This biography is based on an interview with Margaret in 2019 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project. The interviewers were Cindy Farquhar and Lucy Goodman.
Childhood and early education
Margaret Parsonage was born in 1931 in the Christchurch suburb of Sumner and raised as an only child. Both her parents were trained as schoolteachers, although her mother never officially worked in this role, and the family moved several times during Margaret’s childhood to enable her father’s career. Soon after Margaret’s birth, her father was appointed as a teacher at a district high school in Hawarden, North Canterbury, and the family moved to the neighbouring town of Waikari. Margaret later began her primary school education at Hawarden Primary School, located on the same campus where her father worked.
When Margaret was about six years old, the family moved to Nuku’alofa for three years, so that her father could take up the role of Director of Education in Tonga. The way of life was very different to New Zealand, and Margaret was able to walk unaccompanied to her friend’s house, or to the local convent where she was taught piano by the nuns.
“I think the time in Tonga was different from life in New Zealand, and I think it made an impact because of that. I enjoyed it. There was no sort of restriction; as a child you could walk to a friend’s home in full safety.”
As their time in Tonga neared an end, Margaret’s mother decided to home school her daughter via correspondence to prepare her for the New Zealand curriculum, which was different to the Australian-style schooling she had received in Tonga. As this was war time, Margaret’s father had decided to send his wife and daughter back to New Zealand early, while he remained in Tonga for a few additional months. The Matua ship sailed between the Islands and New Zealand only once per month, stopping en route in Rarotonga to collect more passengers. The journey was arduous. The boats were small and the seas large, and Margaret recalls suffering from seasickness for at least a week of the long journey.
“I know we were about a month coming back, because they wanted to be sure that they were travelling in safe waters, as it were, because this was wartime with the Japanese taking over a lot of the Pacific Islands, and the ocean.”
When Margaret’s father returned to New Zealand, he took up a position as Maori School Inspector through the Education Department in Wellington, where the family lived for the next few years. Margaret completed most of her secondary school education at Wellington Girls’ College, and by her final year, she knew that she wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. Her motivation is not entirely clear in her mind, although she does recall that as a young girl, she frequently suffered from tonsillitis, and was visited by a female practitioner, Elsie Burnett.
“I thought that was a very interesting position… I thought, well I can have a go at it.”
Margaret’s parents were very encouraging of their daughter’s ambition to study medicine. However, medicine was an unusual career decision for a young woman at the time, and some others were not so supportive.
“Some did think it was a bit strange for a girl to want to do medicine, but well, if you didn’t get into Med School, you’d go nursing…”
During the final year of her secondary school education, Margaret’s family moved to Auckland so that her father could become an Inspector of Maori Schools for the Education Department. Although he didn’t speak Te Reo himself, Margaret’s father was interested in maintaining Maori interest in their culture and language through their education. At this time, the Maori children attended these schools until they reached secondary school age, and some Maori conversation was part of their Maori School Service.
Margaret completed her final two terms of secondary school at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School, where she recalls being particularly challenged by the science education.
“In Wellington I had done English, French and some Latin, Geography and History as separate subjects, and then it was just general science, which had a smattering of zoology and botany in it, but it was very basic and general. When I got to Epsom Grammar, I was horrified to find that they had separate courses in zoology, botany and chemistry, and I was very much at sea in understanding more detail in chemistry, and physics particularly.”
In 1948, Margaret studied medical intermediate at the University of Auckland, where she found that she lacked knowledge of the sciences compared to the boys, who were well prepared for university from their secondary school education. As she was expecting, Margaret failed many of the subjects in her first year of medical intermediate, including Physics and Chemistry, although she performed well in Zoology, which she quite enjoyed. Not to be deterred, Margaret repeated the year, this time with more success.
“I was fortunate in finding that one of the guys who had been in the Airforce was very knowledgeable in the physics/chemistry sphere, and without any other attachments, he agreed to give me a bit of coaching, which was probably largely instrumental in me getting the hang of the subjects, and being able to follow on with them.”
