Colleen (Anne) Hall (nee Conyngham)

This biography is based on an interview with Colleen (Anne) Hall nee Conyngham in 2017 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project. The interviewer was Claire Gooder.


Childhood: determined to succeed from the very beginning

Colleen Anne Conyngham (known as Anne) was born in Auckland in 1929. Her determined attitude was evident at a young age—a trait that saw her go on to complete a medical degree and become a psychiatrist in a time when female doctors were a rarity.

When Anne was about 3 or 4, she insisted that she was going to be a doctor.

That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up and I never ever changed it. But of course, people thought it was just a joke, this little girl saying she’s going to be a doctor, but I was extremely determined and managed to get myself into medical school and get through and do all sorts of things.”

Anne and her two sisters were the first generation in their family to attend university, and all three went on to pursue academic careers. Her mother was supportive of her daughters’ career aspirations because she herself had been received minimal education after her father removed her from school at a young age and sent her to a convent.

Anne completed her secondary schooling at Epsom Grammar in Auckland. She displayed a passion for reading and gaining new knowledge, spending long hours in the library reading English literature and philosophy. However, Anne soon realised that unlike her male peers, the subjects she was studying in the classroom were not going to allow her to get into medical school.

“The only science they did was home science, and home science was the science at home, like how to change a plug and things like that with a little bit of chemistry and physics.”

“The boys at Auckland grammar had done virtually their entire intermediate course at school before they went to varsity, so it was very difficult. That’s why there are so few women, on the whole you were a nurse or an office worker or a teacher.”

However, Anne’s determination to succeed allowed her to overcome these gendered challenges. In the seventh form, she asked her science teacher to cover some zoology and physics with her so that she could prepare for university. Entrance into medical school was competitive, and Anne did not achieve sufficiently high marks during her medical intermediate year at the University of Auckland. Undeterred, she decided to repeat the year at the University of Otago, so that she could improve her knowledge of zoology and physics. Her determination proved fruitful. Although she was competing against returned servicemen who were given preferential entry, Anne was accepted into medical school in 1949.

“Just totally based on your marks and if you didn’t get 80 odd average, which it was the year I got in, you didn’t get in full stop. There was no such thing as interviews or personality or any of that sort of rubbish. Just entirely marks based.”

Medical School: life outside the classroom

At just 19, Anne was one of the youngest students in her class. She lived first with other students in St. Margaret’s College and then later in a tiny room associated with the college that smelled of gas. Anne enjoyed her time away from home in Dunedin where there was always something interesting going on. A devoted a member of the University of Otago tramping club, she would work through all her university holidays so that she could enjoy the outdoor environment around Dunedin. One summer, she lived and worked at Franz Joseph where she climbed her first glacier and gained some experience on the ice. She recalls the first time she really saw a mountain was on a trip to Mt Aspiring hut, which was just being built at the time. Together with her fellow students, she would hitchhike up to the mountains, sometimes in those vans where all the dust was sucked up the back. These adventures did not always win approval from her family.

“My mother thought that going tramping with men was a bit suspect. What might be going on!”

Perhaps her mother had nothing to worry about. Although Anne did a fair share of dating during her university years, he recalls that casual relationships were different than they often are today.

“People were not having sex, because you were terrified of getting pregnant, it was pre-Pill days. Ok there was diaphragms and withdrawal and things, and of course if you got pregnant abortions were illegal and very difficult to get, it was a completely different scene.

Anne and her friends would often attend parties or balls during the weekend, where they would dress up and socialise with other students. Curly hair was fashionable at the time, and as Anne’s hair was straight, she would have this ‘terrible’ perm, as she now describes it. Anne particularly enjoyed meeting new people, and she would sometimes pretend to be a physiotherapist at parties, as she found that being a medical student would sometimes put men off a bit.

Anne recalls an awful lot of drinking would take place at these social events.

“At the weekend, at parties, you would go to a ball up on the hills, it’s where they had parties and balls and things. I remember going with Robin Irvine who was one of my classmates who was later the Chancellor of Otago University. Anyway, you’d take a whole bottle of brandy, 1.25L bottle of brandy which you’d have with ginger ale, and the two of you would drink that during the evening, and I had a very good head for alcohol, and I could always remember what happened but your partner would pass out.”

