Robyn Hewland

This biography is based on an interview with Robyn Hewland in 2019 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project


Preface from Robyn’s autobiography: “Going Up-Stream”

“When my grandfather pulled a dead lamb from a water-race, he said, “now we go upstream to stop any falling in”. That became my ‘mission statement’ in life, especially for children, and, for an early intervention approach to all services and policies to address many needs. I felt my life was spent going upstream to initiate changes, and downstream to network.”

Robyn’s does not need to look far upstream to find the source of her persistence and determination.

“There’s no such word as ‘can’t’, Robyn’s grandfather would say, as he tasked his granddaughter to the daily errands about his farm, without concern for her age or gender. Robyn took him at his word. She could drive a tractor-trolley, name all the internal organs hanging out of a dead sheep, and learnt to make her grandmother’s famous piklets, distributing them to the harvest workers while riding on a combine-harvester. On the other side of the family tree, her paternal grandmother, who passed away when Robyn was just 12 years old, would have been proud to see Robyn’s life play out with similar achievements and challenges to her own, including her active participation with the National Council of Women, and life as a solo parent.

Starting at the very beginning

Robyn Hewland began her life on the 21st July 1938. Born in London while her parents visited their own childhood home, she and her younger brother grew up in Christchurch, in a single-story brick house opposite Christchurch Boys’ High School. Robyn’s father served in the New Zealand army during World War II, and his rapid departure in 1944 left her with unresolved feelings of abandonment.

“I remember that as being quite traumatic, because he jumps out of this great big army truck outside our place from Burnham Army Camp, and says, “I’ve come to say goodbye, I’ll be away a long time.” I do remember feeling abandoned and scared when he took off in this big army truck.

Every night, Robyn would check under her bed for Japanese soldiers. Meanwhile, her mother suffered a sense of helplessness, dreading the war telegram about her husband’s injury or death that fortunately never came. Her feelings of anxiety cannot have been improved by her daughter’s accident-prone nature. “She seems born to be hung,” joked the local GP, after young Robyn was left with permanent scarring on her left foot from a pot of hot tea. Later, she rolled off the kitchen sink when washing her hair. Then there was her overzealous reunion with her father at the Burnham Army Camp. An excited young Robyn leapt out of the moving Morris car door to a certain death, although by a stroke of luck landed on her Teddy, the two rolling over the ground together, relatively unharmed. 

Despite these incidents, Robyn’s childhood is littered with happy memories. Her mother befriended another woman through Plunket, and the two families spent weekends and summer holidays together, rowing the Avon River to Mona Vale, building sandcastles and riding merry-go-rounds at Sumner Beach by the clock tower, and celebrating Guy Fawkes. Over Easter holidays, Robyn’s friend sometimes stayed with her family in Arthur’s Pass, where they would walk through the train tunnel and over the Southern Alps. Robyn loved visiting Christchurch’s Botanical Garden’s playground, where she paddled in the pool, and fed the ducks in the river. During one memorable birthday party in 1947, the children caught pieces of black paper that floated above the house, before later learning they had come from a fatal fire in Ballantyne’s Store nearby.

By the time she began primary school, Robyn had taught herself to ride a bike, and would cycle the 2km journey alone to Fendalton Primary School. Here she would sit with her childhood friend, giggling behind their shared wooden desk littered with blotting-paper, inkwells, and nibs. Daily glasses of milk with floating fat globules were distributed, and visiting school doctors would check their hearing, and sight, although tonsillectomies were avoided due to the risk of polio. On weekends, she attended Sunday School at St. Barnabas Church, and she enjoyed dressing up as a fairy and waving her wand at the church’s Christmas pantomime.

Travelling the world & asking questions

In 1950, Robyn’s family sailed to the UK, via Cape Town and the Canary Islands—a six-week journey spent playing card games and swimming, amongst rough waves and steaming temperatures. As they sailed over the equator, Robyn kept watch over the plughole to see the swirling water change direction between the hemispheres, and instead saw that it vanished straight downwards. When they reached Cape Town, Robyn was puzzled by the race divisions, asking her parents why the ‘blancs’ and ‘blacks’ had to use separate buses, beaches, and schools. 

Robyn and her family spent a year in Northampton, where her father worked as an exchange teacher at the local boys’ grammar school. Robyn was excused from sitting the entrance exam to Wellingborough Girls Grammar and joined the students there for their second term. After her boat journey, Robyn found she was well-travelled compared to the local children, many of whom had never even been to London. The after-effects of war were still apparent, with food ration books, and damage from bombings around St Pauls Cathedral.

Robyn and her family spent the year travelling through the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, and Holland, where she marvelled at the Eiffel Tower, felt sorry for the bears in Berne’s Bear-pit, swung high over the Alps snow in a Swiss cable-car, and saw Holland’s poppies. In London, 1951, she watched TV for the very first time—a wonderful invention that played moving images on a black and white screen.

