IN THE EARLY 1980s, sandal-wearing Dr Gray trod a path different to most doctors of the day.
As a house surgeon in Taranaki, he was the doctor for the 1981 centennial commemorations of the invasion of Parihaka. “I stole a lot of stuff from ED and fitted out a caravan, and was on site as the doctor,” he says.
Then he volunteered to be the typist for Taranaki iwi Te Āti Awa’s ground-breaking Waitangi Tribunal claim and campaign to stop the Motunui synthetic fuel plant discharging waste into local fishing grounds.
Looking back, he sees his interest in environmentalism and things Māori was seeded by inspirational teachers at the then newbie Wellington School of Medicine.
A key role model was physician and researcher Ian Prior, one of the drivers of the Save (Lake) Manapouri campaign, who did pioneering epidemiological research with the Tūhoe communities in the Urewera.
Other influences included Jules Older, a US-born University of Otago behavioural science lecturer, who spoke up in the late 1970s for more Māori in the health professions. Dr Older got flak for it.
Activism, then, rather than medicine, dominated the early 1980s for young Dr Gray.
A couple of years at Taranaki Base Hospital showed him hospital medicine was not for him, and he decided on general practice.
After his GP registrar training year, he asked to join the group practice in Waitara – the north Taranaki town where he already had links through his involvement in the Motunui case. Tribunal work was part of developing his role as a doctor.
His Māori patients couldn’t gather shellfish from their own reef, as it was so badly polluted. Thus, the tribunal claim “seemed a relevant thing to be involved with”.
Dr Gray is also part of a generation that graduated without debt. “I saw myself as having a responsibility to the community that trained me.”
He was to be a GP in Waitara from 1985 to 1992.
“I lived a stone’s throw from the marae, which was a stone’s throw from my clinic, and I became embedded in the town, really, particularly among the Māori community from the time I was spending on the marae.”
In Waitara, many Māori had a reasonable income and lifestyle thanks to the then freezing works (closed in 1995). At the time, most whānau kept gardens and had a lot of community support.
“It was fun being part of a town that had this Māori identity, which it had retained, despite the Land Wars and all the history behind that,” Dr Gray says. “Waitara was very cohesive around the marae.”
He says he was also lucky in his three GP partners at Waitara Medical Centre, all excellent GPs and very accepting of their hippie-activist partner.
“At my wedding, one of the partners made an ironic comment ‘and then Ben found socks’,” he recalls with a laugh.
Ben did find socks, but didn’t give up activism. He got himself elected to the Taranaki Regional Council.
Life got in the way, though, after he and senior public servant wife Lynne Dovey had their first child. Dr Gray struggled to be a GP, local body politician, father and partner.
When their daughter was six months old, they moved to Wellington, where Lynne had career opportunities and other members of Dr Gray’s family were living. He became main caregiver, house husband and home renovator, but it lasted only three months before he started to go “quietly mad”.