Adapted from a biography written by Mary’s daughter, Felicity Gibson, in collaboration with her sisters Frances, Kathleen, Shaunagh, and Janey, whose contributions have been most appreciated.
Litster held a passion and determination that allowed her to succeed during a time when female doctors were a rarity. As a young woman with multiple career options in front of her, she turned down a place at the London School of Music and chose to apply her talents to a career in medicine, embracing the challenges it took for her to get there. She always regarded acceptance into medical school as a privilege, and acknowledged just how determined students, particularly women, needed to be to take on this career path during the first half of the twentieth century.
Childhood and early education
Mary Litster Burnet (known as Litster) was born in Christchurch in 1924. Brought up along with her older brother in a middle-class European family, she was taught to appreciate the value of education. Thanks to her father’s steady occupation as an electrical inspector, the family were largely unaffected by the Depression era that began when she was just five years old. Litster’s mother was a bright woman with feminist ideas, and although she had never held a job herself, she had strong ambitions for her daughter’s future.
Litster started school when she was six years old. Education was free, and Litster did not recall ever having to take money to school for anything, although there were no ‘extras’, such as school trips. Everything at primary school was rote learnt by memory, and the focus was on reading, writing, and arithmetic. Litster then attended Shirley Intermediate, which was the first intermediate school in Christchurch. Here, the emphasis was still on basic skills, largely cooking lessons for girls and woodwork for boys, although some French and Science was included in the curriculum.
Litster attended Christchurch Girls’ High School, which was noted for its academic prowess. Students were streamed, and top students took subjects that included Latin, French, Maths, English, and History. Litster had a passion for music, and this formed an important part of her education in both intermediate and high school. Extracurricular activities included the school choir, netball, and swimming lessons, and school sports day was always a highlight as the students were taken to the sports ground.
World War II broke out when Litster was in high school, and this had an emotional effect on her family, as her brother was sent to war and her father became a Home Guard. Litster sat her matriculation in the fifth form, and in 1941 when she was in the lower sixth form, she left school to go to University.
In those days, girls with academic potential would typically go into a teaching career and did not pursue other professions such as law, accounting, or medicine. Litster chose to study a Bachelor of Arts, where she majored in History, French, and Education. However, was during her second year of studies, influenced by her cousin Max, Litster decided that she wanted to study medicine. As her mother insisted that she first must finish her bachelor’s degree, she chose to study History and Zoology during her third year, as those subjects were required for medical intermediate. The content was challenging, particularly considering her lack of science education, however with some private tutoring she successfully passed all her papers.
WWII and the Department of Manpower had a strong influence on Litster’s tertiary education. Under their direction, Litster worked as a wardsmaid in the public hospital during her university vacations. Moreover, although she was accepted by the University of Otago Medical School as a graduate-entry student, the Department of Manpower decreed that graduates should not be accepted into medical school at that time but should instead do work of national importance. However, Litster was determined to go to medical school and could not be dissuaded. She arranged meetings with two members of Parliament, Sydney Holland and Mabel Howard, and the Minister of Manpower, Andrew McClagan to argue her case. Despite her efforts, she was not allowed to enter medical school and was advised that she would instead make an excellent nurse.
As Litster had already arranged to move to Dunedin, she decided to attend the Home Science school there instead. The course involved subjects such as ‘Chemistry of the Household’, ‘House Wifery’, ‘Cooking’, and ‘Sewing’. Litster strongly disliked the course, and by the third term, she decided to enquire about entering medical school again. Fortunately, the Department of Manpower had dropped their policy on graduates not entering Medical School, and she was able to finally embark on her career that she fought so hard for.
Litster enrolled in Medical School in 1945. She spent four years studying in Dunedin, and her fifth year in Christchurch. As one of only ten women studying medicine in a class of 120, she recalls some examples of sexism during her time in medical school. The women had to sit in the front row during lectures, and there was a separate women’s common room. At the end of her sixth year, her application for a House Surgeon post was declined because of her gender, and she was only accepted for a position in New Plymouth because her future employers mistakenly thought “Litster” was a male name.
Litster did her best to maintain her femininity, while she was surrounded with male doctors. As there were no facilities for women in the House Surgeons’ Quarters, Litster was put into the Nurses Home until she demanded to live with the other House Surgeons. The very first night there, she decided to cut out the pattern for a frock, and the male doctors were soon showing an interest in what she was doing and advising her how to assemble the garment. Undoubtedly, her feminine pursuits were of interest in a predominantly male dominated environment.
Career and family life
After graduating from medical school in 1950, Litster moved to New Plymouth, where she worked as a house surgeon at the Taranaki Base Hospital. Here she met her future husband, Walter O’Halloran, who was a senior house surgeon at the same hospital. The couple married on 30th August 1952 and lived together in Opunake.
With the birth of twin daughters, Litster resigned from her house surgeon job, and the couple moved to Auckland so that Walter could pursue a medical speciality in psychiatry. However, with another pregnancy underway, the couples’ original plans did not eventuate. Instead, in 1960, they set up their own general practice in the Auckland suburb of Onehunga. This suited their lifestyle as Litster was able to work while raising their family, and the couple eventually had five daughters—one of Litster’s greatest achievements.
During her years working as a GP, Litster often used the name “Dr Mary” with her patients, as some people had trouble pronouncing her preferred name. Throughout their careers, Litster and Walter embraced the suburb of Onehunga and were strongly involved in community events. Litster became the chair of the board of trustees at Onehunga High School, was involved in teaching St John’s ambulance officers, and lectured at antenatal classes. Walter was a supportive husband and was immensely proud of Litster for her achievements as a doctor and as a mother. After Walter was diagnosed with a brain tumour at the age of 42, Litster looked after her husband, took over his GP practice at times, all while continuing to run her own practice.
The couple retired from general practice in their mid-sixties, and moved to a 10-acre block, where they enjoyed a more casual lifestyle running sheep and maintaining the land. Litster continued to look after her husband, who suffered the ill effects of his earlier brain tumour, and she unfortunately developed a breast tumour during her retirement years. However, she enjoyed her many grandchildren and followed their progress in life with great interest and enthusiasm, until she passed away in 2016.