In March 1917, a school leaver called Frances McAllister travelled from her North Island home to the southern city of Dunedin. She was one of seven or eight females among thirty new entrants at the Otago Medical School. (The 1917 intake was much smaller than usual due to military conscription.) McAllister graduated as a doctor in 1922. Her memoir (published under her married name Frances Preston), Lady Doctor, Vintage Model, is a fascinating window into New Zealand life in the first half of the twentieth century. As the blurb puts it:
The early days of New Zealand medicine were not for the squeamish. Tuberculosis, hydatids, osteomyelitis and syphilis were common, bush-felling and saw-milling accidents abounded, and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic cut a swath through the country.”
When the influenza epidemic arrived in Dunedin in November 1918, Preston was a second year medical student. Her memoir describes what it was like to be swept up in this “cataclysmic emergency”:
All hospital patients who could possibly be sent home were discharged. Almost all the wards were filled with an endless stream of incoming patients, overflowing into corridors and other spaces. People fell dead in the streets; in many houses no one was left alive. All ordinary business came to a standstill; one just concentrated on keeping alive. Every person left untouched by the pestilence turned his hand to whatever task needed doing. Doctors, nurses and helpers succumbed, and had themselves to be looked after. Only voluntary help kept the hospital going.
Senior medical students worked day and night. We juniors, who had not yet begun clinical work, felt very strongly that we could do something to help, but Dr Gowland was decidedly against it. “You’ll all get it,” he said, “and you must get on with your anatomy; this material can’t be wasted; we can’t give you another chance.”
But in the end he consented to let us help in the hospital provided that we did three hours’ dissection each morning.
We worked at the hospital from 2pm till at least ten o’clock at night, often much later. My first experience was being left in charge of a ward full of delirious men while the nurse went to snatch a meal. That seemed a very long half-hour. The nurse, herself a very junior pro., returned just in time to help me to get a very strong old man back to bed.
Some of us did get the ‘flu, but what we learned in those hectic weeks was of great use to us later. Practical nursing was not on our curriculum, and the knowledge we gained of handling patients, sponging, giving enemas, even for some the laying-out of the dead, was really invaluable later in country practice. Not that one had to do these things, but it was advisable to know how they should be done. The Sick Nurses’ ward was a real training-school in this respect: the patients knew what should be done for them, and told us how to do it.
When it was all over, everyone who survived was exhausted; catching up for lost time made continued hard work for both teachers and students. It was a sudden and tragic introduction to life and death. No one could live through such an experience and remain quite the same; in short, we began to grow up.”
After her graduation in 1922, Dr Preston worked in hospitals and sanitoriums in Dunedin, New Plymouth, Rotorua and the Hokianga. Later, after her marriage to a farmer, she used her voice and experience to work for women’s rights and welfare from within the Women’s Division of the Federated Farmers Movement. Lady Doctor, Vintage Model is a wonderful record of her life and times.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.
- Preston, Frances I. Lady Doctor, Vintage Model. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1974.