This biography is based on an interview with Mary Miller nee Cameron in 2016 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project. The interviewer was Claire Gooder.
Childhood and early education
Mary was born in September 1939 at Waikato hospital. The daughter of a general practitioner and a practice nurse, Mary was part of the medical profession from a young age. Both her parents had worked as medical missionaries in the Sudan before returning to New Zealand and operating a busy general practice in Henderson. Mary’s father was the only general practitioner in the region, and he would see patients in his medical rooms attached to the family home. Mary was allowed to answer telephone calls and assist patients with filling in forms, and she would often go with her parents in the car “on the rounds” to see patients who were unable to travel to the medical rooms. During the war, the roads were rough and truck loads of American soldiers would travel the Great North Road. Mary’s father was on call for accidents, emergencies, and obstetrics for miles around.
During her school years, Mary was given every opportunity to follow her career aspirations. From third form, her parents sent her to board at St Cuthbert’s College—a small (at that time) girl’s school in Auckland. The academic environment there suited Mary, as the principal was very supportive of the students going to university, and accommodated Mary’s desire to become a doctor by offering her and another student special one hour lessons in physics to prepare for university. In 1957, she enrolled in The University of Auckland, where she passed her medical intermediate subjects, and was accepted into The University of Otago Medical School along with 17 other Auckland students.
Mary remembers her time in medical school fondly.
“I absolutely loved medical school. I just found it completely fascinating, every subject and the people we met, all the teachers. We respected them hugely. It’s not quite the same now, but we had enormous respect for the doctors who taught us, and having all those men in the class was marvellous you know, having been to a girl’s boarding school! And they were all such intelligent, friendly people…”
Mary describes a sense of formality during her time at University. During the two years she spent in St Margaret’s college, there were fairly strict house rules. Male visitors were asked to wait downstairs, and the students had to sign in and out of the college within curfew. The dress code at medical school was also considerably more formal than it is now. Men were required to wear ties and jackets, and Mary recalls a time a female student was sent home from a dissection class for wearing trousers.
Mary was a conscientious student and worked hard through medical school to ensure she passed—in contrast to some of her male friends who preferred to portray a more relaxed attitude to their studies. Her hard work paid off. She gained top marks and Distinction in Pathology, which earned her an additional merit allowance. In the fifth and sixth year, Mary taught Home Science students Anatomy and Physiology. For giving two lectures each week, setting exams and marking them, she was paid 150 pounds a year—enough to cover the entire food budget for the year, for both her and her husband.
Times were changing for young women in medicine and Mary insists she never felt discriminated against as a woman in medical school. Although women weren’t previously allowed in the university cafeteria, this changed during Mary’s time at Otago. In the fifth year of her studies, Mary married her husband Ross—a Presbyterian minister. Unlike some women before her in a similar position, she continued her studies, although she does recall the injustice of having her merit allowance removed following her marriage. In her class, women freely formed friendships with male students, and the only time they formed a “women-only” group was during practical physiology classes where some undressing would be required. Sometimes they could use their minority status to their advantage:
“On one occasion all eight of us who were at St Mags wore clothes with dots on them, either a blouse or a dress with dots, and some were black and white and some were red and white, didn’t matter. We decided we’d all go in together, the first one went in and no one took any notice, then the second one went in and class members started to look, the third one went in, and by the time all eight of us went in the men students were all cheering and stamping, it was really funny!”
New medical technologies
Mary’s sixth year of medical training, spent in Dunedin and Wakari Hospitals, exposed her to all sorts of new and exciting medical technologies. She worked with Professor Frederick Horace Smirk, who was engaged in his early work controlling hypertension to prevent stroke. In those days the drugs were pretty horrendous and the patients experienced acute side-effects. The treatment for cardiac arrest was also vastly different back then. The chest would be slashed open with a scalpel and the heart massaged until it started again. Sometimes this would work, and the patient would then be taken to theatre and stitched up.
Mary recalls Christmas Day 1961 as particularly memorable. A young farmer had come in with crushed kidneys and suffered acute renal failure, after being run over by a tractor. There was no regular dialysis in those days, so Mary and her colleagues spent the day setting up the fluids and preparing the patient in the hope that the kidneys would recover if they could dialyse him through the acute phase.
“I think he did actually recover, I don’t have a clear memory of that. I think he might have been the first patient that was ever dialysed in Dunedin, because you know the pharmacy was doing it all from scratch.”
During her fifth-year Obstetric run at Queen Mary Hospital, Mary ‘lived-in’ at the hospital with five other students, delivering babies night and day. In the sixth-year medical run at Wakari Hospital, Mary faced challenges that her male friends perhaps did not. After arriving at the hospital, she was directed to her accommodation in the nurse’s quarters quite a distance away, rather than the accommodation directly above the hospital that the male house surgeons occupied. Only after Mary’s insistence was she allowed to sleep in the house surgeon’s quarters, and she was presumably the first woman to be allowed this much more convenient accommodation.
