This biography is based on an interview with Patricia (Ann) Weston nee Coates in 2017 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project. The interviewers were Claire Gooder and Nora Lynch.
Early life: education by correspondence & living at boarding school
Patricia Ann Coates (known as Ann) was born in 1930 in Greymouth on the West Coast of the South Island, as the oldest of four children and the daughter of a local sheep farmer. Ann’s interest in medicine came from her mother, who graduated in 1925 from King’s College Hospital in London before moving to New Zealand and working as a medical officer for the Grey Valley Coal Miners at Brunner. This was a culture shock for Ann’s mother, as the family home was in a remote location 42 miles inland from Greymouth with no road access. Ann’s first journey home was on horseback over the Ahaura River.
After having her children, Ann’s mother continued to work as the only local doctor in the area, treating patients from three farms and a sawmill that was five miles away. As a young child, Ann was schooled by correspondence from her family home. When she was ten, she was sent to live with her grandparents in Greymouth so that she could attend the local state school, and then later to St Margaret’s College girls’ boarding school in Christchurch. Ann was initially very homesick and unable to return to the farm very often because of the road conditions, but she would visit her relatives nearby and eventually settled into her life at boarding school.
Ann remembers expressing a desire to enter the medical profession during her very first day at secondary school.
“I remember being interviewed by my head mistress when I first arrived there, and she said, “what do you want to do?” and I remember quite clearly saying I wanted to be a doctor. I was twelve and a half.”
Ann was one of a few academically minded students, however by the seventh form she was the only student studying science and maths. Science education for girls in those days was limited to general science topics, taught by a home science teacher, with some expeditions to boys’ schools for laboratory work.
Ann spent her medical intermediate year studying at Canterbury University. Although she needed physics coaching to make up for her lack of science education, she doesn’t recall being weighed down by study, and she exceeded the exam threshold needed to get into medical school.
“I don’t know how we got through really. I can remember walking in Hagley Park, and I played hockey at school, so it wasn’t all bad.”
Medical school: living with ‘the chooks’, efficient studying, & hands-on learning
Ann enrolled in Medicine at Otago University in 1950 with no fixed ideas of where her studies would take her. Of the 120 medical students, Ann was one of just twelve female students, although only eight would later go on to graduate. She doesn’t recall too much about her move to Dunedin, and in her experience, it wasn’t typical for parents to come down and help the students settle into their new lives as medical students.
“[On the first day] we just all bowled along I think and [were] probably introduced to the whole thing by some delightful Professor Bill Adams, who was the Professor of Anatomy.”
During her first year of medical school, Ann lived in Studholme College with home science ‘chooks’ as they were affectionately called, in a fairly basic room with a south-facing balcony. She has good memories of times with her fellow students, and she recalls the added benefit of sampling their delicious meals cooked as part of their studies. Later, she moved to St Margaret’s College with other medical students, and then to a large old house on George Street that came to be known as ‘The Chookery’, so named by the home science students. Ann recalls wrapping herself up in rugs and hot water bottles to guard against the freezing temperatures while studying in her room.
During the early years of her study, Ann would return home during her summer holidays and work on the farm managing sheep and haymaking, or in the kitchen making scones. One summer, Ann convinced her (very Victorian) father to let her spend a working holiday at the Mount with her friend Margaret Gibberd (née Sidey), where they worked as house maids and waitresses for the Oceanside Hotel. These summer jobs helped fund her general expenses, although Ann was fortunate that her living expenses at medical school were paid by a boarding bursary, as there were no student loans available in those days.
The schedule for medical school students was rigorous. Sir Charles Hercus was the Dean of Otago Medical School during Ann’s studies, and in the early years, content was taught mainly by lecturers including Bill Adams, Willie Trotter, Professor Edson, and Professor Eccles. Ann recalls enjoying anatomy more than physiology, although she and the other students were overwhelmed by the amount of content they needed to learn. Dissections were something the students particularly enjoyed.
“I think it was fascinating really, it wasn’t a chore anyway.”
In Ann’s opinion, the girls were particularly disciplined in their studies and worked conscientiously. She described her study habits as ‘efficient’, as she would never stay up until 2am to study for exams. As was customary at the time, Ann and the other female students would sit in the front row of the lecture theatre and would work on the same body during anatomy dissections. She doesn’t recall being excluded because of her gender, although some aspects of medical education were generally lacking in those days.
