Obituary: Susan Parkinson

Susan Parkinson OBE, OF 
July 26, 1920 – October 7, 2012
By Matt Wilson  

Susan Parkinson, celebrated South Pacific nutritionist and a pioneer of women’s rights in Fiji died in Suva on Sunday October 7, 2012, after a short illness. She was 92.

Ms Parkinson was brought up on her family’s sheep farm, Te Hopai, in New Zealand’s Wairarapa Valley with her late younger sister Betty. Their father, Edward Carlton Homes, formerly of\ Matahiwi near Masterton, was a leading figure in the community. He had strong links with local Maori as a benefactor and friend.

Young Susan’s future seemed to point in one direction. She would become a farmer’s wife and raise sturdy children who would continue in the agrarian traditions of the Holmes family. But she had other ideas.  Susan said she had no desire for what she described as routine domestic life. She was interested in science and wanted to attend university.

When she was 21 she graduated from Otago University with a diploma in home science. She then became food supervisor at Masterton Hospital before completing studies as a dietician student at Wellington Hospital.

It was the start of a stellar career that would take her round the world and bring her to Fiji and the
Island nations of the South Pacific. Fiji would be her home for 62 years.

She became the acknowledged regional authority on food and nutrition preaching the gospel of healthy balanced diets, based on local foods. Susan saw that this was critical for avoiding the lifestyle diseases that would inevitably accompany the growth of consumerism.

She wrote and taught on dietary issues, visited remote villages, made numerous radio broadcasts, delivered lectures and contributed to columns in the Fiji Times. Her cookery book series, A Taste of the Tropics (later Taste of the Pacific), is widely acclaimed.

Susan won many accolades and awards. She was a leading figure in the inauguration and
development of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Fiji, and the Fiji Women’s
Rights Movement (FWRM).

In those early days in New Zealand, as Susan was preparing to spread her wings, her gaze turned to Great Britain, the land of her ancestors. So she boarded a ship and was UK-bound. In 1946 she began dietary work at Leeds Infirmary in the North of England and then joined the Ministry of Food in London.

She qualified for an international scholarship that took her to Cornell University in the United States to study for a Masters Degree in Public Health and Nutrition. Her thesis was on the nutritional trends among Navajo native Americans living on an arid reservation in Arizona. This gave her an acute awareness of the dangers of rapidly changing diet amongst indigenous people and the need to combine the study of anthropology with public health.

Based on her unique background she was recruited to become the first nutritionist to be employed by the colonial era South Pacific Health Service headquartered in Suva.

For four years she traveled to regional countries studying and surveying food and nutrition issues in villages, schools, hospitals and other institutions. She developed educational material and specific programmes to promote healthy eating.

 The emphasis of her efforts was often on infant and maternal nutrition

 Susan traveled regularly by boat and canoe, and on foot and horseback where there were no roads. Later she said these were among her happiest times.

In 1956, in Suva, Susan married Ray Parkinson, from Melbourne, the Fiji government statistician.
He passed away suddenly in 1969. Susan endowed the Ray Parkinson Lectures at the University
of the South Pacific in his memory.

The new Mrs Parkinson had become a lecturer at the Fiji School of Medicine (FSM) where she
developed dietetic and public health nutrition training. A Parkinson diploma course for medical,
nursing and agricultural students may have been a first for developing countries.

Susan resigned from the FSM in 1972 to take on voluntary work with a wide range of organisations, and was closely involved in the formation of the Fiji National Nutrition Committee. The Committee convinced the Fiji Government of the  importance of nutrition in national development. This led to the adoption of a food and nutrition policy. It was in this phase of her  career that Susan wrote and published her first handbook on nutrition for the Pacific Islands. There have been a number of editions. It is still in use as important reference.

 In the 1980s Susan conducted research, in association with the University of the South Pacific, into traditional uses and preservation methods for staple crops. This attracted great interest at the 1989 Seventh World Congress of Food Science and Technology.

Susan was a shrewd and sometimes critical observer of the colonial system. One of her more caustic comments from her correspondence reads: “One gets very tired of the English civil servants whose only ambition is to do the right thing socially and politically in order to get promotion in another colony. One has the feeling that many of these people have not much interest in the ultimate future of Fiji.”

Susan’s experiences in colonial Fiji sparked her interest in feminism. She wrote that neither the social or professional systems of the time knew where to place her because she was not a nurse or a teacher.

Among the medical profession and agriculturalists,  she said, there were a few men with postgraduate degrees. They mostly belonged to The Fiji Society that had a membership of elite male scientists. “It was at this stage,” she wrote, “that I became a feminist and stormed the Society!”

For many years she was a trustee of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement that used her home in
Vuya Road for their early meetings.

Susan earned awards and recognition for her career accomplishments from the Commonwealth
Foundation and the Asia Pacific Clinical Nutrition Society.

She was made a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and the Order of Fiji (OF), and
received an Honorary Degree from the University of the South Pacific.

For over 50 years, Susan lived in her beautiful Vuya Road home. The carefully tended fertile
gardens, and her pets, were an important part of her life.

 “Marama” as she was known in the neighborhood, was a great supporter of the many
educational institutions based close by, including  the Pacific Theological College.  She also
helped a number of community organisations, particularly the SPCA.  She was an instinctive
environmentalist with an intense dislike of litter.

Susan leaves a son William, daughter-in-law Sufi and grandchildren Farah and Shavez, as well
as many relatives in New Zealand and Australia.


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