Molly Smith (nee Wagstaff)

This biography is based on an interview with Molly’s daughter, Ruth Newton, in 2019 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project


Childhood and early education

Molly Smith nee Wagstaff was born in 1916 to a working-class family in Wellington. She was the second child, preceded by her older brother Ron Wagstaff. Her father, John Wagstaff, had earlier immigrated from Yorkshire in the United Kingdom to New Zealand, where he saved money so that his future wife could join him. One of his first jobs as a married man was running the animal quarantine station on Somes Island during World War I, which later gave Molly a sense of pride over her family history.

Molly’s mother was a school teacher, which was exceptional for a working-class woman at the time, and she delivered some of her daughter’s early education via correspondence. Molly was an exceptionally gifted child, who could read and write by the age of 3 and was often immersed in a book. This was a source of frustration for her mother, who as a stern homemaker, was disappointed that her daughter did not share her passions for sewing, gardening, and other domestic work. At some point Molly herself decided that she should restrict her reading, as she felt it was becoming and addiction and was interfering with her daily life. 

Later in Molly’s childhood, the family moved in Waitaki north of Otago where her father worked as a farm inspector. Molly attended Waitaki Girls’ Secondary School as a ‘train girl’, meaning that she would travel to and from home each day rather than board at school. This meant that she missed the first and last lessons of the day, which were often focussed on domestic chores such as sewing and cooking, and Molly joked that this is why she was such a poor homemaker.

Molly’s family life may have lacked some tenderness growing up, as her parents’ Yorkshire upbringing tended towards criticism rather than encouragements. Molly was closer to her father, and despite her academic potential, her dream was to follow in his footsteps and work on the farm. However, Molly’s mother realised her daughter’s potential to succeed academically in a male-dominated society. Under their parents’ direction, both Molly and her brother entered medical school, although neither were particularly passionate about the career choice.

Medical school years

Molly was accepted into Otago Medical School at the age of 16, although her mother insisted that she repeat the sixth form twice so that she was old enough to attend university. She was one of only three women to begin their studies that year. Molly felt uncomfortable entering university at such a young age and was intimidated by some of the other students, many of whom came from upper class families. “Social climbing” was widespread, and Molly did not enjoy that aspect of her medical school experience. She felt the differences in social class were emphasised by the clothes that she wore, which were often hand-made by her mother. She was particularly embarrassed by her underpants, which her mother had made from old flour bags, and although she had bleached them, the ‘FLOUR’ symbols were still visible when they were drying on the clothesline.

 Molly Smith (nee Wagstaff), graduated 1938

Molly attended medical school during the Depression era, and times were tough. House owners would commonly rent out their homes to students as a source of income, and Molly lived in one of these boarding houses. Every week, the students would put their sheets out to be washed. However, Molly soon realised that the landlord was attempting to save money by airing the unwashed sheets on the line and distributing at random back to the students. After this, Molly decided she would rather sleep on her own unwashed sheets than someone else’s!

Molly knew that her parents had worked hard to pay for her education, and she studied hard, not wanting to let them down. She did experience some tough times as a woman in medical school. The professors were often gruff in their teaching style and would sometimes bully female students. In anatomy the women were often given a much harder time than the male students and would be asked to recall more complex or detailed parts of the anatomy. Subtle and snarky comments towards women were common, presumably driven by fear and uncertainty, as female students were a rarity at the time.

Molly completed her House Surgeon training in Wellington, and then worked as a junior doctor in New Plymouth, where her family was working at the time. Here she was sociable with Jean Sandel, and Dorothy Spence-Sales, who graduated from Otago Medical School around the same time as Molly.

Working as a locum general practitioner in Waihi

Finding work as a doctor could be difficult for female graduates, who were often discriminated against in favour of male doctors. However, with many of her male colleagues recruited overseas to serve in World War II, this opened the door for female doctors working New Zealand. Instead of moving to Australia as she had initially planned, Molly became a locum GP in Waihi, taking over a practice there from Dr Barraclough, where she worked until the end of the war. Molly saw many interesting cases during her time in Waihi. Some of the miners who came through the practice were difficult to deal with as they loved their “compo” (compensation) and would go as far as chopping off their own fingers to access benefits and avoid working.

Molly experienced some discrimination as a female doctor, even from her own family. At the time, women were not immunised against tetanus, and Molly’s mother—a keen gardener—was unfortunate to catch the disease twice during her lifetime. The first time, although Molly was very busy working as a GP in Waihi, she was expected by default to nurse her mother who wouldn’t dream of asking her busy son. When she could, Molly attended to her mother, who fortunate to survive through the disease.

After the war ended, Dr Barraclough returned from serving overseas and wanted his GP practice back. Molly was lucky to secure a new work opportunity through her brother Ron, who had been working at a Dr Marshall’s GP practice in Dargaville. Ron had fallen in love with Dr Marshall’s daughter, and rather than taking over the practice himself when his employer retired, the couple decided to move to Auckland. This gave Molly the opportunity to purchase the practice on Hokianga Rd herself, possibly with financial assistance from her parents.

“Dr Molly” of Dargaville

Molly settled into Dargaville where she worked for the next five years as one of only two GPs in the area. She soon became a much-loved member of the community, where she was famously known as “Dr Molly”. Her fame remains to this day. A display is dedicated to her in the Dargaville Museum, which includes a famous painting and artefacts donated by her daughter.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the roads around Dargaville were rough, particularly in wet weather where they turned to thick slushy clay, and transport was difficult. New cars were difficult to come by for the average person, but when a local garage imported a huge Chevrolet, Molly’s need for transport was recognised and she was allowed to purchase the vehicle, which served her and her family for years to come. Molly would frequently visit patients in their homes, and she would need carry a travel kit in the back of her Chevrolet. As well as her medical equipment, this would include spare wheels and puncture gear, as well as sacks, ropes, wooden planks, and tow ropes, as her car would often get stuck in the mud during the journey.

