Recent Otago graduate Jack Tapsell (in gown) with his parents, siblings and extended whānau. Image: supplied

One family, three generations of Māori doctors

Jack Tapsell is the product of a family dedicated to the health and wellbeing of Māori. The recent University of Otago medical graduate talks to Leonie Hayden about carrying on the legacy of his father and grandfather.

As descendants of Phillip Tapsell, a Danish sailor who settled at Maketū near Rotorua in 1830, and Te Arawa wahine ariki Hine-i-tūrama Ngātiki, the Tapsells are no strangers to forging their own paths.

You could say Jack Tapsell (Te Arawa, Ngāti Whakauae), son of forensic psychiatrist Rees Tapsell and grandson of the late Sir Peter Tapsell, has a heavy korowai to shoulder. In December last year he graduated with a medical degree from the University of Otago – the third generation of his whānau to do so.

Jack’s koro would have been hugely proud to see his grandson cross that stage, knowing exactly how hard he worked to get there.

Sir Peter was raised in Maketū during the Great Depression. Later he lived in Rotorua with family friends while attending Rotorua Boys’ High, where his rugby skills (First XV and Bay of Plenty rep) and people skills caught the eye of teaching staff. Peter was offered University Entrance level in physics and chemistry, both subjects that weren’t offered to his sixth form peers at the time, in order to study for Medical Intermediate exams at Otago. While at Otago University medical school he continued to show of his prowess on the field, playing for the university club and Otago, and, eventually, the Māori All Blacks. After suffering an injury, Sir Peter decided to focus on medicine, becoming one of the country’s foremost orthopedic surgeons. He later entered politics, and served as a Labour MP for the Eastern Māori electorate from 1981 to 1996. When National won the 1996 election with only a one seat majority, prime minister Jim Bolger nominated Sir Peter for the role of Speaker – the first member of opposition and the first Māori to hold the position.

Currently on placement at North Shore Hospital in Tāmaki Makaurau, Jack says he’s “grateful” to be carrying on his family’s legacy.

“I don’t know where in medicine I will end up, but I know it’s special to follow my whānau into becoming another Māori doctor. I’ll try my best to be a good healer like I know Dad is, and Koro was.”

Jack’s father Rees Tapsell was born and raised in Rotorua, attending Western Heights High School before completing an undergraduate medical degree at Otago. After several years working in primary care, and a stint in the UK, Rees sub-specialised in forensic psychiatry, working at the Mason Clinic in Auckland as a consultant psychiatrist for ten years, looking at models of forensic mental health service provision for Māori.

Jack says his father’s motivation for studying medicine had a very practical foundation: “When Dad was growing up in Rotorua he wanted to do medicine because he remembered this one Pākehā doctor having the flashest car, and that was why he went down that road,” he laughs.

Jim Bolger and Peter Tapsell at Waitangi, 1995. Image: Ross Land/Getty Images

Jack and his siblings were raised in Grey Lynn, in Auckland. Once he made the decision to head down to Otago, he was faced with the prospect of being far from home and whānau.

“I can be a little bit whakamā and quite nervous in new social situations, but I think it was like that for everyone. I had my older brother down there when I started, so I could go and hang out with him when I was feeling a bit homesick.”

He says the support offered to Māori students helped enormously, citing Associate Professor Jo Baxter as a key support person.

“There’s some really awesome people down there that work for the Māori health science faculty and offer support in terms of tutorials or kai or just any support really, if you need it. No matter how much you identified as Māori, they try to give you a good experience.

“Especially because nearly everyone was away from home, they made it really friendly.”

Like his koro, Jack turned to sport and exercise as a way of coping with the challenges of a six year medical degree. While he isn’t afraid of hard work – “In our whanau we have always had the strong message that if you want something you have to work hard for it” – the greatest challenge, he admits, was helping patients emotionally.

“I’m empathic but if a patient would break down and cry… That can be tough. You do get used to it and better at dealing with it, but I wouldn’t call it a natural gift. You see how the more senior doctors deal with it and it’s really inspiring.”

The reality of modern medicine in Aotearoa is that students have to be more aware of the cultural sensitivities of their patients. “I have a little bit of ao Māori experience with tikanga but I would say some other Māori students had more knowledge around that than I did, including my dad and my brother.”

Jack has seen the growing awareness among his peers thanks to tikanga Māori around bodies and health being part of the curriculum, but gets frustrated when he sees it ignored.

“[Otago] is trying to make that more of the norm for students, but it’s hard when you see some of the older doctors ignoring it, you know what I mean? The students and younger generation are definitely more aware than some of the older generation, because the uni has been introducing more of that over the last 10 years. You see younger doctors really trying, even if it’s just making the effort to say ‘kia ora’ or ‘ka kite’.”

As a student he did placements in Gisborne and Wairoa for the Te Tai Rawhiti DHB and enjoyed seeing how medical practices in smaller towns with high Māori populations work with their community. “I really like the small town kaupapa Māori services. If there was some way of bringing that level of community engagement into the bigger cities that would be cool.”

He has goals with respect to his own Māoritanga, which involve one day returning to his tūrangawaewae. “I’d like to go back to Rotorua when my te reo has improved. That’s definitely on the to do list. It would be awesome to work for a service with your own people and speak te reo Māori for a whole consult.”

For now, Jack is starting at the bottom of the ladder, which he jokes involves a lot of paperwork. He hasn’t yet chosen a specialist area but was drawn to one of the more visceral sides of medicine during his studies.

“A lot of it reflects the people around you. So if you have a good experience in a certain specialty with a certain doctor, then you think ‘that’s for me’. My favourite going through the curriculum was intensive care and emergency medicine.

“It’s mainly because I had some really good teaching.”

This content was created in paid partnership with the University of Otago. Learn more about our partnerships here


This content is brought to you by the University of Otago – a vibrant contributor to Māori development and the realisation of Māori aspirations, through our Māori Strategic Framework and world-class researchers and teachers.

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