Margaret had the foresight to seek employment as a nurse aid in Greenlane Hospital during some of her long summer vacations, and also spent some time working in the psychiatric ward of Selwyn Hospital—a small private psychiatric hospital in the Auckland suburb of Epsom, near Margaret’s home.
“That was quite an insight, really to know the workings of a ward. It was valuable.”
Margaret felt a sense of great relief when she found out she had passed with sufficiently high marks, averaged above 80% as required to get into medical school, even with a 45% pass mark in her least favourite subject—physics.
“I remember the piece of paper coming, telling me that I got enough marks, and therefore I assumed I’d get to medical school. I was playing on the piano, and my mother came down with this envelope for me, that was official; that was really some drama.”
In 1950, Margaret enrolled in the University of Otago’s School of Medicine, and accompanied by her father, took the first of what would become a familiar trip down to Dunedin, via boat and multiple trains. Margaret would routinely get off the train a Lyttleton early in the morning for a hurried breakfast with her paternal grandmother in Christchurch, before resuming the train trip to Dunedin.
On the first day of medical school, the new students were welcomed by two or three of the academic stuff led by the Professor of Anatomy, Bill Adams. However, for the 15 women in Margaret’s year, the highlight of the day was a surprise visit by Emily Siedeberg—the first New Zealand woman to graduate from medicine.
“In the women’s common room, which was separate from the men’s, to our joy, she was there; they’d arranged that we would meet her. So, I felt quite impressed by that… I thought it was really something to see the first woman who became a doctor in New Zealand.”
Margaret lived for three years in a single room in St Margaret’s college behind the university. This was her first time away from home and she enjoyed living with other students, although she continued to communicate regularly with her parents via letter and the occasional phone call. Her father supported her financially, as the university and boarding fees were more than she obtained through her university bursary of 120 pounds per year. Later in her studies, Margaret moved to Huntly House student accommodation, and she would regularly share the cooking with housemates Alison Tarrant and Charlotte Christie, who were other medical students in her year. She and her housemates had a studious attitude and were largely unsupervised by the warden, although some of the other students, particularly the men, would engage in wild parties with drinking and smoking.
During their first year of study, the medical students were introduced to the practical anatomy labs. The women students would be grouped together, five-a-side around a body. Margaret recalls that some of the other women were quite upset at the sight of dead bodies, although she had been well prepared for what she might face during her time working as a nurse aid. The men were equally apprehensive and were very willing to let the women go into the dissecting room ahead of them.
“I remember that the anatomy dissection room was at the end of a corridor, and they guys initially were very hospital and helpful, and made sure the women went in first…”
Outside the labs, most of the content was delivered via lectures on blackboards, and students were given printed sheets with learning materials. As was customary at the time, Margaret and the other women students would sit on the front row of the tiered lecture theatres. Margaret found the teachers approachable and willing to help students if they were struggling. However, women did face some opposition from their male peers, who did not always approve of women in medical school. Some thought that women would not make a lifelong profession in medicine because of their future family commitments.
“I think they thought that it was a bit stupid that women were doing it—it was higher ranking than women should take on. Of course, we resented that, and so we carried on with perhaps an increased awareness of the importance of the group of women being in the classes.”
Even at medical school, sex education was given to the men, with was no specific section of the curriculum designed to educate the women. On one occasion, a woman student was rumoured to have given birth during the long summer holidays and delayed her progression through the course due to the responsibilities of pregnancy and child rearing.
After facing some challenges with the early physiology papers, Margaret found medical school more enjoyable once they began to apply their knowledge in a practical way. In their fourth year, students would visit the wards of Dunedin Hospital across the road. By this stage, the women were more integrated with the male students, although even now, the women would generally be grouped together as they stood around the patients’ beds.
“I think sometimes I felt sorry for the patient who was used by a lecturer as an example of a particular medical problem, because I felt that they weren’t properly warned as to what they were going to have to face. Another thing that used to annoy me, and especially since I’d done nurse aiding, was that sometimes the lecturer would just leave the bed and go away, and they’d taken all the bedding and the sheets down, and just left the patient lying there, getting cold perhaps.”