A teenager dancing in the crowd

Back home in New Zealand, Robyn attended St Margaret’s College Secondary School from 1951, during what she calls the ‘hats and gloves’ era. School life was strict, and students were not allowed out in the evenings unless they had a note from their parents and the headmistress.

Once again, Robyn felt different to the other students after her experiences overseas. While many of her peers enjoyed skiing and climbing Arthur’s pass, Robyn spent her spare time with clubs and social events. By age 17, she had earned 3 stripes as a Girl Guide, and oversaw Merivale Company, directing patrol hikes around the Port Hills, and organising roller skating or ice-skating events on the weekends. She would attend monthly church socials, where the girls would wait along the walls to be invited to dance by the boys, hoping not to be left as the ‘wall flower’. Robyn was a keen dancer and earned Bronze and Silver medals in Ballroom and Latin-American dance.

Entertainment was changing rapidly during Robyn’s teenage years. Rock-n-roll music was becoming fashionable, with “Rock around the Clock” topping the radio charts for weeks. Robyn saw films such as “C’est cera cera” and “Sound of Music”, and read “Polyanna”—playing the character’s ‘glad game’ to practice her gratefulness. In the evenings, most families would listen to a large wireless for entertainment—particularly during the All Blacks’ rugby games.

Social norms also differed to today. She recalls that during the 1956 Springboks tour of New Zealand, Robyn accepted an invitation into a player’s bedroom so that he could gift her with a Springbok lapel badge—albeit with permission from her father—which she would not find appropriate today. In those days, ‘nice’ girls were virgins until marriage, and Robyn and her friends would admire brides in white emerging from churches. Robyn’s first entrance into society as a debutante was at the Canterbury Pilgrims and Early Settlers Association Ball (herself the founder and leader of the Junior Association), where she wore white suede gloves to above her elbows, with her father at her side.

Dreams of becoming a doctor

Robyn’s future as a psychiatrist grew from her very early days, when her father departed for war, instructing her to care for her baby brother.

“I often wonder whether that’s why I ended up wanting to be in a caring role, a responsible role.”

Then, at just 10 years old, Robyn told her mother “I want to help all get, and feel, better.” Her mother wisely replied, “you would ask too many questions if a nurse, and you are useless at housework, so be a doctor, and pay others to help you in the home and garden.”

From the age of 16, Robyn worked during the school holidays to prepare for university and her career. One of these jobs was as a nurse in the children’s burns ward at the local hospital, which she particularly enjoyed.

“I just loved walking down the main corridor at Christchurch Hospital. The whole atmosphere, the smells, the white coats, everything. I was just, you know, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Robyn didn’t let her low status as a nurse aid stop her from advocating for those in her care. In the burns unit, parents were only allowed to visit on Sundays, and after Robyn observed the children screaming as their parents left, her suggestion of allowing more frequent visits was met with stony silence by the ward sisters, who dominated the hierarchical hospital.

Robyn recognised her own sensitivity and anxiety and was comforted by advice to choose friends and work where these traits would be useful. Her sensitivity helped her empathise and support her peers. In her last year of Secondary School, Robyn approached some lonely new girls, who confided in her. Their problems were beyond Robyn’s own skill or experience with mental health, and she was appalled by the lack of school counsellors available to help. She confided in her father—himself a university counsellor—and one of his colleagues agreed with Robyn and later went on to become their first school counsellor. Robyn was emboldened by the experience, and told herself that when she was an adult, she would assist all in need to receive affordable specialist counselling.

Robyn studied hard through school and became a prefect and school librarian by the end of her studies. During her English School Certificate exam, she described her ambition to work in paediatrics at its specialist Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. Unfortunately, Robyn suffered from performance anxiety, and after barely scraping through her biology term exams, her headmistress said to her, “Well, you can give up going to university with those marks.” However, the Deputy-Head Mistress overheard, and said, “I know you better, you will find a way to do what you really want.”

Robyn took her advice, writing in big letters above her desk “You’ll find a way”. In 1957, Robyn enrolled in medical intermediate at Canterbury University, where she studied chemistry, zoology, physics, and botany. At lunchtimes, she would sit in the Botanical Gardens opposite the hospital, with the wide river in between, inspired by the doctors in their white coats strolling beside the bank’s daffodils.

Inspiration alone was not enough, and Robyn fought hard to earn her place. Robyn had taken extracurricular lessons at polytechnic during school to prepare for physics, which was not considered a ‘lady’s subject’. However, she found the science subjects at university challenging, and she cried as she biked home before her final exams, wondering how she would ever make it into medical school. With just one week to go before exams, her father organised her some tutoring in physics and organic chemistry, and after studying previous exam papers, Robyn just scraped through, managing to gain the 12th of 12 available places in Otago Medical School from her medical intermediate class.