“I don’t think we had too much sex education, I think it was before all that. I can remember a visiting lecturer coming out and talking about birth control and you couldn’t get into that lecture theatre during the talk.”
Medical students were somewhat set apart from the rest of the university and socialised almost exclusively with each other. Other than some minor rivalry between the female students, the girls were friendly and supportive to each other. They were also friendly with the male students however, and there were some returned servicemen in her year who added some male maturity to the class. In Ann’s experience, romantic relationships with men were infrequent during her time at medical school.
“It was always nice to have somebody to go the Selwyn Ball with or the Knox Ball and that was about it really.”
Ann recalls that drinking and smoking were not a big part of the student culture, not to the extent that goes on today. Back then, medical students were not particularly interested, and could not afford these luxuries.
“We certainly had alcohol at the odd party, I can remember brandy and ginger and how we ever paid for it I don’t know where it came from. You see there wasn’t much wine around then and I don’t remember how anybody paid for a bottle of brandy—we were terribly poor. We would walk rather than pay threepence on the tram.”
Ann enjoyed the transition into the clinical part of her medical training. During these years, the students were taught in smaller groups and were given more individual attention from the teachers. During the fifth year of her studies she spent most of her time in Dunedin Hospital, with some training in the Queen Mary, and at least once at Seacliff Mental Hospital, where a famous patient, Lionel Terry, was treated. During her sixth year, she chose to study at Wellington Hospital, where she lived with other medical students above the maternity ward.
“I think that we were actually given quite a lot of responsibility as a final year medical student, probably more than we should really have been but I don’t think we had any disasters.”
At this point, Ann recalls favouring hands-on work, and found obstetrics enjoyable, but was not yet committed to any particular specialty.
“We were totally open minded and felt we had to go through the house surgeon year posts really to work out where we wanted to finish up. No, we were quite keen on just getting a general overall picture of medicine.”
Ann graduated from Otago Medical School in 1954. In her opinion, medical students were inclined to take capping a bit casually. She does not have an individual photograph of herself, her parents did not attend the event, and she can’t recall the graduation ball. Instead, she recalls being ready to return to Wellington and continue her training in earnest.
Career as an anaesthetist: training in the UK & inspiration from mentors
At the end of fifth year, Ann worked for six weeks as Stratford Hospital, where she first developed an interest in anaesthetics. ‘Dr Doris’ (Doris Gordon) was a famous ‘baby’ doctor in the region, and Ann remembers tying up her apron strings for a caesarean section one day.
“I think I was starting to have a little interest in anaesthetics even in those days, probably because the anaesthetists had time to interest us really and let us help with pouring on the open ether and they were still using chloroform in Stratford in those days.”
Ann worked as a house surgeon at Wellington Hospital from 1955 and 1956, with rotations at the nearby Hutt and Silverstream Hospitals. These years gave her and the other students the opportunity to try out different specialities. In general, students would choose between general practice, specialising, or public health—the latter being a common choice for women.
Although Ann was interested in obstetrics, she was forward-thinking enough to realise she would not enjoy the lifestyle of working throughout the nights. Instead, Ann decided to begin a career specialising in anaesthesia. She attributes her inspiration to her colleague Graeme Marshall (who had recently spent time in the United Kingdom learning about muscle relaxants), as well as the senior anaesthetists at Wellington Hospital, Bruce Cook and David Wright. Her choice of specialty was a wise one—thanks to the general shortage of anaesthetists, Ann was able to stay in Wellington Hospital in 1957, rather than to more remote regions, where she spent the year training as a junior registrar in anaesthetics.
In the 1950s, there were no options to specialise in New Zealand or Australia, and junior doctors needed to travel overseas to complete their specialist training. At the beginning of 1958, Ann travelled to England via cargo ship as a ship’s doctor, entitling her to a free passage. As the only doctor for the crew and ten passengers on board, she was prepared to deal with any medical emergency, and she counts herself lucky that constipation was the most common complaint. She recalls that the crew would go to the steward for the more embarrassing complaints.
“I think there were various VD [venereal disease] problems as there was a lot of VD in those days and I think they use to go to Stewards for that. I think they were too embarrassed.”
After arriving in England, Ann’s first job was at Adenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, where she did a Diploma of Anaesthetics, before working at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. After a few short years, Ann returned home to develop her career and personal life back in New Zealand. Here she forged a relationship with her future husband, who she had met when she was a final year medical student, and in time the couple married and had four children.