During her sixth year of medical school, Margaret moved up to Auckland to live with her parents, where she completed her practical training at Auckland Hospital. During this time, she met and started a relationship with Roger Maxwell, who was working as a House Surgeon at Greenlane Hospital. The two would travel together in Roger’s Morris Minor to Auckland hospital so that they could attend medical lectures together, and the two were married the following year.
Margaret experienced a great sense of relief at passing her final sixth year exams and celebrated the occasion with some other women students in a restaurant near Dunedin’s Octogen. She graduated in 1955, and the ceremony was held in the Dunedin Town Hall, attended by her father, as her mother was not in good health at the time. Of the 15 women who began medical school with Margaret, nine went on to graduate, later moving into public health, specialisations, or general practice.
General practice and family life
General practice had appealed to Margaret from the early days of her medical education.
“I think I liked, even at that early stage, the fact that it was a way of dealing, not just with the patient, but with perhaps what you might call their social background—their family, and the situation that they were living in; I felt that had some effects on the person’s development and interests subsequently.”
After graduation, Margaret worked in the Ear, Nose, and Throat Department of Auckland Hospital, first as a resident doctor and then as a registrar. This gave her valuable experience in the procedures she would need for her future career in general practice.
Margaret and the other junior doctors lived in two houses along Park Road near the hospital. There were no direct phone lines into the doctor’s rooms, and an orderly would come and collect the female doctors if they were required in the hospital late at night. Margaret found the tiredness particularly challenging to deal with, particularly when she was the first doctor on call for the paediatric admissions, which often occurred at night.
Although women trainees were not common at the time, Margaret always felt well-received by the more senior doctors in the wards.
“I think they were a bit surprised, but they accepted us if we showed we had a bit of intelligence. I don’t think we had anyone who flatly refused to talk to us or anything.”
However, relationships with other women could be challenging, including nurses working in the medical environment.
“I think people were a little bit in awe of us. I always felt it was a shame, because from the nurse’s point of view, we were always sort of put ahead of them, higher than them, when I felt that with some of them, they had a much wider and more extensive and more useful knowledge than we ever got.”
After completing her training at Auckland Hospital, Margaret and Roger moved to London for three and a half years. Margaret worked part-time as a locum general practitioner and as a medical officer for the Ealing Area Health Office, where she would go into schools and conduct medicals for the children. On some occasions, Margaret would need to go to the parent’s work so that she could fully inform them of the procedures the child would require for their medical treatment, and to gather information about the child’s past medical history that was not recorded in their notes.
“It was very interesting, because some of the schools around in the area they sent me to, the children came from all over the world. There were people I’d never met anyone before from the West Indies and places like that, South Africa. It was interesting. The thing that used to annoy me was that the parents were invited to each of these examinations of the children, and because they were working, very few of them turned up. Yes, it wasn’t easy, because you didn’t have enough of the background information about what the child might have had in the past.”
Over the next few years, Margaret and Roger had three children together. Their eldest daughter, Deirdre, was born at Hammersmith Hospital in London in 1960. In 1962, Margaret returned to New Zealand ahead of Roger, and delivered their second child, Rowan, at the National Women’s Hospital in Auckland. Although it was not customary for husbands to be in the labour and birthing room, Roger returned in time to witness Rowan’s birth. The couple later then moved their young family to Kaitaia before their third child, Garth, was born in Auckland in 1963.
Although she was busy looking after three young children, Margaret was keen to continue working in some capacity. In Kaitaia, she would occasionally conduct school medicals for the public health department. Later, the couple returned to Auckland and Margaret worked part-time time in the Student Health Service for a further 11 years.
In 1970, Margaret started her own practice in Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore.
“I just started up from scratch. There hadn’t been a doctor there, but at that time, there were not very many women doctors around. Dr Margaret Gatman was one who was over here; she practiced along with her husband, along Lake Road. I felt that there was a need for it, and soon it built up quite quickly.”
