Stewart Peters was born in Scotland about 1860 and studied medicine at Glasgow University. He passed the first two professional exams but left the course before the final exam. He found work as a ship’s surgeon on a whaler named Resolute, which sailed to Davis Strait, between Greenland and Newfoundland, to carry out whaling for a season. There is a sequel to that later.
On his return to Dundee he decided to find work in New Zealand and sailed there on the SS Wellington in 1883. Gold had been discovered in Otago twenty-two years previously, and Dunedin, Mosgiel and Outram were thriving as support centres for fortune hunters on their way to the goldfields.
Mosgiel at that time was a small settlement with woollen, flour and timber mills, serving the farming community. Dr McBrearty in nearby Outram decided to open a branch in Mosgiel, and employed Stewart Peters. The Medical Practitioners’ Act 1867 set out the requirements for registration as a doctor in New Zealand. The Act declared that no one could claim to be qualified as a doctor if they weren’t, nor use a title to imply it. Nor could unqualified practitioners certify a death, be employed in a public hospital or demand a fee for their services. The patient could pay, but could not be coerced to do so. However, the Act did not prohibit an unregistered person like Peters from providing care, subject to a professional standard of responsibility: using good judgement and not compromising the patient’s wellbeing through lack of care or ignorance.
So Stewart Peters commenced providing medical, dental and apothecary services. He made no claim of qualification, describing himself as a “perpetual student”. His practice thrived and he was called on for a wide range of ailments. He was liked, trusted and generally thought of as “Doctor Peters”.
Papers Past details several medico-legal challenges he faced over the next 20 years. One such instance was selling Laudanum (The Sale of Poisons Act 1871 prevented unregistered persons from selling opium products), for which he was fined.
The following case, which aroused international attention, would have been his most challenging. In 1890 he was called to see a 27-year-old woman who had abdominal pain. He had not seen her before. He found she was pregnant, was due in about one month, and had not been seen by a doctor. He thought initially that she possibly had a bowel disorder, but when she began fitting he realised it was eclampsia. He induced labour and using forceps he delivered a live infant who survived only a few hours. The mother appeared to improve, but the next day she began fitting every few minutes and died.
An inquest was held in Mosgiel by the coroner with six jurors. Two doctors testified, one from Mosgiel and one from Dunedin. Both considered that although Stewart Peters’ treatment may not have been the direct cause of death, it would have removed any chance the patient had. The jury returned a verdict of death by manslaughter.
Stewart Peters was bound by bail to await trial on a charge of manslaughter. He received much support and his medical skill was testified to in court. The judge explained to the jurors the significance of Stewart Peters’ lack of qualifications and directed that it should have no bearing on their decision. The trial was reported in newspapers in Australia, England and the USA. Peters had two expert witnesses from Dunedin, who testified that early induction of labour in eclampsia was now considered a worthwhile procedure in a situation where the outlook was dire. The jurors’ verdict was that Stewart Peters was innocent of manslaughter.
In 1928 Admiral Richard Byrd’s first expedition to the Antarctic called at Port Chalmers to prepare for the southern journey. While there, Byrd heard of Stewart Peters’ experience as surgeon on the Resolute in 1882 and was intrigued. (The Resolute was of special interest to Byrd as in 1887 it had been bought and used by the Arctic explorer Rear Admiral Peary.) Byrd and Peters met, and Byrd invited Peters to visit his ship, City of New York, and to meet the crew.
Peters continued to practice in Mosgiel and the wider area until his death in 1933 at the age of 73, a total of 50 years of caring for the community.
In 1935, when Dunedin hospital was undergoing expansion, the committee received a letter from Stewart Peters’ sister offering a grant of 1,000 pounds if one of the three new wards was named after her brother. It was approved unanimously – a fine legacy.
Robert McAllister is a retired GP.
- Papers Past
- Pulse of the Plains: A History of Mosgiel by W. R. Kirk.