Combining a medical career with family life: the advantages of a career in anaesthetics
During her career, Ann maintained a steady balance between work and family life. She had grown up with her mother as a role model, who had demonstrated that it is possible for women to have both a career and children. While in some ways she regrets not remaining in the United Kingdom for another five years and studying for a fellowship in anaesthetics, she also realises that this would have had an impact on her family life.
“No, I wouldn’t change being married and having children, it is pretty important, so I think I have had the best of two worlds really.”
Ann worked full-time as an anaesthetist until she started having children. Then she would take six months off to breastfeed, before continuing work part time. She reflects that her success in continuing with her career was in part aided by the specialty she had chosen, and she found that her colleagues were quite supportive of her decision.
“I mean certainly in anaesthetics you could work on a sessional basis so that combined with having children and being married.”
When her children were young, Ann would complete two sessions, equivalent to two half-days, per week, which was enough to keep her registration and skills active. Over time, Ann went back to work more frequently. Despite the difficulties of juggling two worlds, Ann never considered giving up work, and is grateful for the help she received.
“I had an amazing woman who use to appear on foot from probably a mile and a half or so and she would arrive at 7.30 in the morning so I could get to the hospital to start my operating list at 8 o’clock and she just stayed there until the list was finished because I mean you never know whether the list is going to finish at 12 o’clock or 2 o’clock and she was with me really all the time that I had children at home.”
Ann reflects that there were other advantages to a career in anaesthesia, in addition to the favourable maternity leave options. Due to the shortage of anaesthetists at the time, Ann and her colleagues were able to do much of the job on their own terms.
“In those days anaesthetists didn’t spread their speciality quite as widely, I mean they weren’t doing intensive care, they weren’t doing pain clinics.”
“It was pretty routine giving the anaesthetics really. I probably didn’t ever do the open-heart surgery or really ever do neurosurgery, so I stuck to more general surgery and orthopaedics, gynaecology, and eyes. I didn’t do a lot of obstetric anaesthesia after I was married. We were a bit choosy about what we did and that worked well.”
Over the course of her career, Ann recalls the switch to computerised records as one of her biggest challenges, as she wasn’t computer literate and still isn’t. Maintaining professional competency during her periods of leave could also be challenging. Unlike today, this was a voluntary process, although Ann would try to go to as many conferences as possible and subscribed to scientific journals to keep her knowledge current.
“Still you have got to discipline yourself to sit at the computer and read them don’t you.”
Ann worked in anaesthetics until she was 65, when she changed career path and moved into palliative care. The switch in specialties was a challenge, as Ann had completed only six weeks of general practice before moving to the United Kingdom back in the 1950s. She reflects how much of medical practice is communicating effectively with your patients—skills that she gained during motherhood.
“I had always been rather interested in palliative care, and I got involved with palliative care at the hospice in Lower Hutt and I spent nearly six years there just as a medical officer and I actually enjoyed that beyond words. It was partly the patient contact I think because you had such intimate contact in palliative care with the patient and the families, but it was also amazing teamwork, working with the other doctors and the nurses. It was very rewarding indeed.”
Reflections: attitudes towards women doctors
One of the hardest things in medicine can be developing a good working relationship with other women. In Ann’s day, the hospital system was quite hierarchical, and this could be difficult for women.
“In those days, the ward sisters were battle axes sometimes and they had been there for a long time, and here we were little upstarts who really knew nothing, and they jolly well knew we didn’t know anything. But they kind of on the whole made allowances for the boys but I don’t think they did for the girls, so you could have quite a bad time.”
Even today, Ann does not widely advertise her chosen career path to the people that she meets at her retirement activities (such as playing croquet), as some women find it threatening.
“Nurses back off a bit when they hear what you have done with your life, so you just have to be a little bit tactful at times. We couldn’t cope without the nurses, but they could probably cope without us and they would rather have males in the role.”
Ann reflects that a medical career gives you lifelong skills, even once your career is effectively over.
“On my last trip to Dunedin somebody nearly choked to death and then one of the other doctors had some strange turn where his pulse went. Anyway, you have to step in because you are the best qualified, so you have to do it as a sort of lay person. I mean it is ongoing which you don’t think about. At the bridge club if somebody passes out I have no compunction about putting them on the floor and putting their legs in the air. So people look to you for help. Life long skills! You do your best really from a first aid point of view only.”
Finally, Ann is supportive of young women embarking on a medical career these days.
“I would say go for it and I think it is a fantastic career, I mean I loved it and I don’t think I have any reservations really.”