In 1976, Professor Cyril Dixon, Head of the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Otago, handed me a Preventive Medicine Dissertation written in 1942 by a 5th year medical student. I was a twenty-one-year-old history honours student working on a dissertation on abortion in the 1930s. Donald McAllister’s dissertation provided a source I never imagined existed: an interview with a ‘backstreet’ abortionist. Here I learned of the desperation of the mainly married women who had abortions performed in the back of the abortionist’s car. He knew his anatomy and about sterilising his implements (a No. 8 gum elastic catheter, slightly modified) and how to protect his identity (by performing his services in the dark). I tracked down Dr McAllister who was happy to speak to me and I learned even more. I was fascinated by his insights into the murky, undercover world of backstreet abortion.
So how did his dissertation come about? From 1923 to 1977, fifth year medical students at Otago University were required to complete a public health investigation. Over 3,400 of these dissertations were completed, on a diverse range of topics. They are an unparalleled source of information about aspects of life in New Zealand. The medical students were given privileged access to all sorts of places, from family homes and workplaces to isolated communities. They are a record of changing attitudes. Up into the early 1970s, for example, a diagnosis of cancer was thought to undermine a patient’s resistance and hope for the future, so the diagnosis was frequently withheld. A 1948 study called ‘Some aspects of menstruation’ reveals the difficulties that girls, by then remaining longer at school, faced in disposing of used sanitary items.
Goitre and hydatids were common health problems, of interest to staff in the Medical School in the first half of the twentieth century, and often led to student investigations. Workplaces of various kinds caught the attention of the students. In 1947, two students studied the ‘social and industrial aspects of the deer killers camp’ on Mt Crawford in the Tararua range, while in 1948 another studied the working conditions at the the Marton Sash & Door Timber Company Sawmill at Mangapehi.
If you are interested in the dangers of swimming baths in Auckland in 1934, or of wringer washing machines in 1965, you will find answers in these dissertations. I have encouraged students to make use of the collection for studies of goitre, hydatids, cleft palate, children in hospital, the introduction of the Pill into New Zealand and various other topics. Scholars such as Margaret Tennant made excellent use of the dissertations in her history Children’s Health, the Nation’s Wealth: A History of Children’s Health Camps (Bridget Williams Books/Historical Branch, N.Z. Department of Internal Affairs, 1994), as did Anje Kampf in her study of venereal disease, Mapping Out the Venereal Wilderness: Public Health and STD in New Zealand 1920–1980, Ethik in der Praxis/Practical Ethics Studies, Band 28 (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2007).
If you are in Dunedin, you can see Donald McAllister’s dissertation in an exhibition entitled Medical Marvels (running from 14 December 2018 until 15 March 2019) in the De Beer Gallery, Special Collections, 1st Floor, University of Otago Library. It is there amongst many other historical treasures from the Otago Health Sciences Library. In the exhibition you will be able to view much more famous works, and a wonderful collection that incorporates texts from from ‘pharmacy and phrenology, to dentistry and disease’. These primary sources for the history of medicine capture the imagination and give unexpected insights into the past.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.