Was a Scientist’s Death Murder or an ‘Act of Mercy’?
August 29, 2018
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 wouldn’t have been any malice attached to it at all.”
The case has saddened and confused Ms. White’s 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 nation’s 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 person’s behalf.)
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. White’s 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 member’s 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. It’s 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. White’s case. The authorities have indicated that the family had asked at her nursing home about euthanasia, and many here suspect that as Ms. White’s health declined, her daughter, Barbara Eckersley, must have felt compelled to intervene.
[Read more: How another Australian scientist, David Goodall, fought to die on his own terms at 104 years old.]
“It stopped the mother’s suffering,” said Peter Giannakos, who has owned the Primula Cafe and Restaurant on the town’s main street for 25 years.
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 can’t do it,” he said. “I can’t 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. White’s 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 science.
Ms. White, who did not often discuss her religious beliefs with friends, described having a spiritual connection with nature, which was her life’s work.
She was born in southern Africa, in what was then known as Rhodesia, 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 White’s 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 Mary’s 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. “Mary’s 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 parrot’s 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. White’s 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. Eckersley’s 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 mother’s health declined. It wasn’t clear if prosecutors pursuing the murder charge would take such issues into account, but they had not yet suggested any ulterior motive in Ms. White’s death.
“It’s 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 don’t think I understood how desperate Barbara must have been.”