Working in solo practice, Margaret found that her schedule wouldn’t allow her to work part-time, and she would often ask her neighbours to look after her youngest child. Although she didn’t conduct surgical procedures herself, Margaret developed a good relationship with some of the specialists in the area, allowing her to share the workload with other doctors.
Margaret enjoyed a creative and varied career, applying her medical education to work opportunities outside the conventional medical pathway. In 1962, she started working as a medical journalist for the New Zealand Family Doctor magazine, and later for Thursday magazine, under the pseudonym of Margaret Greenford—reflecting the location of her previous workplace in the UK. Her role was to answer medical questions from the magazine subscribers—early examples of the medical pages in today’s women’s magazines.
“There was no question of whether I would have any knowledge about it, but I was very keen to make sure I sorted out the right things to say.”
Margaret continued her writing work until 1980 alongside her other work and family commitments. In time, she developed a name for herself in the industry, and was given the freedom to write about topics of her choosing. With her experience working as a general practitioner, she had no shortage of ideas. Many questions she fielded were related to contraception, as it was around this time that the contraceptive pill was introduced, and women had more choices available for birth control.
The Medical Women’s Association
Throughout her career, Margaret was heavily involved with the New Zealand Medical Women’s Association (NZMWA), and in 1971, she took on the role of National Corresponding Secretary. The group met regularly to discuss feminist issues, write research papers and submissions to parliament, and provide support for other women who wanted to undergo further training. At that time there were enough members to establish branches in Auckland, Wellington, and Dunedin.
“There were enough women showing interest in particular subjects on medical practice, as it affected women, and we felt that we could perhaps enlarge our experience and knowledge by talking about them together… I still feel quite strongly that the women need to have groups together, because I think our approach to medical practice is a bit more different or unique from the male ones.”
Margaret felt a sense of sadness when the NZMWA went into recess in the early 1990s, due to a reduction in membership numbers. Women graduates wanted to be integrated with all other medical practitioners by joining the New Zealand Medical Association, and there was no further need for a separate women’s association. However, Margaret continued to work with women’s associations worldwide, serving as the Regional Secretary and then the Vice President of the Western Pacific Region of the Medical Women’s International Association from 1998 to 2001.
“[I] did several trips to Japan and Philippines, to meet colleagues, and their associations there, and Australia, and went to some of the international conferences that were held in Britain and one was in Italy. So, it was very much keeping in touch with other colleagues, really.”
Women Doctor’s in New Zealand
In 1990, Margaret combined her interests in journalism and medical women’s issues, by compiling and publishing a non-fiction book titled “Women doctors in New Zealand : an historical perspective, 1921-1986.” The book collates historical records from the NZMWA over its lifespan, describes the life experiences of several prominent early women in medicine, and comments on the challenges that women in medicine have faced.
Life outside medicine
Despite her busy and varied career, Margaret has always been strongly focused on her family. When her three children were very young, she would keep them busy with family activities. Later, her attention shifted towards caring for her elderly parents, particularly her mother who spent some time in Greenlane Hospital undergoing surgery for abdominal aortic aneurysm and needed post-surgery care. After her mother died, Margaret found suitable accommodation for her father close to their home in Takapuna so that she could visit him, before his health deteriorated and he died in North Shore Hospital.
Margaret worked for several years as one of the Medical Officers supervising care of patients in a large geriatric hospital near her home. She also enjoys church activities, initially at Mt Eden Methodist Church, and more recently at Takapuna Methodist Church, where she finds the social aspect of her church group very supportive. Margaret enjoys living independently in her home, with her garden, and plans to continue doing so.
Maxwell, Margaret D. & IMS N.Z. Ltd. (1990). Women doctors in New Zealand : an historical perspective, 1921-1986. Auckland, N.Z : IMS(NZ). Available on Amazon.
McIlraith, J. (1994). The Goods Train Doctors: Stories of Women Doctors in New Zealand, 1920-1993. Dunedin, N.Z : New Zealand Medical Women’s Association.