“I’ve always struggled, I’ve never found it easy to do anything. I just had to keep finding a way.”

Medical school: learning how to live

 Seven of the ten women who graduated from Otago Medical School in 1962.
Left to right: Anne Cowie (nee McNulty), G.P.; Mary Miller (nee Cameron), pathologist; Robyn Hewland, psychiatrist; Haydn Cameron (nee Bell), G.P.; Maureen Peskett (nee Lester), anaesthetist; Dorothy Kral, psychiatrist. Absent Carol Shand, G.P.

Otago University was a six-hour drive from Robyn’s home in Christchurch. Driven there before the first day by her friend’s mother, thereafter Robyn would catch the train to and from home during the holidays, or hitchhike with a male classmate, while wearing her long Otago University yellow and blue scarf.

Like many students before and since, Robyn lived in St Margaret’s Hostel for young women, supported financially with a ‘living-away’ allowance and funds from her parents. Robyn shared a room with another student, and the eight medical school students living there developed a rapport, celebrating birthdays with whipped cream in brandy snaps. House rules were strict, and the warden believed that all the girls under his roof needed their virginity protected. No males were allowed past the ‘bod room’ inside the entrance, and room checks could be made at any time, including after hours. Girls had to submit a note for leave after dinner and had to return by 10:30pm on weeknights and midnight on Saturdays.

Although Robyn worked at the frozen pea factory during the summer months, finances were tight, and spare change was limited. Frustratingly, men received twice as much as the female factory workers and may not have faced these same financial hardships. Robyn would buy two new frocks a year so that she could alternate wearing them to the formal hostel dinners every night, together with a pair of shoes that she would stain either red or blue. After spending most of her summer earnings on medical equipment at the start of each year, Robyn found she would not have spare money for coffee downstairs by the third term.

In her fourth year, Robyn left the hostel and began flatting with a classmate and two girls from her hostel. Their flat was very organised, and Robyn learnt the skill of domestic living. Together, the girls would purchase big sacks of carrots and potatoes, then add in fresh greens, meat, and fruit to their meals. They followed a cooking roster, and Robyn elicited help from a Home Science flatmate, together with “The Basic Cookbook”, to learn the artform of pan gravy. Saturday mornings were dedicated to cleaning duties, and the girls would sometimes cook extra meals for the boys’ flat across the road in exchange for more practical tasks around their flat. Robyn found her fifth-year flat was less friendly and organised, although her physiotherapist roommate later became her sister-in-law, and they remained friends.

‘Ritualistic’ provocations of the female medical student

Robyn was one of ten girls in a class of 120 medical students who began their studies in 1958. Robyn soon found that girls conformed to several social norms. Females were not allowed in the common room, and instead had a small powder room next door. As a new student, Robyn was warned by older females to sit in the front row of lecture theatres to hide their blushing from the inevitable ‘ritualist’ verbal harassments that they could expect.

Robyn bore witness to several derogatory or sexualised comments throughout medical school. One lecturer announced to the class, “I see we have females. You have taken a male’s place, and, will waste it.” Another lecturer once described a penis and said, “the biggest are in Timbuktu. Girls are in time for its next train”. An orthopaedic surgeon, famous for the wrong reasons, visited the anatomy dissections often, making derogatory remarks for laughs, and when Robyn queried a pulsating neck artery, he began referring to her as ‘the pulsating female’.

Robyn remembers the girls blaming themselves for these remarks, believing that they needed to fit in as they were the minority. They chastised one of their own, when all the boys stamped their feet at her as she entered wearing a multi-coloured V-necked jersey to class.

“We hadn’t heard of the word ‘harassment’. We didn’t know about that. We just felt we weren’t fitting in well enough.”

Relationships with men could be challenging for female medical students. Robyn had a steady boyfriend in Auckland, and the pair would take turns hitchhiking to visit the other. However, the relationship came to an end after four years, and Robyn suffered from feelings of grief and abandonment. Forming new relationships was also difficult. Most male classmates were friendly, and Robyn was asked as a partner to annual balls, although girls from medical school were considered off limits, likening them to sisters or cousins. Female medical students were not invited to their annual class dinners until their fifth year, and even then, were unwelcome. Outside of medical school, men were friendly to her if they thought she was a nurse, but she found that most would leave her alone if they knew she was a medical student.

“You couldn’t be a medical student and an ordinary female.”

