2018-09-04 16:48:08 UTC
By Rick Rojas, Aug. 28, 2018, NY Times
BUNDANOON, Australia Even into her 80s, Mary E. White thrived on the
expanse of Australian rain forest she had made her home, and she told
friends of ambitious plans: She was going to write her autobiography,
and there were two other books she wanted to finish.
But dementia robbed her of vigor. Ms. White, an accomplished scientist
who gained prominence for warnings of desert encroachment and
overpopulation, soon moved into a nursing home closer to her family
but far from her old home. She could not communicate, friends said,
and did not recognize visitors.
Then, one evening this month, Ms. White was found dead. She was 92.
Several days later, her daughter was charged with murdering her.
The accusations have stunned people who knew Ms. White and her family,
as well as Bundanoon, the small town where neighbors remembered an
attentive daughter who would take her mother to the salon for haircuts
and stop in the cafe across the street. Many insist that whatever
happened must have been motivated by compassion and love.
It would have been done as an act of mercy, said Jenny Goldie, a
friend who had known Ms. White for 30 years. There wouldnt have been
any malice attached to it at all.
The case has saddened and confused Ms. Whites friends. But it has
also tapped into the broader debate in Australia over euthanasia and
assisted dying, which has been renewed in recent weeks as Parliament
considered a proposal to overturn a two-decade-old ban on the practice
in the nations territories.
The legislation ultimately failed, but last year, the state of
Victoria became the first in Australia to legalize assisted dying,
allowing someone with an incurable illness and limited life expectancy
to obtain a dose of a lethal drug, and other states are considering
their own legislation. (The Victoria law requires that a patient be
mentally sound enough to make the request on his or her own,
preventing relatives or caretakers from applying on an ill persons
No such allowance exists in New South Wales, where Bundanoon sits a
two-hour drive southwest of Sydney; an assisted dying bill was
rejected last year.
Some have viewed Ms. Whites case as an example of why that
conversation must continue.
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It has already stirred a delicate discussion about the toll of aging
and illness, as well as the impact of watching a family members
decline. It is a subject that especially resonates in Bundanoon, where
the population tends to skew older. (The median age, according to
census figures, is 56.)
Just over 2,700 people live in Bundy, as Bundanoon is known. Its a
rural outpost set back on country roads winding through vast golden
fields specked with horses and sheep. The last time the town attracted
widespread notice was nearly a decade ago, when residents voted to ban
the sale of bottled water.
Violence of any kind is rare. Stuff like that never happens in
Bundy, said Olivia Cole, who has lived here for much of her life,
referring to the murder charge that has rattled the community.
Nothing happens. No crime happens.
Some have acknowledged that they could recognize themselves and their
parents in Ms. Whites case. The authorities have indicated that the
family had asked at her nursing home about euthanasia, and many here
suspect that as Ms. Whites health declined, her daughter, Barbara
Eckersley, must have felt compelled to intervene.
It stopped the mothers suffering, said Peter Giannakos, who has
owned the Primula Cafe and Restaurant on the towns main street for 25
Some of his customers said such an act could be justifiable. He
considered his own mother-in-law, who is 96 and infirm, and said he
was less certain.
I cant do it, he said. I cant do it.
Ms. White, who was found dead at the nursing home, was killed on the
evening of Aug. 5, the police said, and Ms. Eckersley was arrested on
Aug. 8. Local news reports said a lethal combination of medications
had caused Ms. Whites death.
Ms. Eckersley, 66, has been released on bail. Through her lawyer, she
declined to comment, as did other family members. Friends said the two
women had been close. Among other things, they shared an interest in
Ms. White, who did not often discuss her religious beliefs with
friends, described having a spiritual connection with nature, which
was her lifes work.
She was born in southern Africa, in what is now Zimbabwe, and she
studied paleobotany at the University of Capetown. She moved with her
husband, a geologist, and their children to Australia in 1955.
While working as a research associate for the Australian Museum in
Sydney, she assembled a plant fossil collection that included 12,000
specimens. Sometimes when her husband was sent to Northern Australia
for government work he would send home drums filled with fossils for
Ms. White to study.
Over time, her writing evolved from largely academic texts to books,
with titles like Listen Our Land is Crying and Running Down:
Water in a Changing Land, that denounced unsustainable land and water
use in Australia and the threats posed by a booming population.
These were the works that became her legacy. Mary Whites
contribution to our understanding of the natural cycles that drive all
life on the planet and of our human impact on those processes is
unsurpassed, Chrissie Goldrick, the editor in chief of Australian
Geographic, said in a statement.
In 2003, Ms. White bought the sprawling property called Falls Forest,
a four-hour drive up the coast from Sydney. Conservationists praised
her for sparing some 200 acres of forest and preserving its
biodiversity and for opening it to the public. She identified and
labeled the plants along pathways around the property. Platypus were
sometimes spotted in the creek near the house, where wallabies and
eastern gray kangaroos routinely hopped by.
It was Marys concern that we were losing too many of these ancient
forests, said Brett Dolsen, a photographer who befriended Ms. White
and made a short documentary film about her. Marys work will never
be forgotten in scientific and educational fields, he said,
describing much of her work as pioneering. Her message to humanity is
what she lived for in protecting our planet.
Mr. Dolsen spent much time with Ms. White at Falls Forest, often
sitting with her on the veranda, where she would take the cover off
her parrots cage, wishing the bird a good morning and insisting Mr.
Dolsen do the same.
He was astonished by her energy. At 88, he said, she still ran the
property, with its conference center and villas for guests. But he
learned that her increasingly methodical approach to life was a way of
navigating her dementia.
Mary had forewarned me that her memory was failing, he said, and
that there were certain protocols I would need to know, including our
arrangements and times for meeting.
By the time she left the property a few years ago and moved to
Bundanoon, where her daughter lives, the disease had accelerated
considerably. Ms. Goldie said that Ms. Whites family had told her
that she was essentially incapacitated. She was the diametric
opposite of what she had been before, Ms. Goldie said.
Ms. Goldie, who had gotten to know Ms. White through their involvement
in environmental advocacy, had visited Ms. Eckersleys home about a
week before Ms. White died. Ms. Goldie said she sensed tension.
No smiling, she said. No laughter in the house.
She recognized the strain Ms. Eckersley was under. She was reminded of
the anguish she faced as her mothers health declined. It wasnt clear
if prosecutors pursuing the murder charge would take such issues into
account, but they had not yet suggested any ulterior motive in Ms.
Its just very hard when you have to sort of encounter it every day,
Ms. Goldie said. They knew I understood and I think they appreciated
that. But I dont think I understood how desperate Barbara must have