Doctor who made pregnancy predictable




8-2-1918 -16-2-2013

Prominent Australian doctor Evelyn Livingston Billings AM, DCSG, MBBS (Melb), DCH (Lond) has died in Melbourne aged 95, after a short illness.

Dr Lyn, as she was known to everyone - though she was always Honey to her family - founded, with her husband Dr John Billings, the Billings Method of natural family planning, which has been adopted worldwide.

Her book The Billings Method: Using the body's natural signal of fertility to achieve or avoid pregnancy, written with award-winning medical writer Dr Ann Westmore, has sold a million copies in 22 languages. The book was first published in 1980 at a time when women had become tired of the side effects of the Pill and the IUD. It quickly became a bestseller in Australia and went on to sell at auction in New York for the largest amount then paid for an Australian work of non-fiction. The book has been constantly in print in Australia for the past 33 years.

It made the Billings Method a household name and gave hope to millions of women seeking to know more about their bodies and what Dr Billings called "the treasure of their fertility".

Born in Melbourne, Lyn Thomas spent her childhood in Jerilderie where her father was the shire engineer. She was educated at St Michael's Church of England Girls' Grammar School in St Kilda. Both she and her future husband were dux of their respective schools.

Lyn Billings began her medical studies in 1937 at the University of Melbourne. She liked to tell the story of first meeting John "across a sea of cadavers" in the dissection room of the university's anatomy department. It was a situation that ensured she "didn't have a lot of competition". She was a determined young medical student at a time when few women studied medicine. He was a medical student from the year ahead who was working as a demonstrator in anatomy.

Their loving and productive partnership, which was to continue for more than 60 years, was nearly stillborn. She was an Anglican while he was a Catholic, a difference that quelled many a budding romance in mid-20th century Australia. At one point she wrote a letter from Jerilderie breaking off the courtship. The letter never arrived and was not mentioned again. They married in 1943, the year after she graduated.

Dr Billings worked first at the Royal Children's Hospital where she became interested in paediatrics. In 1946-47 she gained specialist credentials, taking out a diploma in child health at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. Paediatrics, though her great love, was not to be her life's work.

In 1953, John Billings, by then a leading neurologist, was approached by a Catholic priest, Father Maurice Catarinich, to research a possible natural alternative to the notoriously unreliable and restrictive rhythm method then advocated by the Catholic Church. John Billings began work on a simple yet substantial theory: that women themselves could recognise when they are fertile or infertile by changes in the mucus that can be observed at the vagina. Scientists had long recognised the presence of a lubricative cervical mucus around the time of ovulation but no one had thought to question women about their own observations of it or to correlate it with the hormonal variations of the menstrual cycle.

Much of the early scientific research on the Billings Method was carried out by Professor Jim Brown, a renowned biochemist who moved to Melbourne University from Edinburgh in 1962. He correlated the mucus changes with reproductive hormones and with ovulation, confirming that the method was firmly based in science. Research by endocrinologist Professor Henry Burger of Monash University and Professor Erik Odeblad in Sweden added further scientific validation.

In the mid-1970s the World Health Organisation conducted a five-nation trial among diverse cultural and socio-economic groups and found that while some women did become pregnant during the trials for a variety of personal reasons, there was a method-related pregnancy rate of 0.9 per cent, equivalent to that of the Pill, when the method was used strictly according to the guidelines formulated by the Billings.

A decade earlier, in 1966, Lyn Billings had joined John Billings in working on what became known as the Billings Ovulation Method. They had by then raised nine children, the youngest of whom was seven.

Lyn's warmth and empathy meant she communicated easily with women on how to use the method and she was responsible for many important refinements to the Billings Method guidelines, especially for pre-menopausal women and breastfeeding mothers.

The Billings travelled to more than 100 countries to teach the method. They travelled to China more than 20 times at the invitation of the national Family Planning Commission of China, to establish a training program. The Billings Method became a recommended method of fertility regulation in three provinces of China. Lyn and John were honoured by the Chinese government for their contribution to the welfare of couples in China.

Though the initial impetus for the work came from the Catholic Church, the method has found wide acceptance across the spectrum of belief: among Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and Hindu communities, and people with no religious affiliation; and all nationalities. As Lyn Billings herself said, "biology does not recognise national boundaries".

Today in Australia, most women coming to the Billings clinics want to become pregnant. With the changing demographic of partnering later and declining fertility through the 30s and 40s, this is the bigger challenge. Here the Billings Method has achieved remarkable success. In a recent unpublished study, the Australian Billings centres found that more than 60 per cent of women clients conceived within five months of learning the method; the women in the three-year study had been trying to conceive for an average of 15 months.

Lyn Billings received honorary doctorates from universities around the world, including from Tor Vergata University in Rome in 2005. She was made a Dame Commander of St Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II.

In 1991 she and John Billings were both made members of the Order of Australia for their work in the field of women's reproductive health.

Lyn Billings was a woman of great personal charm and wit. She faced the hardships of travelling to remote areas with equanimity. She had a genius for relationships. Marie Marshell and other teachers have noted her unfailing courtesy and generosity to the poorest of the poor.

Of her nine children, eight survive. She had 39 grandchildren and 31 great-grandchildren and was intimately acquainted with the lives of every one of them.

Anne O'Donovan is the publisher of The Billings Method. She wrote this obituary with contributions from the Billings family, Dr Ann Westmore and Marie Marshell.

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