Maureen Anne Bassili (nee O’Brien)

This biography is based on an interview with Maureen in 2018 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project. The interviewer was Nora Lynch.


Early life: Catholic education & love for language

Maureen Bassili was born and grew up in Auckland. Her father—a surgeon—met his Irish-born bride in London, and the couple returned to New Zealand to marry. Sadly, Maureen and her brother barely knew their father, as he was killed in Egypt during World War II when they were very young. Their mother never overcame her husband’s death, although through her grief she maintained his presence in her children’s lives.

“We felt the lack of having a father, and it was very stressful for my mother. She had no support, no family. So it was really difficult for her. It was as though she wasn’t a widow. She was married and she kept his memory very much alive for us and was loyal to his memory.”

After her husband’s death, Maureen’s mother relied on her Catholic faith and support from the Church to raise her family. She sent Maureen to Baradene College—a Catholic girls’ school—where the nuns were particularly supportive of their family. Maureen was a bright student, and her scholastic aptitude won her a scholarship, negating any school fees, which her mother would not have been able to pay.

“I loved school. I was the perfect student, I was a real goody goody, I loved learning. I must have been the teachers’ ideal student. Yes, I very much enjoyed it.”

Maureen held an early interest in languages and history and she dreamed of a career where she could use these skills. However, inspired by her father’s legacy as a surgeon, she instead decided to study for medical school entrance, despite the lack of preparation in the sciences.

“I wanted to study languages at university and be in the foreign service, and I did have an uncle who was in the government, and whenmy mother asked him what he thought , he said “oh, no, no, there was no opportunity for women in the foreign service. She shouldn’t aim for that at all.” Which is a real shame because by the time I graduated from medical school there were women in the foreign service, and I think I would have enjoyed that sort of life.”

“We didn’t really study sciences, which became a bit of a problem when I wanted to go to medical school and I had to go to a cramming school to get myself up to some sort of level of knowledge that I could master the intermediate subjects.”

Medical school: adventures, friendships, & hard work

In 1957, Maureen began her first medical intermediate year at Otago University. At the age of 17, she felt like a convent-educated girl entering the big wide world, and the experience was wonderful.

“I did feel a bit homesick. I think because it was just my mother and us, so we were very co-dependent in a way, so it was probably very good for me to go away to university.”

Maureen worked hard and passed all her papers, but she found that she lacked background knowledge and understanding, particularly in physics and chemistry. However, after repeating the year she was rewarded for her efforts and accepted into medical school.

“The Herald would publish the results of the entrances to medical school. So when you knew they were coming out, everyone rushed to get The Herald in the morning to see if you had got in.”

Maureen was one of twelve girls out of the 120 medical school entrants in 1959. For the first two years, she lived in Dominican Hall—a hostel for Catholic girls—before moving into a flat, and her best memories of medical school are the friendships she made with her flatmates. Maureen had a long-term boyfriend, although the relationship did not last beyond medical school, and she also enjoyed an amicable relationship with the males in her class.

“I came from an all-girls school and so it was like having a hundred brothers, really. They were all very nice to us, and it was a lovely group of people. And here we are, we’ve just had a class reunion so many years later. It was a very good time.”

In the early stages of medical school, the students enjoyed minimal academic pressures from their studies. Maureen was not particularly concerned by her performance on the term tests, instead enjoying a healthy social life. Although medical school students were a bit isolated from the other faculties, her class was particularly convivial, and they would organise winter skating or skiing trips, and often played social tennis. Maureen also enjoyed acting and spent much of her time with her drama group, where she played a role in Hayfever, and performed onstage for capping concerts. As the larger examinations loomed near, Maureen realised that she would need to put more effort into her studies.

“I was in the library studying, and it was really interesting the perception that staff have of you. I had no idea who noticed whether I was in the library or not, but when I came to my oral, one of the examiners said, “Well, Miss O’Brien, so you finally got yourself into action. I’ve seen you studying in the library and yes, you’ve finally produced some good work.” So it’s interesting how what you do is perceived that you’re completely unaware of.”

