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Dr Meredyth Colston Gunn (1925 – 2014)


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. 


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.


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. 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.


Dr Mary Miller (nee Cameron)


Graduated from the University of Otago Medical School in 1962

Childhood and early education

Mary was born in September 1939 at Waikato hospital. The daughter of a general practitioner and a practice nurse, Mary was part of the medical profession from a young age. Both her parents had worked as medical missionaries in the Sudan before returning to New Zealand and operating a busy general practice in Henderson. Mary’s father was the only general practitioner in the region, and he would see patients in his medical rooms attached to the family home. Mary was allowed to answer telephone calls and assist patients with filling in forms, and she would often go with her parents in the car “on the rounds” to see patients who were unable to travel to the medical rooms. During the war, the roads were rough and truck loads of American soldiers would travel the Great North Road. Mary’s father was on call for accidents, emergencies, and obstetrics for miles around.

During her school years, Mary was given every opportunity to follow her career aspirations. From third form, her parents sent her to board at St Cuthbert’s College—a small (at that time) girl’s school in Auckland. The academic environment there suited Mary, as the principal was very supportive of the students going to university, and accommodated Mary’s desire to become a doctor by offering her and another student special one hour lessons in Physics to prepare for university. In 1957, she enrolled in The University of Auckland, where she passed her medical intermediate subjects, and was accepted into The University of Otago Medical School along with 17 other Auckland students.

Medical School

Mary remembers her time in medical school fondly. “I absolutely loved medical school. I just found it completely fascinating, every subject and the people we met, all the teachers. We respected them hugely. It’s not quite the same now, but we had enormous respect for the doctors who taught us, and having all those men in the class was marvellous you know, having been to a girl’s boarding school! And they were all such intelligent, friendly people…”

Mary describes a sense of formality during her time at University. During the two years she spent in St Margaret’s college, there were fairly strict house rules. Male visitors were asked to wait downstairs, and the students had to sign in and out of the college within curfew. The dress code at medical school was also considerably more formal than it is now. Men were required to wear ties and jackets, and Mary recalls a time a female student was sent home from a dissection class for wearing trousers.

Mary was a conscientious student and worked hard through medical school to ensure she passed—in contrast to some of her male friends who preferred to portray a more relaxed attitude to their studies. Her hard work paid off. She gained top marks and Distinction in Pathology, which earned her an additional merit allowance. In the fifth and sixth year, Mary taught Home Science students Anatomy and Physiology. For giving two lectures each week, setting exams and marking them, she was paid 150 pounds a year—enough to cover the entire food budget for the year, for both her and her husband.

Times were changing for young women in medicine and Mary insists she never felt discriminated against as a woman in medical school. Although women weren’t previously allowed in the University cafeteria, this changed during Mary’s time at Otago. In the fifth year of her studies, Mary married her husband Ross—a Presbyterian Minister. Unlike some women before her in a similar position, she continued her studies, although she does recall the injustice of having her merit allowance removed following her marriage. In her class, women freely formed friendships with male students, and the only time they formed a “women-only” group was during practical physiology classes where some undressing would be required. Sometimes they could use their minority status to their advantage:

“On one occasion all eight of us who were at St Mags wore clothes with dots on them, either a blouse or a dress with dots, and some were black and white and some were red and white, didn’t matter. We decided we’d all go in together, the first one went in and no one took any notice, then the second one went in and class members started to look, the third one went in, and by the time all eight of us went in the men students were all cheering and stamping, it was really funny!”

New medical technologies

Mary’s sixth year of medical training, spent in Dunedin and Wakari Hospitals, exposed her to all sorts of new and exciting medical technologies. She worked with Professor Frederick Horace Smirk, who was engaged in his early work controlling hypertension to prevent stroke. In those days the drugs were pretty horrendous and the patients experienced acute side-effects. The treatment for cardiac arrest was also vastly different back then. The chest would be slashed open with a scalpel and the heart massaged until it started again. Sometimes this would work, and the patient would then be taken to theatre and stitched up.

