Women in Medicine, NZ

Chlorodyne advert (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand)

Medicine has always fascinated me – the life-and-death drama, the clever use of forensics to uncover the truth, and especially the weird (and frankly terrifying) drugs and equipment used in the past.

Like Chlorodyne, which promised to cure a startling array of complaints, from cholera to coughs to insomnia, but contained a mix of chloroform, morphine, hemp and goodness knows what else. (Image source: Alexander Turnbull Library)

In my new series, Penrose & Pyke Mysteries, Grace Penrose is determined to become the first female medical student in the country.

Emily Seideberg (Source: Hocken Library)

In real life, that honour went to Emily Seideberg, way back in 1891 (Image source: Hocken Library). Her success was just one of the firsts for women during a time of extraordinary social change in New Zealand. (Universal women’s suffrage was passed two years later.) Emily quietly defied societal norms and went about the vocation of becoming a doctor, although not without copping significant disapproval from the medical fraternity and ribbing from other medical students.

According to the recollections of Mr “Wullie” Goodlet, a former lab assistant: “Miss Siedeberg was the first lady to take the medical course, and I must say she deserved great credit for the way she stuck to her work in the dissecting room. She had a very unpleasant time among the male students. They did not want lady doctors  … The young men would throw the flesh at her every chance they got.

Professor John Scott (Source: Hocken Library)

Emily does not appear in the story (other than in spirit), but Professor John Scott, the visionary Dean of the Otago Medical School from 1877 to 1914, has a small part (Image source: Hocken Library). Emily Seideberg graduated five years later and gave exceptional service over her lifetime, for which she received a CBE. The second female student, Margaret Cruickshank, was also outstanding and so revered by her local community in Waimate that a statue was erected in her honour.

Emily Seideberg has a plaque on the historic walk in the beautiful old town of Clyde, one of the main towns of the 1860s Gold Rush in Central Otago. By one of those amazing twists of fate, the plaque is located right outside the old schist cottage I was staying in (where my family lived in the 1930s) and I was thinking about plot ideas when I literally stumbled upon her. And so, Grace Penrose was born.

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