Letting one’s hair down

The social highlight of the year followed the graduation ceremony each May, when the Autumn leaves would decorate Dunedin. This was a time for all medical students to let their hair down, with capping concerts, graduate processions (‘process’), the ‘hairy legs male ballet’, and rock-n-roll flat parties. Robyn remembers a police car stopping with an invitation, “jump in for a good flat party”, and selling risqué capping magazines off the back of her bike. Illegal drugs were unheard of, and alcohol sales in New Zealand would close at 6pm, although a hotel near medical school would open its doors to known door-knocks.

The curriculum of a medical student

In the early pre-clinical years of medical school, the students studied anatomy, physiology, and pathology. All students in each class attended their lectures, labs, and dissected bodies together. In physiology, Robyn remembers dropping chemicals on a rat’s leg, making the plesmograph needle jerk and creating a white line on the black paper. On the first day, she peeped excitedly through the locked doors to the anatomy ‘bod room’ for the first time, where they would later dissect on four afternoons a week and Saturday mornings.

Anatomy was challenging, as the students needed to quote their anatomy textbooks almost word-for-word, to a surgeon’s standard. In her group, there were three females on one side of a body and three males on the other. This had its advantages—during one incident, the females learnt from the males that the dorsal and ventral descriptions of a penis referred to it in an erect, rather than flaccid, position. Students were expected to dress formally for their oral exams, and for the girls this meant hats, gloves, frocks, and pantyhose. During one exam, Robyn’s string gloves caught on the rough bone of a femur head, and the whole glove unravelled, leaving her feeling like an embarrassed, silly girl. Robyn stuck with it, knowing that she had to work hard to achieve.

“Here was me, swotting and revising and everything all the time. But I knew I had to, so I just re-learnt and re-learnt everything.”

 Robyn Hewland, graduated 1962

Clinical training began in fourth and fifth years, and included medicine, surgery, obstetrics & gynaecology, biochemistry, and neurology. Students would wear white half-coats to identify them, graduating into full-length coats at the end of the year. Robyn spent her final sixth year in Wellington Hospital, where she felt some stigma against female trainees, who had to be twice as good as the males to be accepted and respected. One physician refused to have female registrars, until he worked with one and wanted ‘more like her’.

Robyn worked hard. She remembers inserting her first catheter, the male patient not concerned with her lack of experience and wanting “urgent relief from anyone!”. Pregnant women were rushed in on trolleys so she could estimate their progress, or ‘catch the baby’ if too far along. With encouragement from her tutor, in 1962 Robyn gained the Robert Boyd prize, placing first in medicine and second in surgery, deservingly ahead of her friends who went skiing the weekend before exams.

Robyn graduated as a doctor in 1962, her name listed on a noticeboard after successfully passing her final exams, realising her dreams she had held since the age of 10.

“A very well-meaning, nice lecturer came out of his office opposite, and he says, “Oh Robyn, congratulations”. He says, “Now, you will go to England soon, won’t you?” And I looked at him, he said, “You’re too nice to miss out…. on getting married and having children. New Zealand men are scared of women doctors”, which I’d already found out the hard way. And he said, “They’re better in the UK. I hope you’re going to go to the UK as soon as possible”.”

The medical career begins

But Robyn decided not to go to the UK immediately.

The reason I didn’t go to England was I was too scared to go by myself. I didn’t feel able to, in those days. Just to take off.”

Instead, Robyn’s began work as a house surgeon in Wanganui Hospital in 1963. She worked long hours, sometimes as the only hospital doctor covering Accident and Emergency, where she learnt more than she had in medical school.

“I would have been lost without the ward sisters. They were so supportive… You didn’t know what could go wrong until they went on holiday.”

During the year, Robyn was herself admitted to the Infection Diseases ward with hepatitis and jaundice. She was unable to sit up in bed, let alone cover her on-call roster. False rumours of a pregnancy spread around the hospital staff, and the Medical Council later questioned whether she had completed enough work for her registration. In fact, Robyn had probably completed two years of work in one, developed a new paper record system to handle her workload, and had raised the expectations of all new staff from then on.

“God did my superintendent write a letter saying I had done more in my time than the average person would do in one year.”

New Zealand Medical Women’s Association Luncheon, 1962.
Left to right: Dorothy Kral, Carol Shand, Haydn Cameron (nee Bell), Mary Miller (nee Cameron), Maureen Peskett (nee Lester), Anne Cowie (nee McNulty), Robyn Hewland

In 1964, Robyn spent six weeks as a ships doctor, sailing between Napier, Tonga, Guam, and Tokyo, chaperoned by her mother. As she examined the tiny doctor’s quarters, she was alarmed by the lack of medical supplies. She surprised herself by putting her foot down, demanding that they first stop off at a hospital before setting sail.

“You just put your best foot forward. If something needed doing that was your job, as a doctor, wasn’t it? Find a solution. You know. Listen, diagnose, find a solution and do it.”

