The question of the propriety of teaching women medical students first came before the medical staff at Dunedin hospital in 1891. If the decision had been left to them, Emily Siedeberg, New Zealand’s first woman doctor, might well have not been able to pursue her chosen field. Having been admitted to study medicine at the University of Otago, Emily Siedeberg wrote to the Trustees of the hospital to enquire if there was any objection to her attending the hospital as a medical student. The trustees canvassed the opinions of the hospital staff who sent their responses in writing.
Six of the nine members of staff were in favour of excluding women medical students. Two favoured admitting them, while one was of the opinion that women students should go to Great Britain ‘where special schools for women were established’. The latter, however, did not see how women could be excluded from attending the hospital if they chose to do so. If women were to be admitted, seven of the staff thought they should be treated in exactly the same way as men, while two considered that special arrangements should be made for them. Seven of the staff were willing to teach mixed classes while two would not. The Trustees debated the issue and decided that if the University was willing to admit Miss Siedeberg, they ‘could see no objection to her attending the usual medical course’. In this way the overwhelmingly lay committee overruled the objections of the medical staff.
Emily Siedeberg kept to her mother’s advice ‘to keep men at a distance and never to show her feelings’ while a medical student. At age twenty, and in her third year of medical studies, Emily Siedeberg signed the petition (along with her mother and older sister) in support of women’s suffrage. Her parents had proposed the idea of studying medicine to her and their support was crucial to her career.
Gaining her MBChB in 1896, Siedeberg headed overseas for postgraduate work, as did all ambitious doctors at that time. She undertook courses in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Rotunda hospital in Dublin and in children’s diseases in Berlin. On her return she addressed the local Fabian Society , giving ‘an interesting account of the European lady doctor’s difficulties in her stand against male prejudice’.
On Emily’s return to Dunedin, her father – a successful building contractor – provided the funds for her to set up in general practice. Her sister, who had attended Art School, became her housekeeper. While patients might have been slow in coming, given the novelty of a woman doctor, voluntary organisations took full advantage of her public spirit. She gave classes on nursing for the St John Ambulance Association and agreed to be the surgeon for the newly formed Rebekah Lodge, set up to aid women. Sister Statham, in giving examples of the work of the Lodges, remarked ‘The time had gone by, long ago, when the only aim of a woman’s existence was to get married.’
The difficulties marriage might entail became very clear to Emily Siedeberg and her fellow Otago Girl’s High old girl and first woman graduate in Law, Ethel Benjamin. Both became involved with the founding of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children in Dunedin in 1899. Ethel Benjamin acted as the Society’s honorary solicitor until 1908 and Emily Siedeberg began as the Honorary Medical Officer and remained involved with Society for almost 60 years. ‘There is a kind of cruelty the law cannot rectify’ the Otago Witness reported in 1902, and the society aimed to assist women and children by pursuing men for maintenance. The Society promoted social work done by women, believing, as Siedeberg pointed out, that women would tell things to another woman that they did not care to relate to a committee of men. She told of case of a man who assaulted his pregnant wife ‘for the purpose of killing the child’.
Emily Siedeberg also knew the anguish of single women faced with pregnancy. In 1906, for example, she was called to attend a very ill 25 year old domestic servant at a private nursing home on Serpentine Avenue. She administered chloroform and carried out an examination which revealed ‘extensive inflammation’. Antiseptic measures were applied; the young woman seemed better but died two days later. A married man with three children called to the nursing home and said he would pay all expenses.
Both Siedeberg and Benjamin exercised their newly found skills to benefit women in the wider community. The experience of being a lone woman in medicine or law hardened their resolve to serve other women in the community. Emily Siedeberg’s service continued in a variety of ways, as, for example, Medical Superintendent of the St Helen’s Hospital from 1905 where she opened New Zealand’s first ante-natal clinic in 1918. She founded and became first president of the New Zealand Medical Women’s Association. Her marriage in 1928 to retired banker James Alexander McKinnon was no impediment to her social action. Emily Siedeberg McKinnon died aged 95 in Oamaru and lies unnamed in the family grave in Dunedin’s Northern cemetery.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
- Ashburton Guardian, 23 May 1906, p.2.
- Bruce Herald, 29 August 1898, p.5.
- Otago Daily Times, 21 May 1891, p.3; 15 August 1898, p.2; 20 August 1898, p.3; 18 May 1905, Supplement.
- Sargison, Patricia A. “Siedeberg, Emily Hancock”, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.