Mary recalls Christmas Day 1961 as particularly memorable. A young farmer had come in with crushed kidneys and suffered acute renal failure, after being run over by a tractor. There was no regular dialysis in those days, so Mary and her colleagues spent the day setting up the fluids and preparing the patient in the hope that the kidneys would recover if they could dialyse him through the acute phase. “I think he did actually recover, I don’t have a clear memory of that. I think he might have been the first patient that was ever dialysed in Dunedin, because you know the pharmacy was doing it all from scratch.”

During her fifth year Obstetric run at Queen Mary Hospital, Mary ‘lived-in’ at the hospital with five other students, delivering babies night and day. In the sixth year medical run at Wakari Hospital, Mary faced challenges that her male friends perhaps did not. After arriving at the hospital, she was directed to her accommodation in the nurse’s quarters quite a distance away, rather than the accommodation directly above the hospital that the male house surgeons occupied. Only after Mary’s insistence was she allowed to sleep in the house surgeon’s quarters, and she was presumably the first woman to be allowed this much more convenient accommodation.  

After Medical School

After graduation, Mary left medicine behind to focus on other challenges. The young couple travelled to Scotland for a time where they had their first child, before returning to New Zealand and completing their family of three children. Flourishing in the role of Minister’s wife, Mary participated in pre-marriage courses and family life education for the Marriage Guidance Council. With a developing passion for teaching, Mary was granted a temporary teaching certificate and taught Liberal Studies at Timaru College, where she quietly enjoyed the pros of working with healthy people—completely different to her previous experiences working in medicine.

However, Mary’s career in medicine was by no means over. Ross’s Ministerial work soon took them to Fiji, and as the need for house surgeons outweighed that for teachers, Mary returned to full-time medical work in CWM Hospital, Suva. In Fiji, Mary gained practical experience like no other she had received before. Working as a house surgeon in Paediatrics, she learnt to intubate neonates and put in tiny butterfly needles that had been re-used multiple times, and in Obstetrics assisted with many deliveries with limited support from more senior doctors.

 “The obstetrician I was working with … said the first night you are on call you need to know twins, postpartum haemorrhage … and breech. So I read them all up and talked to her about them, and I got all three that first night!”

Mary remembers the four years that she and her family spent in Fiji fondly. Living on a large property, the children had acres of mudslides and trees to climb. Mary met lots of local and international people through her husband’s parish and her own work at the hospital. Through Ross’s role as head of one of the five churches, the couple were once invited to government house for dinner to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury. “It was sort of like living a double life in some ways. But it was good, very good.”

Career as a Pathologist

Mary found her Diploma of Obstetrics training back in New Zealand relatively easy after her experiences in Fiji, but she began looking for a permanent career path. A fateful conversation with Pathology Professor Peter Herdson helped her decision to study Pathology.

“I had always loved Pathology because it underpins everything….and I’d done well in it at medical school, I was the first person ever to get distinction Prof Howie told me, years later!”

Mary flourished in her chosen specialty. During her five years of Pathology training, the only time she questioned her decision was when she was sitting the exams, which were very difficult. The science was changing rapidly, and there was not a single thing she had learnt in Pathology in medical school that was still valid. Later, she applied her teaching skills to a role as Tutor Specialist, training registrars for their exams and organising their lecture programme. She also spent some time working alongside Pathology specialists Peter Herdson and George Hitchcock, reviewing all the melanomas of the eye that had been diagnosed in Auckland. Her work was published in a special edition of Pathology to honour the late New Zealander, and melanoma specialist, Vincent McGovern. Showcasing her work in this way gave her further opportunities for collaboration, and she was invited for a few months’ work across the ditch at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne.   