Every morning at 9:30am, she would visit her surgery below deck, preceded with an announcement “Doc is on her way!” so that the patients would not be inappropriately attired or misbehaving for her arrival. After diagnosing the Chief Engineer’s pneumonia despite the noisy ship engines, an at-risk groin hernia, and early liver failure, she left with wedding plans to attend to.

Newly married to the brother of a former classmate from medical school, Robyn worked as a General Practitioner in Wanganui until 1968, against the wishes of her mother-in-law. Her new family had different cultural ideas to her own, and even went as far as to suggest socially acceptable friends for Robyn. Generally, others in the community also thought Robyn was ‘too different’, and she found that women in the community believed that ‘men knew best and make all decisions’. However, in time, patients warmed to this new woman doctor who shared information and treatment options with them.

Robyn found that she had a skill in listening to her patients and understanding their needs. After Robyn successfully treated a woman with agitated depression, news of her skill soon spread around town, and her popularity increased.

“I was much better at listening than feeling bumps and looking down ears.”

She decided to visited Dr Dorothea Wraith, a psychotherapist and psychiatrist in Wellington, to discuss her career, and felt inspired by the specialty. Over the next few years, Robyn focused on treating mental illness, first as a medical officer at Lake Alice Hospital, including its maximum-security unit, and then as a medical registrar in Sunnyside Hospital, Christchurch. She saw acute inpatients, who required a diagnosis of psychosis for admission, and then followed up outpatients after discharge.

With support from several colleagues and mentors, her interest in the profession continued to grow. Her consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Ron Hemmings, was a fantastic teacher and taught her ‘what makes people tick’. Under the guidance of her mentor, Dr Edin Hall, Robyn introduced individual therapy programmes, where she developed a therapeutic style based on trust and hope by listening to her patients and trying to make sense of their problems. This strategy worked. Despite the many severe cases of mental illness there, Robyn did not see a case of suicide or serious assault.

Balancing a medical career and motherhood

Robyn went on to successfully balance a successful medical career with the joys and struggles of motherhood, raising two high-achieving children. Robyn’s daughter was born in 1967 while she was working as a GP in Wanganui. Her employer was supportive, placing a cot in the garage and employing extra care for her daughter while Robyn saw patients. Robyn was unconcerned by the challenge.

“To me at the time, it was always what needs to be done. And how do you do it? We were well trained to diagnose and act, weren’t we?”

Later, the two lived in nurse’s homes or staff houses at Lake Alice Hospital, where the wife of a male nurse would care for her daughter while she was at work. Later, Robyn’s daughter developed a special relationship with a young grandmother who cared for her during her time working at Sunnyside Hospital. However, the birth of her son in 1971 made childcare even more difficult. Robyn suffered a nerve paralysis from the epidural, and with limited mobility, she relied on a neighbour to help care for him.

As well as working and caring for children, Robyn found herself further challenged by cracks in her marriage. Robyn’s husband suffered from alcoholism, and as time passed, Robyn began functioning entirely as a solo parent, before the couple divorced in 1974. Her ex-husband moved to Australia and from then on avoided his responsibilities as a father, leaving Robyn to shoulder the financial burden alone. Working a doctor in the highest tax bracket, she found she was “dammed if she worked, and damned if she stayed home with a baby on a Domestic Purposes Benefit”.

Robyn felt she owed it to society to continue working as a doctor. This had some disadvantages for her children, as she could not provide parental help with school events, and in later years her daughter was excluded from the role of Head Prefect as Robyn would not be able to provide volunteer support for extracurricular activities. However, Robyn raised her children with their mental health in mind, taking specific steps to avoid them suffering from overwhelming anxieties, allowing them to enjoy interests such as ballet, gym, drama, and choir, and often welcoming her children’s friends at home on the weekends.  

Learning the art of psychiatry: training and work in the UK

Encouraged by the Medical Superintendent at Sunnyside Hospital, in 1972, Robyn decided to travel to the United Kingdom for postgraduate studies in Psychiatry, which were not available in New Zealand at the time.

“I was breastfeeding Andrew, and the knock goes on the door in the evening and Dr Hall was there, and he says, “Oh, Robyn, I’ve got these forms for you. I think you could complete them and put them on my desk in the morning.” He said, “There are four New Zealand Health Department bursary awards a year, and you need to do this to get your exams. So, I want you coming back being a psychiatrist, not a medical officer all your life.””.

With a 4-year-old daughter and 9-month-old son, Robyn knew that there would be challenges to this adventure, but thankfully both her parents decided to accompany her. Robyn’s young daughter settled into their new life, learning the London tube lines map, watching squirrels in Dulwich Village Park, and Christmas shopping on Regent and Oxford streets.