Other teachers were not so encouraging, particularly to female medical students. Maureen recalls one unsavory experience, when an orthopedic lecturer continually referred to a female Samoan student as “hot chocolate”. While the other students felt uncomfortable, no one ever spoke up about his inappropriate behavior.

“The hierarchical attitude was that the consultant was law, and I didn’t challenge. Although the men could have challenged because they were quite insubordinate when they felt like it. But nobody said anything. Or maybe it was just accepted that these sorts of comments were made.”

Maureen Anne Bassili (nee O’Brien), graduated 1963

Despite lacking financial support from a father, Maureen managed to pay her own way through medical school. She received a government bursary of five pounds a week to cover her accommodation costs. A group of Auckland pathologists who had known her father offered Maureen holiday work, and she benefited from the practical experience as well as a decent pay rate of ten pounds a week—a lot of money for a girl.

“It was great. And also, it made you familiar with tests, biochemistry tests, haematology tests, it was just a nice easy way of absorbing information too.”

In her sixth year, Maureen returned to Auckland to complete her practical training. She rotated between hospitals, hitching a ride with one of the anaesthetists between Auckland and Middlemore Hospitals, and returning in one of the ambulances. Due to staff shortages, the students in Auckland worked like house surgeons, and benefited from the experience, where Maureen found that the practical work came naturally to her. After passing her final exams, she returned to Dunedin for her graduation ball, accompanied by her mother who was thrilled with her daughter’s achievements.

“That’s when I won the surgery prize, because I had been working like a house surgeon and I had great experience, really compared to the others I suppose. It gave me quite an advantage… Procedures, doing things with your hands. I naturally found that easy.”

Working as a junior doctor: from Auckland to Bermuda & beyond

After graduation, Maureen continued working as a house surgeon in Auckland. With a shortage of live-in accommodation available, she chose to live with her mother nearby on Symonds Street, which wasn’t always as convenient as she had hoped.

“I wanted to be based in Auckland because my home was right there. Instead of which I got the rotation that was all Middlemore, which I resented since I had got really high marks, I thought they should have given me priority. But they didn’t. So I was a bit miffed about that.”

Transitioning from a medical student to a qualified house surgeon came with some minor challenges. During this time, the hospital board several absurd complaints about Maureen, including one patient complaining that she looked too young to be a doctor. However, Maureen brushed these aside and accepted the change in responsibility with only minimal anxieties.

“I remember one night having a problem with a patient, and I called somebody I knew who was a paediatric registrar, who said, “Why are you calling me, I’m the paediatric registrar, I don’t know anything about this.” “

The other hospital staff were particularly supportive of Maureen. Many of the senior doctors had known her father and they took a special interest in her performance, expressing pride in her achievements.

“The nurses, some of the nurses were lovely and taught me all sorts of tricks, like how to unblock a drip. And then there were others who resented me. And I remember when I first went into A&E and worked there, I knew nothing. You know, we were totally unprepared for that sort of environment. And the nurses were very helpful about telling you what to do and how to do it. Then once you became confident in your extra knowledge which allowed you to make different decisions from theirs, well they didn’t like that. You know, once you knew enough to be able to work independently and think for yourself, some of them didn’t like it. But mostly I didn’t have much trouble with nurses.”

As her house surgeon training ended, Maureen decided to gain experience in an overseas hospital. Uncertain where her career was heading, she and a friend chose King Edward the Seventh Hospital in Bermuda, which came highly recommended by other New Zealand medical graduates.

“We thought well Bermuda sounds nice, so off we went to Bermuda, and we did a six-month rotation there. And that was fantastic, it was like working in general practice and we got the chance to learn lots of things and have a social life, which we never had when we were house surgeons at Auckland Hospital. It was all just work work, work. But this was lovely, after having worked so hard.”

Career specialty: anesthesiology training in Lebanon & working in a war zone

Next on Maureen’s itinerary was London—the sought-after destination for many medical graduates seeking postgraduate qualifications. Despite her interest in the surgical specialty, by this time Maureen had focused her attention towards anaesthetics, largely for practical reasons.