Mary spent the remainder of her career working at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital as a Histopathologist. She loved working in the hospital alongside all the surgeons and other clinicians from different departments, and it was these types of collaborations that lead to formation of the Breast Clinic and the New Zealand Bone Registry at Middlemore Hospital. Working alongside Professor John Collins, Mary helped initiate the patient-focused breast clinic—a revolutionary treatment approach that gave women a diagnosis and treatment plan within a single visit. Importantly, clinicians would meet and discuss each patient collaboratively, developing the modern multidisciplinary approach to healthcare.

During her time working in Middlemore Hospital, Mary developed a special interest in the diagnosis and treatment of bone tumours. Realising that New Zealand did not have a bone tumour registry as did all the Australian states, in 1988 Mary wrote to every pathologist, radiologist, and orthopaedic surgeon in the country to encourage them to contribute information from their bone tumour patients to a centralised database, adding to the material already collected at Middlemore. This became known as The New Zealand Bone and Soft Tissue Tumour Registry. Despite some initial resistance to this new type of collaboration, within a year, the group was having regular meetings for presentations on bone tumours and individual cases. Thanks to its success, the database now has an excellent collection of each type of tumour. Mary and her colleague Alan King were invited to contribute to the World Health Organisation book on Bone Tumours, a chapter on Synovial Chondromatosis.

Life after Medicine

Over time, Mary’s focus moved towards her grandchildren and other hobbies.  

“I worked until I was just about 70, and I knew I was going to retire. I didn’t want to drop dead over my microscope—I wanted to do other things. And also I didn’t want to start making mistakes. You make a mistake when you’re 50, it’s fine. If you make a mistake when you’re 75 people say “she should have retired by now”. It’s just the way I felt, I didn’t want to spoil my career by doing something when I wasn’t quite up to it.”

Mary says she doesn’t miss medicine at all, as there are so many other things to do. Nowadays, she enjoys helping with reading at the local primary school, walking on the beach, tramping, swimming, and singing. She’s also President of the Warkworth University of the 3rd Age (U3A)—an organisation for lifelong learning.

Mary says she couldn’t have done what she did without Ross’s support. “Choose a supportive partner!” she says. “Because if you can do things together and share the jobs, and support each other with what you want to do, when you want to do it, it just transforms life.” She admits that her decision to leave medicine for so long to raise her family is probably not possible now or popular advice, but believes it is important to have your children fairly young to avoid obstetric problems. “Some people came back to medicine after 20 years, and I think if you’re determined to do something and to do it well, you can do it.”

Mary’s final advice for young women entering the profession is to be whole-hearted in what you do. “If you’re doing a job, you’ve got to give it everything,” she says.


Dr (Patricia) Ann Coates (née Weston)


Graduated from the University of Otago Medical School in 1954

Childhood and early education

Patricia Ann Weston was born in 1930 in Greymouth on the West Coast of the South Island, as the oldest of four children and the daughter of a local sheep farmer. Ann’s interest in medicine came from her mother, who graduated in 1925 from King’s College Hospital in London before moving to New Zealand and working as a Medical Officer for the Grey Valley Coal Miners at Brunner. This was a culture shock for Ann’s mother, as the family home was in a remote location 42 miles inland from Greymouth with no road access. Ann’s first journey home was on horseback over the Ahaura River.

After having her children, Ann’s mother continued to work as the only local doctor in the area, treating patients from three farms and a sawmill that was five miles away. As a young child, Ann was schooled by correspondence from her family home. When she was ten, she was sent to live with her grandparents in Greymouth so that she could attend the local state school, and then later to St Margaret’s College girls’ boarding school in Christchurch. Ann was initially very homesick and unable to return to the farm very often because of the road conditions, but she would visit her relatives nearby and eventually settled into her life at boarding school.

Ann remembers expressing a desire to enter the medical profession during her very first day at secondary school.

“I remember being interviewed by my head mistress when I first arrived there, and she said, “what do you want to do?” and I remember quite clearly saying I wanted to be a doctor. I was twelve and a half.”

