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Segal, Iza Joan (1914–1994)

by Louella McCarthy

This article was published online in 2018

Iza Joan Segal (1914–1994), obstetrician and gynaecologist, was born on 6 May 1914 at Randwick, New South Wales, second of three children of Victorian-born Alfred Harris, journalist, and his English-born wife Celia Esther, née Harris. Later in life Iza explained that she had been named for Iza Coghlan, one of the first women to graduate in medicine from the University of Sydney. Iza's two brothers, Godfrey Moses and Louis Leslie, would also become medical practitioners. The family valued education. Her parents were proponents of secular Judaism and anti-Zionism. For Iza this would translate into a lifelong commitment to humanism and a search for social justice, particularly in medicine.

Shortly after Harris’s birth, the family moved to Brisbane. They remained in Queensland until 1925, when they returned to Sydney, and Harris enrolled at Sydney Girls’ High School. Her academic capabilities were evident early. At fourteen her results in the Intermediate examination gained media publicity, and in 1930 she was dux of the school. After winning a public exhibition to medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1937), Harris, with two others, topped her first year of 120 students in 1931, and was awarded the Renwick prize for proficiency. Over the next five years of exams she never stumbled, and she was equal top of her class in fifth year. In her final exams she was awarded first-class honours, the Windeyer prize for obstetrics and clinical obstetrics, and the Dagmar Berne prize for proficiency among women candidates.

Harris was appointed a resident medical officer at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1937. By the end of 1939 she had completed a master of surgery from the University of Sydney, planning a career in general surgery. At the time, an essential next step to enable her to later seek senior surgical positions was to obtain a fellowship to one of the two British colleges of surgery. She was unable to undertake this final step. On 31 May 1938 she married South African-born Reuben Segal, a fellow medical practitioner, at the Great Synagogue. Perhaps as a result, her second residency, at the Royal Hospital for Women, was terminated.

Having grown to adulthood during the Depression, Segal was concerned about financial security. Medical practice at this time could be a haphazard source of income, and many women graduates, where possible, joined forces with their medical fathers or husbands. Although Iza’s husband was a general practitioner, he had a particular interest in obstetrics but no additional qualifications in the field. This disparity might have led to some tension in the marriage (Pringle 1998, 55). This combination of personal and professional pressures led her to ‘women’s medicine’ instead of general surgery. She set up in general practice with Reuben at Canterbury, and joined him as an honorary medical officer at Canterbury District Memorial Hospital, which enabled the continuing development of her surgical skills. After the birth of her children, she continued to work, aided by the employment of a housekeeper and a maid.

In 1940 Segal had been appointed an honorary junior assistant surgeon at Sydney’s Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children, run by women. She remained at the hospital until 1946. While the RFH had been established partly to meet medical women’s need for advanced professional training, and continued to offer women rare opportunities to train and progress in the medical specialities, it is possible that she also found the hospital’s otherwise conservative political ethos difficult to negotiate. The hospital’s reputed animosity to contraception and its anti-abortion position were both issues which became central to her later work. Indeed, responses to her work in this field both from colleagues and the wider public led to frustration, which tempered her satisfaction with helping women find ways to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

A practitioner of the 1940s and 1950s could be more flexible in their medical specialisation than would later become the case. The fluidity of the time enabled Segal to continue to practise in both gynaecology and general surgery, her main passion. In the 1950s, however, pressure to specialise led her to focus on obstetrics and gynaecology, in which fields she undertook additional training at Philadelphia, United States of America, and in London. Honorary assistant gynaecologist at Canterbury Hospital, and honorary obstetrician at the Bethesda Maternity Hospital, she also established two private practices: one in suburban Campsie, and another in Sydney’s specialist heartland, Macquarie Street.

While the 1960s brought a growing acceptance of contraception, it was not a propitious time for those interested in abortion law reform, particularly perhaps for those in Segal’s specialist field. Nevertheless, her political commitment began to emerge during this period. It solidified after the Whitlam government’s election in 1972 and the consequent rapid changes in health-care policy. In 1974, following an invitation by the Federal government for community health proposals, the Leichhardt Women’s Community Health Centre (LWCHC) commenced work; among other services, it provided abortions. Segal soon joined the organisation, as ‘the only specialist who offered to work as a consultant’ (Hirshman 1994, 7) for this controversial facility. She found there a congenial environment to contribute to women’s rights to health and choice. Growing from this commitment was a brief involvement with the movie industry, when she appeared in Margot Oliver’s feminist film Charlene Does Med at Uni (1977), which charted the consequences for a young female medical student on discovering she was pregnant.

Contemporaneous with the emerging women’s health movement was the Whitlam government’s plan to establish a universal health system known as Medibank, eventually established in 1975. A number of medical practitioners who embraced the idea formed the Doctors Reform Society to fight for its introduction. In 1973, as a founding member of the DRS, Segal worked alongside her colleagues to ensure that ‘it maintained a strong commitment to women’s issues such as contraception and abortion’ (Hirshman 1994, 7). She was also a member of the Medical Association for Prevention of War and the New South Wales Humanist Society.

Segal’s career spanned a transitional period for women in medicine, reflected in her places of work, if not the focus of that work. For an earlier generation, work for women’s health was made concrete through the Rachel Forster Hospital, and drew on the social standing of wealthy supporters. This strategy was transformed in the postwar decades into a focus on the impact of social factors on women’s health, particularly, in the 1970s, through the women’s health movement and one of its progeny, the LWCHC. The goal of these generations of medical women—improving women’s health—may have remained the same, but the strategies they adopted were dramatically different.

Described as sociable and gregarious, Segal was happiest among people. Following Reuben’s death in 1980 she contemplated a solitary life with dread. On 10 October 1987 at the registry of births, deaths, and marriages, Sydney, she married a second time, to Chester Marmion Gray, a scientist. She died on 1 May 1994 at Paddington, and was cremated. Her husband, and one son and two daughters from her first marriage, survived her. Segal’s life was one immersed in medicine. As a colleague, John Ward, articulated, she ‘never lost touch with the idea that medicine should serve the people’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1994, 6).

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Hirshman, John. ‘A Humanist of Tireless Energy.’ New Doctor, no. 62 (Summer 1994): 7

  • Pringle, Rosemary. Sex and Medicine: Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998

  • Segal, Lynne. Making Trouble: Life and Politics. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007

  • Siedlecky, Stefania, and Diana Wyndham. Populate and Perish: Australian Women’s Fight for Birth Control. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990

  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Doctor Who Wanted Access for Everyone.’ 10 May 1994, 6

  • WEL-Informed. ‘How Do Men Know How Women Feel? Iza Segal, a Well-Known Gynaecologist, Talks to Dorothy Simons.’ No. 145 (May 1985): 13–15

Additional Resources

Citation details

Louella McCarthy, 'Segal, Iza Joan (1914–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/segal-iza-joan-19948/text31130, published online 2018, accessed online 22 August 2019.

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