Meet the Kempers

As Monash turns 60, the number of parents and their children graduating from the University is on the rise.

The Kempers would be a handy bunch to have around in a medical emergency. The family of four doctors are all graduates of the Monash Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, and are all connected indelibly to Monash Health.

In fact, this multi-generational Monash family quite possibly owes its existence to the University. Irene, 60, and Jörg, 62, met over a skeleton when Irene was going into first year and Jörg his second. It’s a long story, albeit a good one, but the short of it is that family connections had arranged for Irene to swap a skeleton she had for Jörg’s first-year textbooks. The rest, as they say, is history.

“And don’t forget you married in the Monash chapel,” son James, 27, reminds them.

A Zoom meeting with the Kempers in the depths of Melbourne’s fifth lockdown is a fun respite. Warm, close-knit and socially minded, they’re clearly committed to their collective profession for the right reasons.

Kemper family portrait.
The Kempers maintain strong ties to their alma mater.

So, here’s the lowdown on the Kempers. Dr Irene Wagner (who goes by her maiden name professionally) is a leading geriatrician with a focus on dementia at Monash Health, where she also supervises trainees.

Her husband Dr Jörg Kemper is a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist, who has delivered babies at St John of God Berwick Hospital since 1992 and is also a consultant at Monash Health Casey Hospital.

Dr James Kemper, who has followed his father into obstetrics and gynaecology, is a registrar at Monash Health – and he also works with Jörg as a surgical assistant at St John of God.

The most recent admission to the ranks of the Kemper doctors is Jessica, 25, who graduated in 2020 and is an intern at Monash Health.

Family matters

Ultrasound and patient
In a special family moment, Jörg and James worked together to deliver five babies in one morning.

As the University celebrates 60 years since it started accepting students, the Kempers are one of a growing number of multi-generational Monash families.

"In fact, you might consider us third generation, because my father was a doctor and he worked with Monash Health, too,” says Irene.

Occasionally having three Dr Kempers in the one health service does have its drawbacks, especially for James.

“If [the switchboard operator] doesn’t listen completely to the name they’ll go alphabetically and go through to my mobile because I’m first,” he explains.

But it’s more often cause for celebration, as shown in his Instagram post from the St John of God surgical theatre in November 2020 that captures himself and Jörg in scrubs with the caption:

Families that operate together, stay together. Dr Kemper assisting Dr Kemper. Five babies in a morning."

It was perhaps inevitable that James and Jessica would follow in their parents’ footsteps, although it was by osmosis rather than parental pressure.

“It was always a background option for me,” says Jessica, who plans to go into orthopaedics. “I did all the subjects needed to get into med and took the attitude that if it was meant to be it would happen.

"I think if you see your parents work in the field it demystifies it. You see them work nights and weekends and you know it’s not necessarily going to be a Monday to Friday, nine-to-five job."

“And if they’re going to do medicine, they’re only going to do it at Monash,” interjects Irene.

Close conversations

So, do the Kempers talk shop in their downtime? You bet they do.

“You can’t vent in the same way when you have to explain all of the background,” says James. “On the other hand, sharing the positive experiences, like delivering the five babies together, is a fantastic experience.”

Medical pathway

Jörg and Irene are well placed to comment on the way Monash University has changed over the years. Their Clayton campus tour for James when he entered first year wasn’t the most successful (“I was confidently led down paths that led nowhere,” he says).

The senior Kempers used to park their cars on a vast area of dirt that has since been taken over by buildings. But while the old Ming Wing (Menzies building) remains the same, it’s altogether a more beautiful place thanks to green spaces and modern builds.

The bigger change they see is in the medical course, which has been shortened, with students entering hospitals earlier than before. Then there’s the interview process to be admitted as a Monash medical undergraduate, which Jörg has assisted with for the past 10 years (“I recused myself when it was my own kids,” he hastens to add).

Ultimately, says Jörg, being a family of doctors is no different to being a family of plumbers.

It's a job that we all love doing. It’s very satisfying work. And it’s a very nice feeling."

“I get a big kick out of seeing so many people know James and Jessica as junior doctors. I’ve said to them before, ‘Are you sure you want this lifestyle?’ and they’re proving to be wonderful additions to the profession.”