‘I didn’t want to sit
on my bum and see
my life go by’
MARXIST, community activist, GP, obstetrician, tram conductor, farmer, father and husband, teacher, author … Percy Rogers has crammed a lot into his 94 years, and despite his age shows few signs of slowing down.
The retired doctor still lives independently in Brunswick with his wife, Roz, keenly follows current affairs, and takes part in the odd political rally and protest.
What’s more, he has just written a gripping memoir of a life that has included the delivery of hundreds of babies, overseeing the former City of Coburg’s public health programs, developing Australia’s first birthing centre, successfully campaigning for the removal of lead from petrol, preventing freeways being built through Melbourne’s inner suburbs, and delivering health services to remote communities in the Northern Territory and the South Pacific.
Along the way he was a key member of the Communist Party for a decade at the height of the Cold War, worked as a tram conductor, university tutor and GP, ran marathons and accumulated university qualifications in psychology, medicine, and humanities.
Until recently, he was still working the land every weekend on a small farmlet near the Baw Baw National Park.
Not bad for the son of a railway engine driver who grew up in rural Western Australia in a house with just five books, one of them the Bible.
“It’s been a fairly full life,” Dr Rogers says with a chuckle, surrounded by some of his hundreds of books in his small study. He recently downsized, donating most of his personal library of about 4500 books to the New International Bookshop in the Victorian Trades Hall Building. “I didn’t want to sit on my bum and see my life go by. To be involved you had to take action.”
Taking Action: A GP’s Lifetime of Learning, Love and Labour is the title of Dr Rogers’ new book, which is actually his second autobiography. His first, Active Labour: Memoirs of a Working-Class Doctor, was published in 2018 and sold out its entire run, but Dr Rogers was never completely satisfied with it.
The onset of COVID-19 in 2020 unexpectedly gave him the time and space to revisit his copious diaries and journals compiled over the years and to fill in the gaps with the assistance of Brunswick journalist and author Deborah Gough, whose company Stories To Keep specialises in helping people put their personal histories on paper.
“The first book was criticised because it did not involve my private life and was not detailed enough about some of my political actions,” Dr Rogers says.
“I felt I was skirting around certain things that were a very big part of my life and if I was trying to write a memoir, this was part and parcel of it, to be honest. COVID came when you had to sit down on your bum so I sat down and rewrote it.”
The fruits of his labour is a fascinating story which begins in 1927 in a small house in Busselton, a coastal town 220km south of Perth, where his father was stationed at the time as a railway engine driver. The family moved to Geraldton when Dr Rogers was six until the interruption of World War Two came along. At the age of 15, he left his family to attend school in Perth, the beginning of a lifelong thirst for education that Dr Rogers credits for providing him with the opportunities he has had.
Narrowly managing to avoid the war (he turned 18 six days after the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima), Dr Rogers excelled in at his Leaving Certificate after several false starts to win a commonwealth scholarship to study psychology at the University of Western Australia, an almost unthinkable opportunity for a working class boy in the 1940s.
“Neither of my parents were educated, but they had the wisdom of experience,” he says. “Even staying at school was a bit of a dream, going to university you just couldn’t imagine it, and you couldn’t put that on your parents, it was so much money. University was then something you had to be very rich to go to.”
Like tens of thousands of other idealistic young people of the era, he joined the Communist Party for the first time in 1947 in Perth, quitting and then rejoining after he crossed the continent in 1950 to enrol for a Medicine degree at the University of Melbourne.
In Melbourne, his political education was sharpened by a 12-month stint as a tram conductor where he was enthralled by the legendary head of the trammies’ union, Clarrie O’Shea.
“You could not help but get involved [in politics],” he says. “You can’t sit down and do nothing.”
He campaigned against the Menzies Government’s 1951 referendum seeking to ban the Communist Party and battled anti-communist ‘Groupers’ in the labour movement, but later became disillusioned with the party’s failure to acknowledge the atrocities of Stalinism.
The experience did not diminish Dr Rogers’ passion for radical and progressive politics, bringing his humanist values into the field of medicine as a GP and obstetrician.
After graduating, Dr Rogers’ first job as a locum was at a clinic in Blyth Street, and he has lived in or close to Brunswick most of his life since. From the start he regarded his work as a doctor as another form of activism.
Dr Rogers writes in great detail of several of his proudest achievements as a doctor, including the introduction of Fernand Lamaze’s breathing techniques into Australia in the late-1960s to make childbirth less painful without resorting to drugs, and delivering the first baby born in a birthing centre at the Royal Women’s Hospital in 1979.
He says that when he was a medical student on placement at the Royal Women’s Hospital in the early-1950s, he was shocked and appalled at the “brutal” treatment of women during childbirth and was determined to make changes when he was in a position to do so.
“It seemed to me that obstetricians were almost scared to appear humane,” he writes. “They went about their work while the women were treated like cattle in the labour wards.”
He recounts his role in the campaigns to decriminalise abortion in the 1960s and remove lead from petrol in the 1970s, and how he discovered that cancer chemicals were slowly poisoning pharmacists at the Royal Women’s Hospital in the 1980s (through his action, the pharmacists successfully won damages from the hospital and safer procedures were introduced).
Dr Rogers continued to practise as a doctor into his 80s, even spending time last decade working in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.
Meanwhile, he was also fighting battles in his own backyard, including to prevent a freeway being built through Princes Hill and Carlton in the early 1970s, which later broadened into a statewide campaign to protect suburbs from freeways.
In recent years, Dr Rogers has turned his attention to climate change politics. He says the threat from global warming has managed to unite Australians of all political persuasions and backgrounds.
Now using a walking frame, Dr Rogers is no longer mobile enough to attend rallies like he did until a couple of years ago, and he says the passion of today’s younger generations remind him of the spirit of his own youthful days when he fought for socialism.
Dr Rogers’ life has not been all smooth sailing. He writes with unflinching honesty about his deep regrets at the failure of his first two marriages, including his first to the renowned children’s author June Factor, and the impact that had on his children. He confesses to periods of great loneliness, doubt and unhappiness in his life, and accepts that his own behaviour has often been to blame.
But for the past three decades, he has found great joy through his marriage to Roslyn. The couple live in a house in Brunswick that Dr Rogers proudly points out is completely energy self-sufficient.
Taking Action was printed just before Christmas, and the Omicron COVID strain has delayed its public launch, which Dr Rogers said will take place early this year. Until then, it can be ordered in hardback on Amazon and as an ebook through Booktopia.
DISCLAIMER: The publisher of Taking Action is a close relative of the author.