Obituary: a doctor who lived to fix things

Emeritus professor of dentistry


Prof Martin Ferguson travelled the globe as part of his drive to help others, and also focused on helping those close to home.

The emeritus professor, who had both medical and dental training, was appointed to the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007 for his services to dentistry and palliative care.

Prof Ferguson was born in Glasgow in the midst of World War 2, on October 19, 1943, to Thomas Summerville Ferguson and Marian Kirkwood Ferguson.

His travel experiences began early in life — he left Scotland aged 5, as his pharmacist father had taken up a job in South Africa. Later his parents moved to Nigeria but Martin, at 13, had already decided on medicine as his future and chose to return to Scotland , living with family.

He attended Queens Park Secondary School and thereafter Glasgow University to study medicine and dentistry

At a local Scout hall dance he met fellow student and future wife Janet. They married in 1969, in the chapel of Glasgow University.

Working at different health centres around Glasgow, his eyes were opened to the link between poverty and chronic ill health. It helped instil in him a passion for helping others, as did visits to his parents in Nigeria where he saw the difficulties of practising medicine the Third World.

Glasgow was also where Prof Ferguson began a life-long interest in palliative care, and he returned to the city after a two-year stint lecturing in the United States to continue his research as a Nuffield Research Fellow.

In 1986 the Fergusons moved to Dunedin to enable him to take up the role of professor of oral medicine and surgery at the University of Otago. Upon settling in, his palliative care work continued — as well as volunteering his services as a clinician, he also served on the Otago Community Hospice board and organised a gala auction which raised a considerable amount to support the services of the hospice

His Order of Merit reflected his commitment, Mrs Ferguson said. The award citation included letters from patients who loved his impish sense of humour. He was a very thoughtful husband, whose kind personality also extended to his work.

On one occasion a hospice patient had been unable to have dinner with his wife because he had lost a lot of weight, causing problems with his dentures.

"Martin arranged to have his teeth fixed ... He went away, got a steak and took it back to the hospice so that he and his wife could have a proper meal together."

Martin Ferguson and his wife Janet. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Martin Ferguson and his wife Janet. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Medicine was not simply a job for her husband.

"His view was holistic — treatment of the whole person, whether it be symptoms, mental or social factors."

Even in his spare time, he would reach for his collection of old medical textbooks and read them for pleasure.

He travelled widely, undertaking voluntary work and research in hospices and medical centres overseas.

Bangladesh and Malaysia were among the places most often visited, but other places of interest included Japan, India, Thailand, Fiji and Sri Lanka.

University of Otago associate professor Rohana De Silva recalled meeting Prof Ferguson for the first time in 1983 while working at the Cancer Institute of Sri Lanka.

Then a junior practitioner, he was "so surprised" when Prof Ferguson, a well-known senior clinician, introduced himself and expressed a willingness to support him in completing his postgraduate studies.

"First as a student and later as a colleague, I had the privilege to know him for more than 40 years.

"I was fortunate to train under him to gain knowledge in oral medicine, which was new to me at that time.

"Prof Ferguson was a very good teacher and I still can remember his words in his lectures and clinical sessions."

He was a well-known researcher with more than 169 publications to his name, including a publication in the prestigious journal Nature as an undergraduate.

He was also a good clinician — Prof De Silva recalled seeing how much he enjoyed his work with those in need.

Prof Ferguson died at home on December 21 last year.

He is survived by his wife Janet, his daughters Audrey and Gillian, and grandsons Fynn, Jamie, Callum, Robert and James. — Fiona Ellis, with the assistance of Greg Dawes.