“When I was a house surgeon, I used to have paroxysms of sneezing in the mornings, and we didn’t have the drugs you have nowadays to stop your sneezing and I just couldn’t be in the theatres sneezing with nose dripping. And so I decided that I liked the theatre atmosphere, I liked the opportunity to get things done, you know I couldn’t have possibly managed somebody’s blood pressure for thirty years, that just wasn’t me. I was much more wanting to get in and do something and fix something. And so I decided that anesthesia was a reasonable compromise. It was in that sort of environment, that you could blow your nose quite regularly if you needed to.”

In London, Maureen spent six months working in North Middlesex Hospital alongside another New Zealand medical school graduate, Judy Barfoot, while studying for the Diploma in Anaesthesia. Her time in London was brief, as she had set her sights on the Middle East where her father was buried. In 1966, this was an unusual location for women medical graduates. With help from a colleague, Maureen established contact with a hospital in Beirut who offered her a one-year contract, which gradually extended into the next nine years of her career.  

Maureen found that Lebanon suited her interests in language and culture. Over the course of three years, Maureen completed her anaesthestic apprenticeship. She also met and married her husband, John—an economist—and the couple had three children together during their time in Lebanon.

“I just really enjoyed the lifestyle in Lebanon, the work was good, the teaching was good, living in a country of so much history and cultural significance, it was just wonderful. And the hours were so much better than Auckland, so although we worked hard when we were on, we did have good time off duty.”

“And again I joined a drama group there and I was acting in plays, so they would arrange my schedule so that I could rehearse and perform in these plays, and then I would pay back all the time I owed to everybody when the plays were over.”

“And it was a very cosmopolitism international sort of lifestyle. We mixed with ambassadors and businessmen and spies. There was somebody John knew who was a CIA spy, and people there who’d known Kim Philby, and it was just so different from growing up here. You know, it was really eye opening. Very, very interesting life.”

During the 1970s, the worsening political situation culminated in the Lebanese Civil War, and many of Maureen’s colleagues left the country, adding additional challenges to her working life. However, she and John decided to stay in Beirut and give back to the country that had accepted them.

“We had some very good friends there, and then as the political situation deteriorated life became less secure, and a lot of people left because of the danger. There’d be flareups of fighting in various parts of the city, and a lot of the staff at the university left. And I felt obliged to give back what I had had from the country, Lebanon had given me so much in terms of happiness and opening my eyes to a completely different sort of world, that I felt I should stay and work. So I stayed and worked in the university when we had very few staff there.”

“I was working in the operating theatre. We had all the casualties, and we’d be having casualties coming in and be trying to look after severa loperating rooms at once with medical students, you know, trying to keep everyone going. Keeping the patients stable and helping the medical students. It was challenging.”

“And then we would run out of supplies, for example we would have to have our oxygen brought in, and the Palestinians or the Mourabitoun, the rebels, would hijack our oxygen. So we’d have no oxygen, so we’d be operating on people having to use room air instead of oxygen. And we had a couple of-outstanding staff- We had one in particular, an anaesthetist who would have been an engineer in another life, so he was very clever and he adapted ventilators to run on air and we would save the oxygen for patients who needed thoracotomies or were particularly unwell.”

“And at that time there was a drug which had just come on the market called ketamine which is a very useful drug. It can be used as an induction agent, or as the sole agent for an anesthetic with patients breathing spontaneously on room air. And as that came on the market at that time, It helped us a lot when we were running out of supplies. It was also quite dangerous going to and from the hospital because there would be fighting in the streets and you’d have to be careful about where you went.”

“And we had an underground garage where you parked, and the attendant would tell you as you left which way was the best way to go. He’d ask, “Where do you want to go?” And we’d tell him, and he’d say, “Don’t go that way, there’s a bit of trouble down there, go this way.” And then sometimes, if things weren’t very stable, I would phone home once I got to the hospital and say, “It’s okay, I’ve arrived, everything is fine.” So it was dangerous.”

