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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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