Robyn’s living arrangements in the UK were tense at first. When she eventually found some accommodation that would allow children, the rental agent propositioned her by suggesting there was “more than one way to pay the rent”. She moved on quickly, but he stalked her, and tried to sue her for breaching her rental contract. With no one willing to help, a desperate Robyn cried to the hospital neurologist who offered his brother’s legal services, and his expertise closed the case for good. Eventually, Robyn and the family settled into a leased house in Woolwich Village, and hired a live-in au pair girl to help with childcare.

Robyn’s study and work in the UK was supported entirely by a bursary from New Zealand. She worked first as a clinical assistant at Maudsley Hospital while studying for her Diploma of Psychological Medicine. Here, she found she was different to the other students, as a female from ‘down under’. Her previous experiences with newly admitted psychiatric patients in Christchurch hospitals were particularly useful, and her attitude of respect and empathy shone through. In one incident, she boldly queried a consultant’s unempathetic interactions with a female patient and was allowed to meet with the girl for a follow-up appointment.

After learning all she could at Maudsley, Robyn earned the role of senior registrar and research officer at the Medical Research Councils’ Affective Disorders Biochemical Unit in Surrey. Travelling 90 minutes each way until she could move closer to work, Robyn would check hospital units for patients with undiagnosed primary depression and refer them to the specialist unit. In one case, an older lady stumbled into her office and drew a black empty circle on the page. Robyn drew “hold on”, and after a course of recharging ECT, the much-improved patient gave her an attractive embroidered clown with all the stitches of the UK Embroidery Guild, which she still treasures today. Mood disorders do not discriminate, and Robyn treated people from all walks of life.

By the end of 1972, Robyn had completed a prestigious psychotherapy course, published her research in academic journals, and had passed her examinations admitting her as a Member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. A harrowed journey back from the UK to Christchurch left her in tears as she finally reached Christchurch airport, ready for the next stage of her life and career.

Defining a career and juggling roles

For the next fifteen years or so, Robyn carved out an impressive career that spanned many fields of psychiatry, and her efforts were rewarded with a New Year Honours Queen’s Service Medal in 1990 for her contribution to Public Services. From the mid-1970s until the early 1990s, Robyn worked as a consultant psychiatrist and a forensic psychiatrist between the Department of Justice, the Department of Social Welfare, as well as continuing her employment with Sunnyside Hospital and her own work in private practice. Her varied career path saw her influence the lives of many, including not only mental health inpatients, but also criminal defendants, people with disabilities, women, children, and families.

“I had to change language all the time. You got admitted and discharged from hospital, and you got sentenced and released from prison and you got case managed… You had to be organised. But it was very interesting because I was across the silos, which was what they need now. Which I’ve told them, so many times.”

Forensic psychiatry

Robyn’s experiences with forensic psychiatry began in 1974, when Dr Hall appointed her as one of the first forensic psychiatrists in the secure care unit, Stewart Villa. Initially, she was anxious about giving evidence in court, and decided to join the Toastmistresses group to practice her public speaking skills, helping her to flourish in her new role.

Robyn would assess prisoners in remand to decide whether the person met the criteria for ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ at the time of the offence, and then would be called to give expert evidence in court for either the prosecution or the defence.

“It was exciting. And I worked mainly with very good lawyers… I learnt so much from them. It’s a whole different language.”

Once Robyn stood outside the prison gates feeling felt angry at the sexual offence offender she was about to meet with, until she reminded herself of the Hippocratic Oath she had taken as a doctor. Charges of murder, manslaughter, or grievous bodily harm were also difficult to deal with. Robyn saw a schizophrenic man who tried to save his mother from the Devil by taking her soul to Hell, a man influenced by LSD who had killed his delusional attacker, and another who fired a gun while sleepwalking and was found non-guilty due to non-insane automatism. The moral concerns were complex, as some inmates suffered brain injury or dysfunction and could be assigned ‘diminished responsibility’, although with no clear division between those who should be prison and those who should be in hospital.  

In 1977, Robyn expanded her work as a forensic psychiatrist to the Department of Justice, working at several Christchurch men’s prisons. Her employers were concerned about her visiting the prison due to her potential as a hostage. Although she dressed conservatively, she often felt ‘stripped by stares’ from the inmates. However, her fears were son quelled when a patient said to her, “Doc, you are the safest person in the prison. When you are near us, all your patients watch all inmates, and if any made a move towards you, we would be onto them.” Robyn never had to use the panic button under her desk.

Robyn’s aim at the prison was to ‘assist from hate to healing’, and it was a success. She told all new inmates that she would not accept excuses for offending, but that they could discover explanations and turn their lives around. They often did. The officers also noted the change, commenting “Doc, we do not know what you do, but after a while they grow-up”. The number of inmates requesting to work with her increased, and several commented that their therapeutic interactions helped them make sense of why they were there and how to change.

