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Christchurch Medical Men Project 1850-1900

Apart from midwives and female pharmacists, medical practice in colonial Christchurch was an exclusively male affair. The first woman to be registered as a medical practitioner in Christchurch was Jessie Clarkson Maddison, the daughter of a leading architect, on 29 November 1902. She was followed in December 1916 by Maud Féré (née Shand).

The dates were chosen quite arbitrarily as the first half-century of the Canterbury settlement. From Dr Donald to Dr Crooke there were no fewer than 97 registered medical men practising in Christchurch, along with a few who were not registered. In addition there were several homeopaths, masseurs and the odd galvanist making a living in the city.

This cohort witnessed remarkable changes in medical science, medical practice and public health in New Zealand. My interest in the medical men was first aroused by my work on the 1918 influenza pandemic, published in 1988 as Black November: the 1918 influenza epidemic in New Zealand. It had been further deepened by work on the public health reforms that led to the construction of New Zealand’s first deep sewer system (1879-82) and the sharp reduction in death rates from diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria and scarlet fever which had actually preceded the completion of the sewers. This work was published as a chapter, ‘Public Health in Christchurch, 1875-1910’ in A Healthy Country Essays on the Social History of Medicine in New Zealand, edited by Linda Bryder (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1991), pp. 85-108.

This research had alerted me to the great diversity of qualifications and medical knowledge of the Christchurch medical men, some of whom had actively opposed the public health reforms. Though keen to know more, I was diverted by an invitation to edit the second edition Oxford History of New Zealand (1992) and a commissioned history of St John Ambulance in Christchurch (1994). Then one book led to another, and a heavy teaching load left no spare time or energy for the doctors until my retirement from the University of Canterbury.

Initially it had seemed an easy task to combine the information to be found in David Macmillan’s By-Ways of History and Medicine (1946) with Rex Wright-St Clair’s comprehensive list of medical practitioners in New Zealand, Historia Nunc Vivat (2003). But my work for Christchurch Crimes and Scandals (2013) had shown that there were further riches to be found in the old Christchurch newspapers, the Lyttelton Times and The Press, now available from the Papers Past website of the National Library of New Zealand.

I therefore set about the long and laborious task of searching for the doctors’ names in these papers, and was immediately rewarded with a flood of new information. Flood is the right word, for I was discovering far more detail than could be contained in a single book, even a fat one. I wanted to explain the role of the doctors in the public health reforms, both for and against, yet also assess them as a professional cohort.

That pointed to something like a biographical dictionary. My previous involvement with the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1990-2000) had given me useful experience of the problems to be encountered in such a reference work, but some of the doctors obviously deserved more than a simple dictionary entry. The solution, it seemed to me, was to write a series of book-length biographies of the most important figures, and a series of shorter pieces, in booklet form, about the more interesting minor figures.

The first results of this approach appeared in 2020. With assistance from the Cotter Medical History Trust, there appeared in November 2020 A Scientific Welsh Eye Surgeon: the short life of Dr Llewellyn Powell (1843-79), Christchurch’s first public health medical officer (Christchurch, Hawthorne Press, 2020). This is available from the Cotter Medical History Trust, P.O. Box 2301, Christchurch, at $30.

A second biography, of Powell’s successor, Dr Courtney Nedwill, was published in 2022. (See under BOOKS)

In the meantime, several shorter pieces have appeared and are made available here as free PDFs:

The last three titles were originally written for my Christchurch Crimes and Scandals (2013) but were held back to save space and with a view to inclusion in a future collection of medical trials. Since that will probably never see the light of day, here is another short study, mainly of interest to the lawyers, involving Dr Clayton:

Newspaper research inevitably turns up all sorts of other interesting stories, and one that was encountered when several Christchurch doctors appeared as witnesses in a court case in 1881 is here presented as: