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“An amazing life” and a legacy that lives on in New Zealand’s native forests

A relentless and generous friend to many, Dr Fran McGrath spent her life as a champion for public health and social justice.

Dr Frances McGrath passed away on the 4th of November, 2019. To honour her memory and a life spent exploring New Zealand’s beautiful backyard, her devoted husband Edwin has donated $100,000 to Trees That Count to help grow native forests in her memory.

Fran’s trees will support 28 different planting projects around New Zealand, each bringing unique benefits for biodiversity, environment and the communities that surround them.

For her husband Edwin, planting native trees was a fitting memorial for a wife he greatly admired and respected.

In Edwin’s own words:

“Fran was born in South Canterbury, the youngest of eight children. Her mother was a school teacher and she was she was raised on a small mixed farm in South Canterbury which was converted into a free range chicken farm.

“She was the only one in her family to go to university; and went to Otago to study medicine.  She told me later, much later – as we were looking at the night sky above Mt John – that she actually wanted to be an astrophysicist.  I asked her why she hadn’t and she said it would have been self-indulgent. She’d always felt she needed to contribute and help others and she did this through medicine.

“During her career she was always working for patients’ rights. She worked at Arohata Prison, and also learnt Spanish and moved to Honduras where she spent three years helping mountainous villages to clean up water supplies and establish public health services. She worked alongside their local midwives, herbalists and witch doctors.

"Fran gained her Masters in Public Policy, was a public health specialist and on the World Health Pandemic team.  She had warned of an impending pandemic and was a firm believer in climate change as a public health issue, not just an environmental one.

“I first met Fran in 1988. I had long service leave I needed to use or lose, so I booked a six week tour of South America as part of a tour group.  I didn’t want to go as part of a group, that’s not my idea of an adventure, but it was the only way to get to South America in those days. When I got to Auckland airport to join the group I was told the tour guide had pulled out, but “don’t worry, that woman over there is in our group.  She speaks fluent Spanish, is a doctor and doesn’t take any sh*t, so we’ll be ok.

“They were tumultuous times with 300% inflation, riots and water canons.  But Fran never showed any nerves. I had to be her bodyguard on some occasions.

“Nothing happened between us on that trip but when we got back I sent her flowers.  She sent me a birthday card saying she’d take me out for my birthday dinner. We went for dinner and I confessed my birthday was actually the following week. She asked why we weren’t having dinner then and I told her it was so we could have dinner the week after as well. Four months later we moved in together; a year later we were married in the botanical gardens.

"We were married for 30 years and had so many adventures together.  We went to Antarctica, South America four times and spent a year in Rarotonga where Fran ran a hospital.

"We travelled around Europe – Spain, Italy, Scotland and England, but never had any ambitions to go the USA. One place we never made it to together was Cape Horn which was always on her bucket list.

"We both loved being in New Zealand’s bush and tramping, and I discovered early on that her tramping speed was exactly the same as mine. Aoraki was her mountain, and she would always wear her father’s 30-year-old woollen shirt when we went tramping.

"We were very sociable and liked our workplaces.  She was a member of Choir Choir, Pants on Fire and we had a wide group of friends.

"We shared an amazing life.”