Robyn found that inmates with a history of sexual offending were particularly in need of help. Never one to talk away from people in need, for six months Robyn lobbied stakeholders, arguing for a specialised treatment unit. With a written request signed by fifty prison inmates scared of their own sexual offending, she organised a TV programme to generate positive noise for the treatment unit, visited the Minister of Justice, and argued for specialist appointments from overseas experts. Her work paid off, and in the mid-eighties, the Kia Marama Sexual Offenders treatment unit was established in Rolleston Men’s Prison near Christchurch.

The social welfare of children and families

Alongside her work in forensics, Robyn worked concurrently with the Department of Social Welfare (Child, Youth, & Families) as a consultant psychiatrist from 1977. The work was varied and emotionally difficult at times. She saw unmarried girls in maternity hospitals to discuss their plans for their child. Some were apprehensive about adoption, pressured by societal expectations of their gender, or wanted a form of open adoption where they could choose the adopting parents and agree on future contact with their child. Others later decided to adopt out their ‘new doll’ when he or she entered their terrible twos.

Robyn would visit adopted children in group and foster homes where she sometimes witnessed signs of abuse or neglect. In one case, after visiting a child in his home where she saw holes knocked in walls, an empty refrigerator, and a stressed but silent mother, the little boy followed her to the car and, heartbreakingly, asked her “can I go home with you and be your little boy?” Robyn was sickened to learn that some children were sexually abused, mostly by their relatives, and later came to appreciate the strong link between childhood abuse or trauma and the development of PTSD.

These experiences only served to heighten Robyn’s mission statement in life, and she ventured upstream to stop any more from falling in. She lobbied for supporting parental educational centres for all new parents, these schemes later showing quantifiable benefit for participating families, and made a guest appearance on the TV series “You and your child” to speak about postnatal depression. Aware that many solo parents suffered a history of violence that impacted their children, she marched to the Minister of Social Welfare’s home in support of new benefits for solo parents. Committed to her patients’ long-term recovery, she worked to network them with support people in their community. Even further upstream, she advocated for child protection, liaising on policy issues between the Director-General and colleagues in Mental Health, Justice, and Education. In 1986, Robyn presented her ideas at the World Conference of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions, where she described problems with attachment and trust that result from early abandonment or rejection.

Robyn was a familiar face in Christchurch Family Court from 1977, where she would conduct assessments and provide evidence to solicitors regarding a child’s custody in family dispute cases. She would work with the children individually, and watch them be with, and depart, each parent, in some cases witnessing the child cling to one parent, then nearly falling out of the car in a hurry to be with the other. If she was unable to reach an agreement on the child’s custody before court, she had the challenging task of giving evidence in front of all the family while maintaining their trust. In one instance, she told a non-custodial father to make sure his child knew how to contact him, and years later, she learned that this had paid off—the father’s teenage daughter had re-established contact with him.

Unjamming logged ideas

“I read about Canada’s logs being floated down rivers and getting jammed, requiring a skilled man balancing on them to remove jams with his long pole. I looked for appropriate persons whom I could persuade to unjam “my logged ideas” to move downstream to outcomes.”

Throughout her life, Robyn showed great skill in lobbying parliament for change. She worked hard to earn credibility in her profession, placing her in the optimal position to motivate policy changes that would benefit vulnerable people. One example is her effects acting as a spokesperson for children’s rights in family court. In 1979, she was appointed to the NZ committee on ‘The Law and Rights of Children’. Having heard of a new Family Court in Australia, she flew over for a visit and returned with fresh ideas. Her priority was to make legal aid available for all children in disputed custody, as well as a family counselling service. She also recommended that all involved focus on the child’s best interest, as she had previously witnessed insensitivity from some lawyers regarding children’s needs. Robyn was shocked to learn that law students receive only one week’s training on Family Law, and later accepted an invitation to write a chapter on interviewing family court custody disputes for the Butterworths Law Book.

Robyn also lobbied for changes that would improve the lives of sexual abuse victims, and the community at large. Working with the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), Robyn lobbied hard to improve the ACC Act by including claims for sexual abuse, counselling, AA fees, and medication costs for qualifying individuals. From 1990, Robyn was appointed as a psychiatrist for the NZ Mental Health Appeal Tribunal, to assess appeals by patients who disputed their committal under the Mental Health Act. She discovered that the Act did not cover all the issues—some patients could be released without support and offered a potential risk to the community. Robyn argued committal under the Act should be based on a risk assessment, rather than the presence or psychosis, and lobbied for an amendment, which was addressed years later.

Looking for a warmer climate

In 1994, living in a cold damp home and suffering from osteoarthritis, Robyn responded to a job advertisement, “come to sunny Queensland,” where the winter average was 24◦C. She accepted a locum psychiatrist position in Maroochydore on Australia’s East Coast. When her pain and stiffness disappeared in a fortnight, she decided to stay, accepting the position of Clinical Director of Mental Health Services with the Sunshine Coast.