Ann was one of a few academically minded students, however by the seventh form she was the only student studying science and maths. Science education for girls in those days was limited to general science topics, taught by a home science teacher, with some expeditions to boys’ schools for laboratory work.

Ann spent her medical intermediate year studying at Canterbury University. Although she needed physics coaching to make up for her lack of science education, she doesn’t recall being weighed down by study, and she exceeded the exam threshold needed to get into medical school.

“I don’t know how we got through really – I can remember walking in Hagley Park, and I played hockey at school, so it wasn’t all bad.”

Medical school

Ann enrolled in Medicine at Otago University in 1950 with no fixed ideas of where her studies would take her. Of the 120 medical students, Ann was one of just twelve female students, although only eight would later go on to graduate. She doesn’t recall too much about her move to Dunedin, and in her experience, it wasn’t typical for parents to come down and help the students settle into their new lives as medical students.

“[On the first day] we just all bowled along I think and [were] probably introduced to the whole thing by some delightful Professor Bill Adams, who was the Professor of Anatomy.”

During her first year of Medical School, Ann lived in Studholme College with home science ‘chooks’ as they were affectionately called, in a fairly basic room with a south-facing balcony. She has good memories of times with her fellow students, and she recalls the added benefit of sampling their delicious meals cooked as part of their studies. Later, she moved to St Margaret’s College with other medical students, and then to a large old house on George Street that came to be known as ‘The Chookery’, so named by the home science students. Ann recalls wrapping herself up in rugs and hot water bottles to guard against the freezing temperatures while studying in her room.

During the early years of her study, Ann would return home during her summer holidays and work on the farm managing sheep, haymaking, and working in the kitchen making scones. One summer, Ann convinced her (very Victorian) father to let her spend a working holiday at the Mount with her friend Margaret Gibberd (née Sidey), where they worked as house maids and waitresses for the Oceanside Hotel. These summer jobs would help fund her general expenses, although Ann was fortunate that her living expenses at medical school were paid by a boarding bursary, as there were no student loans available in those days.

The schedule for medical school students was rigorous. Sir Charles Hercus was the Dean of Otago Medical School during Ann’s studies, and in the early years, content was taught mainly by lecturers including Bill Adams, Willie Trotter, Professor Edson, and Professor Eccles. Ann recalls enjoying anatomy more than physiology, although she and the other students were overwhelmed by the amount of content they needed to learn. Dissections were something the students particularly enjoyed.

“I think it was fascinating really, it wasn’t a chore anyway.”

In Ann’s opinion, the girls were particularly disciplined in their studies and worked conscientiously. She described her study habits as ‘efficient’, as she would never stay up until 2am to study for exams. As was customary at the time, Ann and the other female students would sit in the front row of the lecture theatre and would work on the same body during anatomy dissections. She doesn’t recall being specifically excluded from any of medical education because of her gender, although some aspects of medical education were generally lacking in those days.

“I don’t think we had too much sex education, I think it was before all that. I can remember a visiting lecturer coming out and talking about birth control and you couldn’t get into that lecture theatre during the talk.”

Medical students were somewhat set apart from the rest of the university and socialised almost exclusively with each other. Other than some minor rivalry between the female students, the girls were friendly and supportive to each other. They were also friendly with the male students however, and there were some returned servicemen in her year who added some male maturity to the class. In Ann’s experience, romantic relationships with men were infrequent during her time at Medical School.

“It was always nice to have somebody to go the Selwyn Ball with or the Knox Ball and that was about it really.”

Ann recalls that drinking and smoking where not a big part of the student culture, not to the extent that goes on today. Back then, medical students were not particularly interested, and could not afford these luxuries.

“We certainly had alcohol at the odd party, I can remember brandy and ginger and how we ever paid for it I don’t know where it came from. You see there wasn’t much wine around then and I don’t remember how anybody paid for a bottle of brandy – we were terribly poor. We would walk rather than pay threepence on the tram.”

