Elspeth Mary Cameron (nee Fitzgerald)

This biography is based on an interview with Elspeth Fitzgerald nee Cameron’s granddaughter, Susan Cambridge, in 2019 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project. The interviewer was Lucy Goodman.

Elspeth Mary Cameron was born in 1896 and grew up on a farm near Whanganui. Together with her three sisters and her brother, she spent most of her childhood outdoors, riding horses, and sailing a dinghy on the lake. Their father, a well-off farmer, was dedicated to his children, and taught them all how to shoot rifles by setting up targets for them in the paddocks. 

Elspeth was educated by governesses during her younger years, before she and her sisters were sent to board at Nga Tawa school for girls in Marton. As appropriate for the era, the focus on schooling was on riding and horsemanship.

“I have a photograph of her tilting at hoops. She’s riding down a line of hoops with a lance, like a knight. And the lance, the point of the lance, has to go through each hoop that she gallops past.”

As well as her outdoor pursuits, Elspeth had an enquiring mind and performed well academically. She was dux in her final year at secondary school. The focus of her schooling was probably history and English, rather than the sciences, but this did not prevent her developing an interest in studying medicine and becoming a doctor.

“She told me that when she was twelve, a cousin from Australia came to stay with them, and she was helping the cousin make beds. Obviously, this moment stuck in her mind. And the cousin said, “You’re a bright girl, Elspeth, what would you like to do when you leave school?” And my grandmother was bewildered because she’d never thought about a career. When you left school you married, probably to a local farmer. The cousin said, “Well, I’m a doctor.” (In Australia women were able to do medical training earlier than was the case here.) And she said, “I’m a doctor and I have my own car.” My grandmother thought, a car, goodness how exciting. I’m going to be a doctor. She started telling everybody she was going to be a doctor. When the time came for her to leave school, she realised that she actually had to do this.”

Medical school friends, 1915
(Left to right:) [Unknown], Elspeth Fitzgerald (nee Cameron), [Unknown], Tui Bakewell

Elspeth was the first person in their family to go to university. Her father was very supportive, accompanying her to Dunedin while she enrolled in medical school. Another female medical student—a student of Wellington Girls’ College—dismissed Elspeth’s secondary school education, suggesting that she was in for a challenging time ahead.

“She had a story that when she was enrolling, another girl who was also enrolling at the medical school was asked to show her around. The other girl asked her where she’d been to school, and my grandmother said Nga Tawa. The other girl said, “Oh, ladies rest, you’ll find it difficult. I went to Wellington Girls’ College and had a proper education.”

Elspeth was a determined woman with a resilient nature, and she seemed to enjoy the challenge of embarking on a career that not many other women were able to do. Beatrix Bakewell, the only other woman who graduated the same year as her, was a friend. The female medical school students found it challenging in a male-dominated environment, experiencing what would be defined as sexual harassment by today’s standards.

“It was a huge change of scene. Both the lecturers and the male students were, how shall I put it, challenging. Many were not welcoming to the women students.

“Other women have written about pieces of flesh being thrown about in the anatomy classes by the male students—being thrown at the female students. My grandmother never mentioned that but it may have happened to her. She talked about a lecturer trying to get her to kiss him behind the door. When she refused, she found that her marks were quite low in that subject.”

Two years into her studies, Elspeth became engaged to her future husband, Robert Stevenson Jordan Fitzgerald, a fellow medical school student. Robert graduated two years ahead of her and in 1918 he went off to World War I in France, to work as a medical officer and treat soldiers injured on the frontlines. He suffered damaged lungs from the gas attacks and was sent to England to recover, returning to New Zealand in 1919.

Elspeth pictured with her eldest daughter during her early career.

Robert waited for Elspeth to graduate from medical school in 1920 before they married. By this time, she realised that she was interested in working with babies, and that she wanted to be a paediatrician. The young couple went to the United Kingdom, first to Edinburgh so that Robert could study for a fellowship with the Royal College of Surgeons, then to London where Elspeth studied paediatrics in the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. During this time, she and Robert lived apart—he in the house surgeon’s live-in quarters, and she in a nearby flat.

A year later, they returned to New Zealand, where they bought a medical practice together in Oamaru. The two doctors soon became well-known in the community, where they campaigned for a new hospital to be built in the town. While Robert worked as a GP and a surgeon, Elspeth provided specialty services for young babies.

Robert’s career as a successful surgeon meant that the family was not dependent on Elspeth’s income, giving her the opportunity to pursue her interests in medicine and family concurrently. Elspeth and Robert had their first daughter—Pamela—in 1922, followed by three more—Prudence, Jillian, and Fiona—in the following years. Elspeth was a dedicated mother, and later grandmother. She worked part-time, running her clinics in the morning from ten to twelve o’clock while her children were schooled by their governess, before spending the afternoon with them at the beach, riding horses, or taking them on other excursions.

Elspeth was an advocate of demand feeding for young babies. Her clinics provided an alternative to the clinics set up by Truby King, the founder of Plunket. She saw young babies for regular check-ups, particularly those whose parents were unhappy with Plunket’s service, or wanted more help for their sick child. She said some babies she saw were not thriving under the recommended four hourly feeding regime, and once wrote an article in a medical journal challenging this practice. Ironically, Elspeth and Robert owned a holiday home in Karitane that was previously owned by Truby King.

Elspeth’s achievements can be attributed to networking abilities, as she was well-placed in the community to enact change. Robert’s father and brothers were all doctors, and she knew many others from her time in medical school. She also read widely, and spent time thinking about what she had learnt from others, allowing her to apply this new knowledge to her patients. Elspeth was well-respected in the medical community, and as well as serving on the hospital board, other GPs in the South Island would call upon her for help treating their youngest patients.

“She told me once that she found a case where nobody could figure what was wrong with this child. She had seen cases of scurvy in her days at medical school. She said, “I think that’s scurvy.” It turned out the mother wasn’t breastfeeding the child and had been boiling its orange juice and everything she was feeding it, so it wasn’t getting any vitamin C. She was also one of the early people to recognise celiac disease and lactose intolerance in children and to set out diets for children who were suffering from those things.”

 Elspeth Fitzgerald (nee Cameron)

Elspeth flourished in her career with the support of her husband. Robert was an excellent surgeon and diagnostician, who kept up to date with the latest medical practices. They were both invited to study at the Mayo Clinic in America for three months. Elspeth would often talk about the things she learnt there. Working together as a team, the two doctors could face any medical challenges that arose.

“Having my grandfather there gave her someone to consult if a baby came to her clinic with something that seemed seriously wrong. He provided another pair of eyes. There was no other specialist to go to in the town.”

Elspeth continued seeing patients in her clinic until she was about 78 years old. By that time, she and Robert together had seen generations of babies, children, and adults in their surgery, and were a long-standing part of the Oamaru community—recognised in one instance by naming a local ambulance after Robert who lectured at first aid classes for St John.

Elspeth’s earliest dreams came to fruition, when she purchased her own car. Later, after a frozen shoulder she gave up driving, but kept the car for years, lending it to family members. Her granddaughter borrowed it sometimes for her own adventures.

“It was obviously a symbol of her emancipation to have a car of her own.”

Susan is a historian and writer and has published a novel about her great-great-great grandmother, “Bound By Sea”, available on Amazon. She is also writing short stories about the strong women in her family, including Elspeth Mary Cameron.

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