Despite the challenges, Maureen wanted to stay in the country that had become her second home. Pressured by her mother concerned for her safety, it was her husband’s desire to leave that eventually drove the family to return.

“My mother moved heaven and earth to get us back to New Zealand. Flying down to Wellington, going to see Muldoon, and the visa for John came through the BBC correspondent in Beirut, somehow.”

“John is the third generation of his family to be uprooted. His father was a leader of the Greek Orthodox community in Lebanon in the time of the Ottomans, so they were in the North of Lebanon. His great-great-grandfather was an important man and the Pasha, I think the story goes, the Pasha wanted to borrow his great grandfathers horses, so he lent him the horses, and then the next time he wanted to borrow the horses he didn’t come himself and asked, he sent the servant to ask. And lent him the horses. And the third time, the servant didn’t come, they just sent a message, “Send the horses”. So the grandfather shot the horses, so there were no horses for the ottoman governor.”

“So then there was a price on his head. So they retreated to the mountains, because Mount Lebanon was always very Christian, and that was where they all had their strength. So they retreated to the mountains, the great-grandfather sent one of the brothers off to Egypt and said, “You go there, here’s some money, and set up a business”. And so he set up a business, and then I think the grandfather died. And so then his wife and the children followed and went to Egypt and, shared the business with the uncle. Then in 1956 Nasser nationalised their business, which was a very very big business, and took it over, so then they went back to Lebanon. This was the third time they had been displaced so John decided, “Enough. Enough of the Middle East. The toing and froing. I want to leave here.” So he was always keen to leave, I was the one who didn’t want to leave.”

Returning to New Zealand: the case of the missing lecture notes

Maureen returned to New Zealand with her family, where she took a half-time job-sharing role with another woman in the Department of Anaesthesia at Auckland Hospital. The Head of Department, Dr Jack Watt, as well as Dr Basil Hutchinson, were both very supportive of Maureen’s return to New Zealand. However, after so much time overseas, Maureen struggled to regain her place in her former training hospital.

“I found it very difficult to settle back into New Zealand. I wasn’t at all happy. It was just so different. And I felt like my friends from school, they were no longer friends really. I’d sort of grown apart.”

Maureen had other reasons to dislike her return to New Zealand. The training she had completed in Lebanon did not qualify her as a specialist anaesthetist in New Zealand. At first, she balked at the idea of further training, and she instead explored the idea of moving into general practice. However, after working as a GP locum she decided the work was not for her and that she would need to undertake further postgraduate study so that she could again work as an anaesthetist.

Fortunately for Maureen, the Australasian College accepted her years of training in Beirut as equivalent, leaving only the examinations to pass. She joined a small group of other training registrars, attending weekly lectures, where she marvelled at how much anatomy and physiology training had changed from what she had originally been taught at medical school. However, the biggest hurdle to her qualifications was rather unexpected.

“We had spent every last cent we had to come here, we had no money, we bought a house and we just didn’t have any money. The children were sleeping on the floor, we had no beds. So I didn’t have any textbooks, and I wrote everything down. And then one afternoon at afternoon tea, in the middle of our lectures, I came back and my notes had gone. We couldn’t find them. I thought, oh, did I take them? What did I do with them? Searched high and low, couldn’t find them, couldn’t find them.”

A colleague of Maureens discovered the culprit of the theft during a preparation course in Dunedin, and her notes were returned to her, only two weeks before the final exam. Despite the additional stressors, she flew through the exams for both part one and part two in one sitting, and in 1978 she qualified as a specialist anaesthetist in New Zealand.

Family life: childcare options & children in the wards

Maureen had her fourth child when she was working as a consultant at Auckland Hospital. Anaesthesia was a good speciality for a working mother, and Maureen was able to structure her day so that she would be available to her children.

“I used to do mornings only so I’d be available by three for when they finished school. Mostly, occasionally a morning list would be going on after three but that was very unusual. And so we managed to achieve a career with having the family. Various colleagues would ask me to do private lists for them which were more remunerative, but it was just too difficult with the family, so I just was strictly a public hospital anaesthetist.”

