Saturday, October 23, 2010

This week I'm grateful... that I knew Jean Panton

Another Maxabella-inspired Grateful Post. This week I wanted to write about Jean Panton, a wonderful woman who died last weekend. I feel a bit odd about writing a obituary, but all week I have felt in that awkward position of feeling very sad about Jean's death despite the feeling that I didn't know her really well, and a blog entry seemed to be appropriate (I would be happy to modify or remove it at the request of people who knew Jean better than I- contact details in the right column).

Jean grew up in Hobart, trained as a journalist, and was employed for a period within the University of Tasmania. With no formal scientific training she recognized that there were families in Tasmania that were prone to leukemia and with little support from the scientific community she took it upon herself to trace the family trees of these families for over 30 years- all on an unpaid basis- believing that one day the data she had collected would enable the discovery of the genetic causes of leukemia susceptibility.

Only recently, scientific technology has advanced enough to allow scientists to start using the data that Jean collected to start to discover new leukemia susceptibility genes. Jean was also passionate about the Tasmanian community and environment, and- even as an 80 year old grandmother- was a an unlikely campaigner for the Tasmanian Greens party and other environmental, heritage and community causes in Hobart. Her commitment to these causes was recognised by awards including a Medal of the Order of Australia, and Hobart Senior Citizen of the Year.

I knew Jean through my mother, who had worked with her occasionally and had formed a long friendship. I remember coming along to Jean's house as a child, and listening in on conversations, often about Jean's excitement at having scoured the newspapers and connecting two leukemia-prone families (the larger the family, the easier it is to find the leukemia-susceptibility genes) and her modesty about winning prizes- I recall one in the late 80s or early 90s, when few people would think about recycling, Jean won a prize for her strategy of covering cardboard boxes with used wrapping paper to make blocks for her grandchildren.

I also have a vivid recollection of another occasion when I went to my mother's office and the talk was all indignity about how a thoughtless researcher had been allocated an office that Jean had used while it was vacant. He had found boxes of records related to her research- irreplaceable medical records and notes collated over years- and had sent them for disposal. At the time that I walked in, Jean had driven up to Hobart Tip in the hope of locating the papers.

This incident was a perfect illustration of two sides of Jean- the dismissive contempt with which too many in the research community treated her because she was not a traditionally trained researcher, and the data she was fervently collecting were not immediately yielding results (because the requisite technology was not powerful enough), but more impressively, the dedication that Jean showed to her voluntary cause- at this stage she would have easily been in her 60s, yet believed in the importance of her work so much that she would dig through the tip rubbish to salvage the data. I didn't know so much about Jean's involvement in the Tasmanian Greens, and the Hobart Community Centre, but I have no doubt she showed the same zeal and vigour in every cause she believed in.

As a person, Jean was intelligent, modest and thoughtful. I saw her several times on visits to Hobart, because she had heard I would be around and mentioned that if we had any time would we like to drop by. When my mother told me of her death, she added that she had been her usual active self up until then. A notice from her school- another community she actively supported- sums up what I want to say about Jean:

Jean's untiring, active commitment to the Tasmanian community, the environment and her School made a difference and will remain an inspiration and example for girls who follow her.

Rest in peace, Jean. You made many differences.

4 comments:

Gifts of Serendipity said...

Vale Jean.

What a wonderful person, who undoubtedly shared all of her gifts for the betterment of our world.

x Felicity

Kelly said...

She sounds like such a beautiful woman.

Our Park Life said...

she sounds really inspiring...Thanks for sharing

xo

Maxabella said...

A wonderful tribute from a considerate, warm writer. Vale Jean. x

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