At that time, people were not aware of the health implications of smoking and Anne took up the habit herself out of social pressure:

“I started smoking in my early twenties because it was ‘smart’. Every film had pictures of people smoking and it as a very smart thing to do and I deliberately started it to be smart because of course it was fairly cheap, and for years I was really addicted, and I feel sorry for people who didn’t stop, I was in my 50s or 40s or something—the children hated it. My husband gave up before me, when we knew it was associated with cancer was the big thing. The big breakthough…”

Medical school: study and research

The medical course was rigorous, with full days of classes in addition to Saturday morning. Anne recalls a focus on anatomy and physiology in the first two years, and her visual memory helped her to recall the vast amounts of information that they were expected to learn. Students were given a half-skeleton and they needed to know every single bone and all of features. In the wet labs, students would study in groups around a single body, with the women grouped together. They would start with the axillar, which is a particularly complicated place to learn anatomy, before removing the arm and continuing their anatomy studies in sections. Anne recalls that the bodies were storied in formaldehyde tanks in the bottom of the medical school and they would float up in a state of partial decomposition, although this didn’t bother Anne who had a strong stomach.

Anne was particularly inspired by her lecturers and the research they were conducting.

“Bill Adams was the Professor of Anatomy—a very famous person, very interesting person—did a lot of hernia research, which was very unusual at that time. He has a very loud voice and if you were late for a lecture you couldn’t possibly go in late, so you’d sit outside and hear it from outside. And we had Professor Eccles who was a physiology professor who became extremely famous, world famous, for neurology research. He was there for at least one year or two and he was right of the forefront of international research and he would talk about that rather than what we were supposed to be learning it was quite amazing.”

Only once did Anne need to re-sit an exam during the ‘specials’ in February. After suffering from glandular fever at the end of her second year of medical school, she emerged from hospital and gave what she described as a ‘sad sack’ performance. However, her failure simply spurred her on, and she told herself that in the future she would always perform to the best of her abilities, no matter what was going on in her life.

Anne’s fourth and fifth year of medical training was spent in Dunedin Hospital, and in her sixth year she moved up to Auckland so that she could live at home with her parents. She believes her medical training was different then compared to how it is now. The students benefited from the learning opportunities provided by attending post-mortems, which are more restrictive to students these days. There were very few registrars, and even fourth- and fifth-year students just starting out would be in contact with consultants who had vast amounts of knowledge from years of personal experience. One example is Anne’s experience working as an intern in Ashburton Hall, which she describes as the only decent psychiatric hospital in New Zealand at the time. As fifth-year student, Anne was fortunate to work with two famous psychiatrists there, including Reg Medlicott—a marvellous experience for a young student.  

Early career: frightfully keen to learn

After graduating from medical school, Anne worked for two years as a House Surgeon in Auckland Hospital, where she was fortunate to work with two female specialists, including the famous paediatrician Dr Alice Bush, who she found particularly inspiring. During their training, the students were rotated every three months between different specialities.

“I did casualty and ENT and infectious diseases and internal medicine and orthopaedic surgery and everything for three months. Terribly, terribly keen I was. I was one of those frightfully, frightfully keen people.”

Not all her training was spent in large hospitals. Anne’s Health Department bursary required her to work in rural locations, and after a few years working as a house surgeon she was sent to Taumaranui for five months. This gave her a great deal of hands on experience that she found unexpectedly interesting, although she was pleased that she herself did not have to be a patient in that hospital.

“There was a surgeon there and a physician who wasn’t a qualified physician, and a GP used to do the anaesthetics and I would snatch it from him because he couldn’t intubate, which I had learnt to do so I just did everything under the sun down there for five months, it was fascinating.”

“I got encephalitis when I was there but fortunately there was no one who could do a lumbar puncture, so I didn’t have to have that. But I recovered.”

After returning to Auckland, Anne worked as a chest medical registrar at Greenlane Hospital for seven months, where she saw a lot of patients with tuberculosis, which was common at the time. Again, her strong work ethic allowed her to excel in the role.

“The previous person that had done it used to come in and smoke cigarettes and talk to the nurses, and I used to come in a work like maniac all day until 7 o’clock at night, because I was sort of like that.”

Her efforts proved fruitful. Anne then gained a highly competitive role as a medical registrar at Auckland Hospital—the first ever woman to gain this role. She worked under Ted Sayer, who was initially hesitant about hiring a woman until hearing good recommendations about Anne from others. The role was challenging, and expectations were high. Anne worked hard, giving a presentation to the medical staff every second Saturday morning, and advice from her mentors has stayed with her.

