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Dr Meredyth Colston Gunn (1925 – 2014)

Meredyth Colston Gunn, 1945

Graduated from the University of Otago School of Medicine in 1952.

Meredyth Gunn was born in Te Kuiti to her loving parents, Mabel and Norman. Born between the two world wars, Meredyth grew up in a modest rural villa with her two younger sisters Florence and Jenny. Meredyth was a good school student, and she told her mother that she wanted to become a nurse when she grew up. Recognising her daughter’s potential, Mabel aspired for Meredyth to study medicine and become a doctor.

In the 6th form, Meredyth attended Hamilton High School so that she could learn Latin, as was required for entry into medical school at the time. This meant boarding at a hostel during the week, returning home by train only during the weekends. In those days, the upper and lower sixth forms were mostly boys, and there were no phone calls, so Mabel wrote to her daughter every day during her high school years.

After high school, Meredyth successfully gained a place at the University of Otago medical school, where she began her studies in 1944. In those days female students were in the minority. Meredyth was one of only 14 girls in that year out of the 120 students who were accepted. Meredyth spoke of the difficulties travelling between her home in Te Kuiti and the medical school in Dunedin, which took two days to complete.

“I would get on the express at about quarter past 7 at night, [and] I would travel down to Wellington.  I would spend a day in Wellington then I would cross on the ferry at night.  You would arrive in Lyttleton at 7 in the morning and you would go through to Christchurch and you would have breakfast in Christchurch station then you would get on the train and go down to Dunedin.” 

Meredyth had a challenging time completing her medical studies. The intermediate (first year) was completed in Auckland. Then she gained entry to medical school in Otago in 1946. After a ruptured appendix entailing a lengthy hospital admission close to exam time, she had to repeat her first year of medical school. During her fourth year of studies, she married Bryce Gunn (also a medical student) and had the first of her four children. In those days many women medical students abandoned their studies when they married, let alone when they fell pregnant. However, with help from her mother-in-law who looked after baby Graeme in Wellington, and an extra two years of study, Meredyth was able to complete her medical education. Her second child Diana was born the following January.

Meredyth’s first year after graduation was as a school doctor. “I can remember one time we were immunising children and another one joined the queue and received an immunization. Unfortunately the parents didn’t want him immunised and I had to go to their home and tell them that unfortunately their child had been given an injection.” During that time they screened all the boys for undescended testicles. “But of course these boys knew that they were different, and you know, the parents were very grateful because the boys wouldn’t tell anyone and of course they can become malignant”.

After two years, Meredyth and her husband Bryce moved to the Coromandel where they were they were the only doctors north of Thames and provided medical care for several remote communities. This was a difficult place to be a GP. The roads were unsealed and dangerous, the communities were sometimes 2-3 hours drive away and the roads were often washed out. While living in the Coromandel, Meredyth had two more children (David born in 1954, and Cynthia in 1956) travelling to Auckland for each birth. Meredyth was busy with a family of four by then and did not do much medical work. In 1958 they moved to Cambridge and set up a busy medical practice together. GP practice included maternity care, and Bryce delivered plenty of babies during their time there.

After 27 years of marriage Bryce and Meredyth separated in 1974. After several difficult years of ill health, Meredyth finally settled into work at Tokanui Hospital as a medical officer. She retired from Tokanui in 1991 and spent her retirement breeding Burmese cats and playing bridge and enjoying her 7 grandchildren.  She moved to Auckland in 1991 where she remained until her death on 8th September 2014.

Her family remember Meredyth for her goodness, her generousity, and her strength. 

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Dr Margaret Coop (1927 – 2013)

This is an abbreviated version of Margaret's biography, written by her husband Douglas Coop.

Margaret Coop

Graduated from the University of Otago School of Medicine in 1950. 

Margaret was born at Waimate in South Canterbury in 1927, but spent her young childhood years in a country town in Western Australia. Here, Margaret’s childhood friends were the local animals, including a little joey kangaroo that would jump in and out of her pinny, the multi-coloured parrots, and of course the occasional snake and scorpion. Her family returned to New Zealand in 1935 and Margaret was educated at Christchurch Girls High School where she excelled at both sport and academia. 