Robyn was greeted with a long waiting list, and insufficient spare beds in Nambour Public Hospital to admit every suicidal patient. As always, Robyn worked upstream to improve the service. She quickly introduced a programme for GPs to improve shared care of patients, and requested another ward, psychiatric registrars, and psychiatrists. Eventually the service became integrated with the hospital teams, allowing patients the same caseworker when in hospital and after discharge.

However, not everything was sunny on the Sunshine Coast. After two years, Robyn found working with a difficult colleague increasingly stressful, and decided to reduce her workload. Although her role included perks such as a car and fuel expenses, paid days, and conference leave, Robyn was also required to find her own locums to cover her time off. Because of this, Robyn missed her son’s graduation and was asked to retire if she wished to return home to visit her ailing mother.

Robyn decided it was time to move on. From 2001, she moved to a private practice in Buderim, taking over from a popular psychiatrist who had moved away. Here she saw patients with PTSD—females with early sexual trauma or veterans from the Vietnam war. Dedicated to her patients as always, Robyn visited Vietnam’s tunnels and beaches so she could better understand the trauma that her patients were suffering from. Concurrently, Robyn worked as a member of the Queensland Mental Health Review Tribunal, where she assessed patients committed under the Mental Health Order. She observed that many staff were unaware of the relevance of early trauma in PTSD. Thankfully, times are changing.   

Fighting for medical women

Robyn has many stories to tell of her time in medicine, working alongside the ‘boys club’ and suffering from rejection and discrimination. In the 1970s, her supportive GP employer would refrain from letting Robyn ride in the car with her to visit patients in case they incited town gossip. Even by the time she was a registered psychiatrist in Sunnyside Hospital, Robyn found her male colleagues continued to avoid her, and would exclude her from social and work groups. In one instance, she attended a social gathering for hospital medical staff, and when Robyn went to stand with her male colleagues, one pointed to their female partners at the other end of the room. She found she didn’t fit in here either, where the women were complaining about the high expectations of their partners. Robyn ended up standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, excluded from both parties. In this group, the expectation at staff meetings was that she, as the only female in the room, would pour the tea for her male colleagues. Even by the 1990s, Robyn continued to experience exclusion, when the Nambour Hospital Superintendent welcomed a new male consultant but ignored her own appointment to the same role, while referring to everyone in the room as ‘gentlemen’.

Throughout her career, Robyn fought to remove discrimination towards medical women. After returning from the UK in 1974, Robyn joined the New Zealand Medical Women’s Association, and its international collaborators. Here she found that her battles with work-life balance and discrimination were not unique, with many other women describing similar challenges. After gaining a platform as the NZMWA’s president from 1987 to 1990, Robyn wrote to the Minister of Health, suggesting a gender equal report to balance women’s appointments to hospital departments. Advocating for women outside of medicine, Robyn was also instrumental in forming an NZ Women Lawyer’s Society, was a member of the National Council of Women, and other committees that supported women’s progress in society. In 2019, Robyn was awarded Honourable Membership with the Medical Women’s International Association during their centennial congress in New York.

Retirement and advice for the future

After her retirement at the age of 75, Robyn continued to advocate for improved mental health treatment by providing information for government inquiries. She stressed that therapeutic relationships are vital for motivation and making changes. Robyn was pleased to learn that after fifty years, the 2019 Mental Health and Addictions Bill recognises basic emotional needs, acknowledges childhood poverty in a quarter of the population, and gives priority recommendations.  

“Networking’s been my big thing, networking like hell.”

For women embarking on a medical career, Robyn has a wealth of advice. She believes in being 100% committed to help others to ‘get and feel better’ by thinking and acting as a doctor for life.

“It’s going to be very hard. You’re going to have to be able to say, when it’s really hard and really stressful, that it’s your choice and it’s still your choice.”

On a personal level, Robyn believes doctors need to maintain their own health and wellbeing and avoid burn-out by balancing work, family, and exercise. She suggests avoiding a sense of ‘not doing enough’, of perfectionism, or of being the rescuer. Above all, she believes women need to choose their lifelong partner very carefully, and seek emotional and practical support from family, friends, colleagues, and mentors. 

Robyn is proud of all she has achieved. She is a parent of two happy high-achieving adult children, although she would have liked to have been able to work less during their childhood years. Career-wise, she is particularly proud of her track-record in preventing suicides, establishing the Sexual Offenders Treatment Unit in Rolleston Prison, and advocating between policy and health professionals throughout her career. Her achievements are of national significance, and details of her work have been recorded in the National Library of New Zealand, and within her soon to be published autobiography “Going Upstream”.

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