“You never make an excuse, you never say you don’t know something, you just make bloody sure you know everything before you stand on your feet and say anything.”

Family life: a love for babies, grief, & a determination to have it all

During Anne’s sixth year of medical school, she became friendly with a fellow student, John Hall. The two developed a friendship while playing bridge together, started dating by their second year as house surgeons, and were engaged by the time they were medical registrars.

After they were married, Anne did what women were expected to do that time—she gave up her job to follow her husband, and the two moved to Whangarei where John was working in general practice. Although a career-minded woman, Anne was also very keen to have children, and had the determination to do both.

“My mother had said to me that you are going to have to choose between career and having a family and I said “no I am not, I am going to have both” but I think I was always so very busy when the children were young and I think they did suffer from it because I was very career orientated but I loved my children and I have always been a sucker for babies but boy was I involved in my career really.”

In Whangarei, Anne successfully sat for her Australasian Membership for the College of Physicians when she was pregnant with her first child. As a doctor, Anne didn’t face any challenges to working while pregnant, which was often the case for women in other career paths, and she carried on in her role until she went into labour, giving birth to a baby girl in 1958. Anne went on to have her second child just 14 months later, while working part-time as a locum physician at Whangarei Hospital. Later, she would go on to have two more children, all while continuing a busy career in psychiatry.  

The lack of childcare facilities was a significant barrier for working women in those days. To continue her part time work, Anne had to employ a housekeeper to look after her children. Anne describes motherhood as one of the most demanding jobs she had faced yet.

“That job when I was medical registrar at Auckland Hospital was probably the busiest and most demanding job in the whole country, it was just peanuts compared to having two children 14 months apart.”

Sadly, Anne’s eldest daughter developed lymphatic leukemia at the age of 14. Over the last 10 years of her short life, she developed strong feminist opinions and clashed severely with Anne, whose marriage suffered under the strain.

“She was a lovely little child, fascinating, terribly bright and very beautiful but she was a pain in the butt.”

“You don’t get over it, it becomes less intense or consuming, you just sort of learn to live with it because that is part of human experiences and I always think my grandmother had ten children and then she had an 11th who died and I really don’t think she ever got over that even though babies use to die then. You don’t get over it.”

Developing a career as a psychiatrist

Anne had known she wanted to specialise in psychiatry since she was in her medical intermediate year. While she was busy raising her young family, she never lost hope of fulfilling her dream. After their second child was born, the couple returned to Auckland, and it was here that John also developed similar ambitions for his career. Convinced by a conversation with Henry Bennett—a well-known psychiatrist—John decided to work at Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital south of Auckland.

Anne was pleased for her husband and would often help him study. Before too long, she decided that this was also her opportunity to enter psychiatry, so she employed a housekeeper and started working fulltime at Kingseat alongside her husband. Anne and John joined two other couples working there, all with young children, and the six of them formed a postgraduate study group that Anne found very stimulating. All six later went on to become psychiatrists and stayed in touch over the years.

Anne and John worked at Kingseat during 1961 to 1962. At this time, treatment options were limited, and psychiatric hospitals were not enjoyable places to be. Children who were born mentally handicapped would be sent to these hospitals, electroconvulsive therapy was a common treatment option, and chlorpromazine was not available to treat schizophrenia. However, there was another side to the hospital environment.

“They had wonderful nursing staff, there had been a Depression and a lot of marvellous men who couldn’t get jobs anywhere else went into psychiatric nursing and they had some really wonderful people at a time when psychiatry was pretty blood dreadful.”

The couple soon moved to London to complete their postgraduate studies in psychiatry. They travelled to England via boat, accompanied by Anne’s mother who helped look after their two young children. Here the focus was on John’s career.

“It was terribly important that he should get the membership because the men were the bread winner.”

Regardless, Anne managed to continue working towards her chosen profession. With her mother nearby to help and some day-care options available in central London, she secured a job at the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital, where she had always dreamed of working. Her time there was relatively short lived, as she fell pregnant by mistake, and left nine months later to have her third child.

“I worked in fact in the epilepsy unit which was very interesting with some very good people and one of the consultants I was working with said “was I coming back after the baby was born?”. I looked at him in horror—the thought that you couldn’t go back and work full time when you have had a baby!”