Margaret passed her University entrance exams at the young age of fifteen. She began her studies at the Otago Medical School in 1946, and graduated in 1950 with high marks. She trained at Christchurch Hospital throughout her final year of Medical School, but despite her academic successes, she was not employed there as a house surgeon because she was a woman. 

Fortunately, Margaret was employed by Dunedin Hospital, although her salary was considerably less than her male colleagues for the same work. Whereas the male house surgeons lived at the hospital, the women were housed across the street in an old building known as the ‘nunnery’. To get to the hospital, the women had to battle Dunedin’s changeable weather, and faced the added dangers of darkness during night emergencies. 

After her house surgeon years, Margaret lectured in anatomy at the Medical School, and is thought to be the first woman to tutor anatomy in New Zealand. In 1952 she married Douglas Coop, and they both decided to study Ophthalmology—an ideal speciality for a woman. After two years as the eye registrar at Dunedin Hospital they travelled to London to finish their studies. To get to London, they both worked as surgeons, each on a separate ship, and Margaret accompanied by her nine-month-old baby. 

Margaret passed her final exams with such high distinction she was awarded a two-year research scholarship, which she took up at the Pathology Department of the Institute of Ophthalmology in London. Ocular Pathology was a new speciality in those days, and she was the first overseas graduate to be accepted. She published a research paper on false tumours of the eye published as the leading article in the British Journal of Ophthalmology. Her work is still cited in the literature, and over the last fifty years her findings have saved many eyes from round the world being removed unnecessarily. 

Margaret’s time in London was busy and varied. She worked at Moorfields Eye Hospital Outpatients, and ran the Leprosy Eye Clinic at the Royal Free Hospital. She also represented New Zealand on the International Association of Medical Women, where she had occasional dealings with the Queen Mother and Lady Mountbatten. Every year, Margaret would stand up and address the huge Congress of women doctors from round the world. In 1958, Margaret was invited to Buckingham Palace for the Royal Garden Party. It was a much smaller affair in those days. Various well-known people were there, including Winston Churchill, and Roger Bannister who had been the first to break the 4-minute mile, while in an upstairs window a young Prince Charles and Princess Anne watched proceedings under the eagle eye of their nannie.

When her scholarship ended, Margaret returned to New Zealand, and then Canberra, where she went into practice as an Eye Specialist. She was also a consultant surgeon to all five hospitals in the Australian Capital Territory and the adjacent part of New South Wales. By this time Margaret was also a Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists. She and Douglas worked in separate practices, but always operated together. During her Canberra years they travelled widely to conferences in countries round the world and met with many adventures, such as flying in the Concord at twice the speed of sound. But it was a busy life for her, as by this time she also had five children to care for.

Margaret was always ready to help others, and based her life on Christian principles. For many years in Canberra she wore a small brooch stating, ‘You can’t hug a child with nuclear arms.’ Across the years she supported nine different children on World Vision, and contributed to numerous charities. When Margaret retired in 1990, the local newspaper published an editorial praising her work and regretting the loss of her services to the community. This was accompanied by a number of letters of appreciation written by former patients, some of whom continued to send her Christmas cards for many years after she had retired.

After she retired she spent several months at Hanmer Hospital researching drug addiction. Over time, she appreciated her quiet retirement where she could continue her needlework, giving most of what she made to friends and relatives. In 2012, Margaret and Douglas celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary among friends and family.

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Dr Mabel Aileen Christie nee Hanron (1885-1955)

Written by Mabel’s granddaughter, Dr Nora Lynch

Dr Mabel Aileen Christie nee Hanron

Graduated from the University of Otago School of Medicine in 1917

Mabel Hanron was born in Peshawar (formerly India, now Pakistan) in 1885, the sixth of eleven children born to Michael and Alice Hanron. Her father, having been orphaned in the aftermath of   Irish Potato Famine, had travelled from Eire to India in early adulthood to train as an engineer with the British Army. The changing fortunes of colonial India eventually unsettled the family, prompting their emigration to Nelson in 1888. Mabel spent her school years on the struggling family farm in Stanley Brook where her mother Alice quietly pursued a revolutionary plan to ensure that ‘no daughter of hers was to slave over a hot stove, day in day out, nor was she to soil her hands and grow old before her time’.[1] She was determined that ‘the boys were to work on the farm to provide money for the girls to obtain a good education’ despite the impecunious position of the family and occasional criticism from within the local community.[2] Following her matriculation from Nelson Girl’s College in 1904, Mabel taught primary school classes until the family could finally afford for her to begin the medical training which her mother had planned for her.

