Born at Kaiti, Gisborne, Jean Sandel’s family moved to Taumarunui from where Jean attended New Plymouth Girls’ High School, being awarded Dux in 1932 and 1933, and becoming Head Girl.
In 1934 Jean began studying at the University of Otago Medical School, completing a five year course to graduate MB, ChB in 1939, winning the Senior Scholarship in medicine and the highest prize, the Traveling Scholarship.
Following the War, in 1946 she began four years postgraduate work in England where she broke new ground as a female surgical registrar in London and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1947 – the first New Zealand woman to do so.
On her return to New Zealand in 1950, Jean joined the staff at New Plymouth Hospital and rapidly established a reputation for her surgical ability, by 1964 leading the surgical department.
Not much over five feet tall, Jean would often operate standing on a box. Steady and meticulous, patience and stamina combined with technical skill and knowledge of surgical anatomy were hallmarks of her work. In later years Jean pioneered cardiovascular surgery in provincial hospitals.
A devout Presbyterian, her Christian principles meant she willingly performed more emergency surgeries than required, often attending patients at all hours and was known to deliver a box of groceries to men she had operated on and she knew were struggling to return to work.
Jean was an avid cricket follower, known to sneak away to Pukekura Park to watch from the grassed terraces. Her signal to return urgently to the hospital was a white towel hung from the commentary box by the match commentator. Tending her beloved garden was her other chief leisure pursuit, often supplying flowers to the St Andrews Presbyterian church which she regularly attended.
Jean Sandel died from ill health in 1974, at the young age of 57. She is remembered and admired within the Taranaki region as a notable, pioneering woman who contributed greatly to the community.