

Around 18 months ago, when Bell’s care needs were increasing and I knew her care package was was at its limit and no longer sufficient, I advertised in the local paper for private carers.  I found two angels.  Christine Neal and Maria Pignataro cared for Bell for many hours each week, taking care of her every need.  When Christine commenced, she assured me she would be there for the long haul.  After Bell returned from hospital, in July last year, Maria said she was prepared to come each night at 9.00pm to get Bell safely to bed.  Since that time, Maria, who has a husband and family of her own, did that, hail, rain or shine, except on Christmas Day and Good Friday.  Unbeknown to us, on what would prove to be Bell’s final night at home, Maria still came, even though that evening she was hosting her husband’s birthday party at home.  The two of them have been just wonderful.

In her final years, perhaps Bell’s greatest joy was her weekly painting classes, her only outing from the house.  She attended her final class the week before she died.  Getting her there was incredibly stressful for me and Christine, of course not for Bell, but we all managed it.  The teacher, Jan Palmer, who held the classes in her home, couldn’t have been more supportive.  Jan supported Bell in every way and visited Bell in hospital on occasions when she was unwell.  We certainly appreciated all that.        

On the dreadful day Bell’s health collapsed and she was hospitalised, 2 days before her death, the Emergency Department female doctor asked me if mum had ever worked.  I told her mum was a retired doctor.  Chatting further, I talked about her career, mentioning that in mum’s era medical degree courses were only available at Melbourne University and that mum had been one of only 4 women in her year.  The doctor’s eyes widened with respect.   “Your mother was a medical pioneer” she said turning towards the nurse.  In turn, at the end of her own shift, that nurse told the new nurse commencing duty, “this lady is a medical pioneer”.  I felt immensely proud and knew they would take special care with mum.  During previous hospital admissions, in a low-key manner, I had always mentioned that Bell was a retired doctor.  I knew it made a difference in the way she was viewed by clinicians.  Mum never did that herself, not on one single occasion.  She was always a modest and unpretentious person.  In her eyes she was genuinely no different to any other patient.      

Dear Bell (Mum), you were an extraordinary person.  The number of people here from all walks of life to farewell you today provides testament to that.  Not many people your age receive such a privilege.  So many people have said to me that in a lifetime you only meet one person like Bell.  Not a single person here today would question that.  You were unique.  As you often said, ‘I’ve been lucky.  I’ve had a good life.’  Your departure leaves a hole that will never be filled.  Darling mum, may you rest in peace.

Gordon Matthews
7 June 2011

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