After medical school
After graduation, Mary left medicine behind to focus on other challenges. The young couple travelled to Scotland for a time where they had their first child, before returning to New Zealand and completing their family of three children. Flourishing in the role of Minister’s wife, Mary participated in pre-marriage courses and family life education for the Marriage Guidance Council. With a developing passion for teaching, Mary was granted a temporary teaching certificate and taught Liberal Studies at Timaru College, where she quietly enjoyed the pros of working with healthy people—completely different to her previous experiences working in medicine.
However, Mary’s career in medicine was by no means over. Ross’s Ministerial work soon took them to Fiji, and as the need for house surgeons outweighed that for teachers, Mary returned to full-time medical work in CWM Hospital, Suva. In Fiji, Mary gained practical experience like no other she had received before. Working as a house surgeon in paediatrics, she learnt to intubate neonates and put in tiny butterfly needles that had been re-used multiple times, and in obstetrics assisted with many deliveries with limited support from more senior doctors.
“The obstetrician I was working with … said the first night you are on call you need to know twins, postpartum haemorrhage … and breech. So I read them all up and talked to her about them, and I got all three that first night!”
Mary remembers the four years that she and her family spent in Fiji fondly. Living on a large property, the children had acres of mudslides and trees to climb. Mary met lots of local and international people through her husband’s parish and her own work at the hospital. Through Ross’s role as head of one of the five churches, the couple were once invited to government house for dinner to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury. “It was sort of like living a double life in some ways. But it was good, very good.”
Career as a pathologist
Mary found her Diploma of Obstetrics training back in New Zealand relatively easy after her experiences in Fiji, but she began looking for a permanent career path. A fateful conversation with Pathology Professor Peter Herdson helped her decision to study Pathology.
“I had always loved pathology because it underpins everything….and I’d done well in it at medical school, I was the first person ever to get distinction Prof Howie told me, years later!”
Mary flourished in her chosen specialty. During her five years of pathology training, the only time she questioned her decision was when she was sitting the exams, which were very difficult. The science was changing rapidly, and there was not a single thing she had learnt in pathology in medical school that was still valid. Later, she applied her teaching skills to a role as tutor specialist, training registrars for their exams and organising their lecture programme. She also spent some time working alongside pathology specialists Peter Herdson and George Hitchcock, reviewing all the melanomas of the eye that had been diagnosed in Auckland. Her work was published in a special edition of Pathology to honour the late New Zealander, and melanoma specialist, Vincent McGovern. Showcasing her work in this way gave her further opportunities for collaboration, and she was invited for a few months’ work across the ditch at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne.
Mary spent the remainder of her career working at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital as a histopathologist. She loved working in the hospital alongside all the surgeons and other clinicians from different departments, and it was these types of collaborations that lead to formation of the Breast Clinic and the New Zealand Bone Registry at Middlemore Hospital. Working alongside Professor John Collins, Mary helped initiate the patient-focused breast clinic—a revolutionary treatment approach that gave women a diagnosis and treatment plan within a single visit. Importantly, clinicians would meet and discuss each patient collaboratively, developing the modern multidisciplinary approach to healthcare.
During her time working in Middlemore Hospital, Mary developed a special interest in the diagnosis and treatment of bone tumours. Realising that New Zealand did not have a bone tumour registry as did all the Australian states, in 1988 Mary wrote to every pathologist, radiologist, and orthopaedic surgeon in the country to encourage them to contribute information from their bone tumour patients to a centralised database, adding to the material already collected at Middlemore. This became known as The New Zealand Bone and Soft Tissue Tumour Registry. Despite some initial resistance to this new type of collaboration, within a year, the group was having regular meetings for presentations on bone tumours and individual cases. Thanks to its success, the database now has an excellent collection of each type of tumour. Mary and her colleague Alan King were invited to contribute to the World Health Organisation book on bone tumours, a chapter on synovial chondromatosis tumours.
Life after medicine
Over time, Mary’s focus moved towards her grandchildren and other hobbies.
“I worked until I was just about 70, and I knew I was going to retire. I didn’t want to drop dead over my microscope—I wanted to do other things. And also I didn’t want to start making mistakes. You make a mistake when you’re 50, it’s fine. If you make a mistake when you’re 75 people say “she should have retired by now”. It’s just the way I felt, I didn’t want to spoil my career by doing something when I wasn’t quite up to it.”
Mary says she doesn’t miss medicine at all, as there are so many other things to do. Nowadays, she enjoys helping with reading at the local primary school, walking on the beach, tramping, swimming, and singing. She’s also President of the Warkworth University of the 3rd Age (U3A)—an organisation for lifelong learning.
Mary says she couldn’t have done what she did without Ross’s support. “Choose a supportive partner!” she says. “Because if you can do things together and share the jobs, and support each other with what you want to do, when you want to do it, it just transforms life.” She admits that her decision to leave medicine for so long to raise her family is probably not possible now or popular advice, but believes it is important to have your children fairly young to avoid obstetric problems. “Some people came back to medicine after 20 years, and I think if you’re determined to do something and to do it well, you can do it.”
Mary’s final advice for young women entering the profession is to be whole-hearted in what you do. “If you’re doing a job, you’ve got to give it everything,” she says.