Despite this, Maureen found the practical aspects of combining work and family life challenging at times, and she relied on outside help. Childcare options were limited in those days, but a daycare in Freeman’s bay took on her three Caucasian children to address the ethnic balance at their centre. Maureen found the commute challenging, and relied on her husband, who was unemployed at the time, to collect the children in the afternoon.

“And then one day he finally got a job, it was very difficult for him to find employment, he found a job with a marketing company. And he had to go overseas to the Middle East for work, and so I had to pick them up in the afternoon. And I discovered that he used to bribe them with sweets every afternoon. So every afternoon when he picked them up he’d take them to the dairy and buy them sweets. So, of course, I wouldn’t buy them, and we’d have tantrums in the car all the way home about wanting sweets that daddy bought. So daddy got into trouble for doing that.”

Later, Maureen opted for in-home care. She was endlessly grateful to the young woman and her husband who would take time off from their own careers to care for her son.

“I was in theatre one day at Auckland Hospital and there was a phone call from the nanny that the two children had locked her out, in the garden. She was locked out and they were inside doing lord knows what, and could somebody please come and rescue her.”

“She never let me down, her marriage had its problems and she went off the rails a bit. And blow me down, when she didn’t come, her husband would call in sick to his work and come to me to look after my child. So I could go to Auckland Hospital.”

Maureen found that her colleagues, particularly the nurses, were endlessly supportive of her and her family. During her weekly Sunday night rounds, she would often take her children to the hospital with her, and they’d draw at the desk while Maureen went through the charts, and then accompany her on her rounds. Other times, after her youngest son had been awake all night with asthma, Maureen would take him to work with her rather than send him to school. The nurses would put him in the recovery room in the corner and draw the curtains around him, and he’d stay there until Maureen had finished work.

“The nurses were very good. And I presume the hospital board didn’t really know about it, but of course these days you couldn’t do that sort of thing. But that’s how we managed. Because if I didn’t go, we didn’t have the reserves of staff that we have now. So if I didn’t go there was a theatre that wouldn’t function, and you’d have patients not operated on and surgeons waiting. It would have been a terrible waste of effort. So that’s what we did.”

As her children grew older, Maureen started working four full days a week at the hospital Maureen’s workload increased, and her career expanded. She did some private locum work, and supervised anaesthetic technicians during their training. In time, she developed specialist anaesthetic skills and started attending conferences to expand her knowledge.

“And I became quite expert really in regional anesthesia for eyes and eye problems as such. And I did a lot of urology and became quite capable in that area too. And I had a very good relationship with the urologists and we understood each other, and I didn’t do neurosurgery at all. Or cardiac anesthesia. And I didn’t do obstetric anesthesia, I found that far too frightening.”

Reflections: career speciality advice

Maureen worked until she was 74. Looking back, she is proud of her career and being able to provide for her family, although she feels that she lost some of the social aspects of her life.

“I didn’t really set a very good example to my children, I think. I don’t think I managed that work life balance very well, on reflection. I was too consumed with work and it was too tiring, there wasn’t enough time left for other things. I mean, the children didn’t miss out on anything, they went to music and sport and ballet and they did all these classes, but I was always so busy taking everybody everywhere and organising everything for them that it probably looked to them like it wasn’t much of a lifestyle, really, I think.”

Maureen also wonders whether a medical career was difficult for women in ways that did not directly impact her at the time.

“Orthopaedics I think would have been tricky. Although there are women orthopaedic surgeons now who seem to manage very well… I think there was a bit of a perception that women weren’t capable. When I was a consultant that was fine by me, I just wanted to do my job. But had I wanted to advance in any one area to make a name for myself as being preeminent, I don’t know if it would have been that easy. I know Eve Sealy and Marie Simpson did, in Greenlane, they were the cardiac anaesthetists and they were fantastic. And really established themselves as pre-eminent in their field. But at Auckland Hospital I don’t know if that would have been so easy.”

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