Mabel studied first at Victoria University College in 1911, then continued her medical degree at Otago University from 1914. Life in Dunedin was harsh. There was little family money available for food and board for her or her sister Nora, who was studying dentistry, and their health suffered because of this.[3] Mabel graduated MBChB in 1917, the thirteenth medical woman to emerge from Otago University. Her first appointment was as House Surgeon and Physician at Dunedin Hospital, followed by a year as medical officer at Mangonui Hospital in the Far North. Her daughter later recalled stories of weighty responsibility and isolation, including a late night spent refreshing her anatomy knowledge  before operating alone to remove a gangrenous upper limb. Reputedly the patient survived!

She married her classmate, Robert Lyall Christie in 1919 and almost immediately moved with him to Samoa where he took up an appointment as Medical Officer at Apia Hospital. Mabel was 35 years old when gave birth to a daughter the following year. She was indeed an ‘elderly primagravida’ and this was to be her only living child; sadly a subsequent son was stillborn.

Mabel resumed her medical career in Samoa, working to improve the health services to mothers and children, alongside the wife of the American Vice Consul Dr Regina Keyes Roberts and local nurses. During 1925, she travelled to 85 villages ‘on foot, horse and canoe for nine months …to explain and help establish the health committees and train the committee executive in basic first aid and sanitation’.[4] An annual report of her work, presented to the New Zealand Department of Health in 1926 (reflecting the annexed status of Western Samoa at that time), makes interesting reading.[5]  Contemporary colonial patronage lies juxtaposed with authentic compassion, respect for Samoan women and practical public health wisdom. Her assertion that ‘the baby needs no other food than its mother’s milk, and not only is other food unnecessary but is doing the baby a great deal of harm’ remains relevant almost a century later.[6]

In 1927, Mabel and her family moved to Rarotonga when her husband was appointed Medical Superintendent of the Cook Islands. It is unclear whether she practised medicine during their four year sojourn there. The family returned permanently to live in New Zealand in 1931, as their only daughter approached secondary school age.

Tragically, Mabel’s husband died in a motor vehicle accident in Wellington the following year when she was just 47 years old. It was a trauma from which her daughter believed she never fully recovered. Thrust into the role of breadwinner, she took a position as medical officer at the Waikouaiti Health Camp in 1933, a role commonly undertaken by medical women of that era. She subsequently worked in Auckland on her own account between 1935-6, advertising her services as a Physician and Dietitian and sharing rooms in Civic House Queen St with her dentist sister. Her daughter understood the practice failed because in the midst to a worldwide financial depression, ‘everyone paid the doctor last’. It appears she never worked again. Mabel bought land, moved to west Auckland in her early 50s and lived here until her death in 1955 at the age of 70.

As I reflect on the life of a grandmother who I never knew, I am struck by the tenacity of her family who defied financial constraint and social mores to facilitate education for her and her sisters. As for the woman herself, it is difficult to really know her character but her pioneering child health work in Samoa suggests abundant energy, sharp intellect and a social conscience. It is not difficult to believe the family narrative that the sadness of early widowhood extinguished a light which was never properly reignited.

 

Reference list

[1] N.Hanron  The Hanrons. Background to the Hanron Family in Ireland, India and New Zealand .Unpublished family monograph,1994.p.43

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid, p.54.

[4] P. Thomas, Australian National University. ’The Samoan Women’s Health Committees: a study of community vulnerability and resilience.’ Presented to the NZ Development Network Conference, Otago University, November 2014. http://devnet.org.nz/sites/default/files/Thomas%20Paper%20for%20Devnet%20Conf%202014%20for%20NZDEVNET%20website.pdf. Accessed online Feb 2018.

[5] M. Christie, ‘Child Welfare Work in Western Samoa’, in Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives.-1926 Session1, pp.38-41.

[6] M. Christie, p.42.

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