Regardless, Anne managed to achieve a lot during her third pregnancy. She sat the postgraduate Diploma in Psychological Medicine when she was eight and a half months pregnant, modestly outperforming her husband. She then continued to work on a research project during the first year of her baby’s life. Working with New Zealand psychologist Barbara Tizard, she studied patients with temporal lobe epilepsy, and although she was disappointed when the results were never published, she found the experience very interesting.

Anne thoroughly enjoyed her time in England, where they travelled around Europe, camping with their tiny baby and their two young children. However, after two years, the couple returned to New Zealand so that John could take up a role at the Mental Health Division in Wellington. Meanwhile, as Anne was keen to update her skills, she started working a Porirua Psychiatic Hospital, which she found an eye-opening experience as everything was under lock and key.

“The whole standard was absolutely frightful, and I spent my time objecting to everything under the sun and F ward was a terrible place. The patients were all locked up and they use to throw the clothes in the middle of the room and throw them out to the patients in the morning to get dressed. They would be sitting around the walls with nothing to do and they had beds so close together.”

Expertise in eating disorder practice and research

Anne started working in private practice and it was at this point in her career that she developed a specific interest in eating disorders. She was particularly interested in the observation that you could not split the mind and body, and her aim was to treat the body so that the mind could start functioning properly again. Working closely with some wonderful nurses at the Home of Compassion, she initiated a re-feeding programme. She found that many patients would become more rational with treatment but would often relapse.

“You get them in to hospital and re-feed them and get them back to where their brains can start working again instead of being so affected by starvation.”

Anne soon became a leader in the field, publishing papers, and attending international conferences, and for the next 30 years she was the ‘eating disorder person’ in New Zealand. She received a travel grant from the College of Physicians to travel overseas to conferences, which was not a common practice at the time, where she met top international researchers in the field. She still recalls the opinions of one of the researchers that she met.

“Despite everything we do I don’t think we have done all that much good to patients. It is a very difficult field and still is and I don’t think there is any clever answer at all.”

“It was extremely interesting and very fascinating knowing these people all over the world but the thing that you do care about is having to really help patients and I heard sometimes from patients saying you really did help me. I met someone at the supermarket not so long ago and she come up to me, I didn’t recognise her, and she was obviously very thin still and I said “oh you have still got it, it is a real addiction”. She said I am not addicted to anything else, which I though was fair enough.”

Alongside her private practice, in 1976 Anne moved to the Wellington Hospital where she eventually became Head of the psychiatric unit.

“That was really interesting because I was a woman and the head psychologist was a woman, the head social worker was a woman and the head nurse was a woman and that was really quite fun.”

Reflections: changes in psychiatric medicine

Anne believes her biggest achievement was her contributions to teaching and research. She later became Associate Professor of Psychological Medicine, where she ran the postgraduate psychiatry training group.

“I am most proud of running the psychiatric training because I think and hope that everyone that went through got a feel for the wholeness of it. I was on the Board of Examiners of course for years and I would have like to have changed that quite a lot but didn’t necessarily, but it was quite interesting the dynamics as I was the only woman on it for years.”

Anne maintains some strong opinions about the field of psychiatry and doesn’t necessary approve of the direction that the field has taken in modern times.

“The thing I still feel very strongly about psychiatry is that you have to do a total thing with the whole person, their whole setting, their life history, the culture they come from, their whole understanding of them instead of just dishing out pills or just doing behavioural psychology. I am not very keen about psychiatry at present.”

When Ann was in her early 60s she decided it was time for a change. She decided to return to the west coast of the South Island where she used to enjoy tramping during her years in medical school.

“Off I went down to Hokitika to the psychiatric hospital and there were two psychiatrists and we did general psychiatry over the whole of the coast which is terribly spread out. I thought that it would be much less busy but in fact it turned out to be pretty bloody demanding because you had no tertiary people to hand it on to. In Wellington there would be specialists and everything else and when you were on the coast people had to go to Christchurch to get anything further and I had to deal with terrible sexual disorders and god knows what.”

Anne believes she worked through an interesting time in mental health, witnessing the period of deinstitutionalisation, although also a move towards overdiagnosis.

“I think that whole business of over diagnoses of human differences is quite a worry for psychiatry.”

“Society has changed enormously since I was young and medicine, there is a lot more now but there is a lot not known…”

Anne passed away peacefully on March 8, 2022.

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