Ann enjoyed the transition into the clinical part of her medical training. During these years, the students were taught in smaller groups and were given more individual attention from the teachers. During the fifth year of her studies she spent the majority of her time in Dunedin Hospital, with some training in the Queen Mary, and at least once at Seacliff Mental Hospital, where a famous patient, Lionel Terry, was treated. During her sixth year, she chose to study at Wellington Hospital, where she lived with other medical students above the maternity ward.

“I think that we were actually given quite a lot of responsibility as a final year medical student, probably more than we should really have been but I don’t think we had any disasters.”

At this point, Ann recalls favouring hands-on work, and found obstetrics enjoyable, but was not yet committed to any specialty.

“We were totally open minded and felt we had to go through the house surgeon year posts really to work out where we wanted to finish up. No, we were quite keen on just getting a general overall picture of medicine.”

Ann graduated from Otago Medical School in 1954. In her opinion, medical students were inclined to take capping a bit casually. She does not have an individual photograph of herself, her parents did not attend the event, and she can’t recall the graduation ball. Instead, she recalls being ready to return to Wellington and continue her training in earnest.

Career as an anaesthetist

At the end of fifth year, Ann worked for six weeks as Stratford Hospital, where she first developed an interest in anaesthetics. ‘Dr Doris’ (Doris Gordon) was a famous ‘baby’ doctor in the region, and Ann remembers tying up her apron strings for a caesarean section one day.

“I think I was starting to have a little interest in anaesthetics even in those days, probably because the anaesthetists had time to interest us really and let us help with pouring on the open ether and they were still using chloroform in Stratford in those days.”

Ann worked as a house surgeon at Wellington Hospital from 1955 and 1956, with rotations at the nearby Hutt and Silverstream Hospitals. These years gave her and the other students the opportunity to try out different specialities. In general, students would choose between general practice, specialising, or public health—the latter being a common choice for women.

Although Ann was interested in obstetrics, she was forward- thinking enough to realise she would not enjoy the lifestyle of working throughout the nights. Instead, Ann decided to begin a career specialising in anaesthesia. She attributes her inspiration to her colleague Graeme Marshall (who had recently spent time in the United Kingdom learning about muscle relaxants), as well as the senior anaesthetists at Wellington Hospital, Bruce Cook and David Wright. Her choice of specialty was a wise one—thanks to the general shortage of anaesthetists, Ann was able to stay in Wellington Hospital in 1957, rather than to more remote regions—where she spent the year training as a junior registrar in anaesthetics.

In the 1950s, there were no options to specialise in New Zealand or Australia, and junior doctors needed to travel overseas to complete their specialist training. At the beginning of 1958, Ann travelled to England via cargo ship as a ship’s doctor, entitling her to a free passage. As the only doctor for the crew and ten passengers on board, she was prepared to deal with any medical emergency, and she counts herself lucky that constipation was the most common complaint. She recalls that the crew would go to the steward for the more embarrassing complaints.

“I think there were various VD [venereal disease] problems as there was a lot of VD in those days and I think they use to go to Stewards for that. I think they were too embarrassed.”

After arriving in England, Ann’s first job was at Adenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, where she did a Diploma of Anaesthetics, before working at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. After a few short years, Ann returned home to develop her career and personal life back in New Zealand. Here she forged a relationship with her future husband, who she had met when she was a final year medical student, and in time the couple married and had four children.

Combining a medical career with family life

During her career, Ann maintained a steady balance between work and family life. She had grown up with her mother as a role model, who had demonstrated that it is possible for women to have both a career and children. While in some ways she regrets not remaining in the United Kingdom for another five years and studying for a Fellowship in Anaesthetics, she also realises that this would have had an impact on her family life.

“No, I wouldn’t change being married and having children, it is pretty important, so I think I have had the best of two worlds really.”