At times she was extremely busy and probably very tired from theses 24-hour days.  In one memorable instance, she received word that someone had stood on an iron nail out in a remote area of the bush. Molly asked kindly if it would be possible to bring the patient in to her, and a few hours later, she suffered some guilt when a man arrived at her practice on the back of a truck with a six-foot plank still attached to his foot. With her high status in the community, no one would even think to question Dr Molly’s decisions.  

Working in a small community such as Dargaville, Molly’s scope of practice was widespread. Molly and the other GP would deliver all the babies in the area. At the time, travel to the maternity annex in Te Kopuru was a challenge, as Molly had to navigate seven miles down the river on rough roads, often at night, while avoiding the cattle. Without any modern specialist training in obstetrics or back-up facilities, Molly and the other GPs would simply do the best that they could. In one instance, Molly was able to recognise Rhesus disease (which was relatively unknown at the time) in a newborn baby, and she sent the infant straight to Auckland hospital for a blood transfusion, saving the baby’s life. The mother was profoundly grateful, and Molly’s status in the community rose even further.  

Family life and work as an anaesthetist

Perhaps to her parent’s disappointment, in 1950 Molly married Bertram Gisborne Smith (aka B.G. Smith), a much older man, who was a bit of a town character. The culture at the time dictated that married women should be homemakers, and as Molly always did the “right and proper thing”, she sold her practice immediately, to Dr Maurice Matich.

Molly and Bertram’s two children were born in 1951 and 1953. Tragedy struck when their four-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia. As there was nothing that conventional medicine could do for him, Molly sought advice from another women doctor, Eva Hill, a proponent of alternative medicine, who prescribed large quantities of carrot juice. However, the disease was too advanced, and in 1957, their young son died of leukaemia. Molly was shattered, and her world was turned upside down. Eventually, not wanting to leave her remaining daughter, Ruth, as an only child, the couple privately adopted a second daughter, Colleen, who was seven years younger. The two daughters were not particularly close during their childhood, and as Ruth left home at 17, Colleen effectively grew up as an only child herself.

Molly’s daughters remember a comfortable childhood, that perhaps lacked a bit in emotional support. There were some quirks to living with Molly, a strong-minded doctor, as a mother. During her time in Waihi, Molly had become good friends with pharmacist Freda Clarke. Molly was in possession of her pharmacopoeia—a published guide on how to treat various ailments, which included Molly own personal remedies and recipes, many probably learned during her time working as a GP in Waihi. Molly strongly believed in the natural antiseptic properties of gentian violet. Her daughter Colleen often suffered from school sores, and Molly would send her to school with brightly coloured gentian violet all over her face. If her children complained of a sore throat, she would bring out the bottle of an awful brown liquid which had a long brush and a glass handle, and Molly would dip the brush in the liquid and shove it down their throats. Of course, her children rarely complained of a sore throat after that experience!

With time, Molly’s older husband started slowing down in his building and joinery business. In the 1960s Molly started working part-time to earn the family income, this time as an anaesthetist. At first, she gained her training ‘on the job’ at Dargaville Hospital, although she soon received some formal training at Whangarei Hospital from Dr Preston Calvert. Molly developed some quirks during her time working as an anaesthetist. She preferred using ether, even after newer anaesthetics came into common usage, arguing that it was safer, even although it made the patients feel very nauseous in recovery. This did not make Dr Molly very popular with the nurses! Even after she stopped using ether, she was particularly terrified that her glasses would fog up during insertion of the endotracheal tube, putting the unconscious patient at risk. She would clean her glasses furiously with soap beforehand in the belief that this treatment would keep them clear. Whether this worked or not is unclear!

Sometimes, Molly’s work as an anaesthetist in the small community was too close to home. On one occasion, Molly’s daughter Ruth returned home to visit and was complaining of a sore stomach. Molly was not feeling particularly sympathetic that night and advised Ruth just to ignore it and eat some dinner. This later caused some problems, as when Ruth was diagnosed with appendicitis, she was unable to undergo surgery immediately because she had so recently eaten. Moreover, Molly was scheduled as the anaesthetist on call that night, and because she was ethically unable to treat her own daughter, Ruth needed to wait until the back up anaesthetist turned up, who was far away milking cows at the time. In the end, Ruth was fortunate to be treated just before her appendix burst.

Retirement years

Later in life, Molly’s elderly husband became sick. Molly was determined to keep her husband out of hospital, so she retired and spent the next five years housebound, looking after him until he died in 1982. After this, Molly embraced her Third Age, and continued with the community spirit that she had shown all her life. As a younger woman, she was on the National Council for Women, and had been the medical officer for St John for 40 years, who awarded her with a medal for her work at a huge ceremony at Turangawaewae Marae in Ngaruawahia. In her retirement years, she volunteered for Save the Children, delivered meals on wheels until she was 80, and helped with the Dargaville museum.

Molly was a stubborn woman with many quirks. Later in life, she was known for driving a bright orange Chrysler and was obsessed with measuring and recording the amount of rain that fell each day so that she could calculate the annual rainfall. She owned an incinerator that she would use to burn her waste paper, and in the dry season when open fires were banned, she would light it very early in the morning when it was still dark, forgetting that she lived on the top of a hill and the fire was visible for miles around.

Near the end of Molly’s life, her daughter Ruth tried to convince her to record her life story, but Molly refused, believing that no one would be interested. She was not the sort of person to focus on her own achievements and would be proud to learn that her granddaughter was inspired by her Grandma to become a nurse. 

Molly passed away in 2013 when she was 97, and her funeral was held at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Dargaville.

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