Ann worked full-time as an anaesthetist until she started having children. Then she would take six months off to breastfeed, before continuing work part time. She reflects that her success in continuing with her career was in part aided by the specialty she had chosen, and she found that her colleagues were quite supportive of her decision.

“I mean certainly in anaesthetics you could work on a sessional basis so that combined with having children and being married.”

When her children were young, Ann would complete two sessions, equivalent to two half-days, per week, which was enough to keep her registration and skills active. Over time, Ann went back to work more frequently. Despite the difficulties of juggling two worlds, Ann never considered giving up work, and is grateful for the help she received.

“I had an amazing woman who use to appear on foot from probably a mile and a half or so and she would arrive at 7.30 in the morning so I could get to the hospital to start my operating list at 8 o’clock and she just stayed there until the list was finished because I mean you never know whether the list is going to finish at 12 o’clock or 2 o’clock and she was with me really all the time that I had children at home.”

Ann reflects that there were other advantages to a career in anaesthesia, in addition to the favourable maternity leave options. Due to the shortage of anaesthetists at the time, Ann and her colleagues were able to do much of the job on their own terms.

“In those days anaesthetists didn’t spread their speciality quite as widely, I mean they weren’t doing intensive care, they weren’t doing pain clinics.”

“It was pretty routine giving the anaesthetics really. I probably didn’t ever do the open-heart surgery or really ever do neurosurgery, so I stuck to more general surgery and orthopaedics, gynaecology, and eyes. I didn’t do a lot of obstetric anaesthesia after I was married. We were a bit choosy about what we did and that worked well.”

Over the course of her career, Ann recalls the switch to computerised records as being one of her biggest challenges, as she wasn’t computer literate and still isn’t. Maintaining professional competency during her periods of leave could also be challenging. Unlike today, this was a voluntary process, although Ann would try to go to as many conferences as possible and subscribed to scientific journals to keep her knowledge current.

“Still you have got to discipline yourself to sit at the computer and read them don’t you.”

Ann worked in anaesthetics until she was 65, when she changed career path and moved into palliative care. The switch in specialties was a challenge, as Ann had completed only six weeks of general practice before moving to the United Kingdom back in the 1950s. She reflects how much of medical practice is communicating effectively with your patients—skills that she gained during motherhood.

“I had always been rather interested in palliative care, and I got involved with palliative care at the hospice in Lower Hutt and I spent nearly six years there just as a Medical Officer and I actually enjoyed that beyond words. It was partly the patient contact I think because you had such intimate contact in palliative care with the patient and the families, but it was also amazing teamwork, working with the other doctors and the nurses. It was very rewarding indeed.”


One of the hardest things in medicine can be developing a good working relationship with other women. In Ann’s day, the hospital system was quite hierarchical, and this could be difficult for women.

“In those days, the ward sisters were battle axes sometimes and they had been there for a long time, and here we were little upstarts who really knew nothing, and they jolly well knew we didn’t know anything. But they kind of on the whole made allowances for the boys but I don’t think they did for the girls, so you could have quite a bad time.”

Even today, Ann does not widely advertise her chosen career path to the people that she meets at her retirement activities (such as playing croquet), as some women find it threatening.

“Nurses back off a bit when they hear what you have done with your life, so you just have to be a little bit tactful at times. We couldn’t cope without the nurses, but they could probably cope without us and they would rather have males in the role.”

Ann reflects that a medical career gives you lifelong skills, even once your career is effectively over.

“On my last trip to Dunedin somebody nearly choked to death and then one of the other doctors had some strange turn where his pulse went. Anyway, you have to step in because you are the best qualified, so you have to do it as a sort of lay person. I mean it is ongoing which you don’t think about. At the bridge club if somebody passes out I have no compunction about putting them on the floor and putting their legs in the air. So people look to you for help. Life long skills! You do your best really from a first aid point of view only.”

Finally, Ann is supportive of young women embarking on a medical career these days.

“I would say go for it and I think it is a fantastic career, I mean I loved it and I don’t think I have any reservations really.”


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