This biography is based on an interview with Ruth Schell nee Stevenson in 2019 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project. The interviewers were Cindy Farquhar and Lucy Goodman.
Ruth Stevenson was born in Lower Hutt in 1941 as the only girl in a family of four children. When she was four years old, the family moved to Wainui o mata—a new settlement near Wellington with affordable housing. Her father’s work as a professional accountant, and her families’ strict vegetarian lifestyle—admittedly a lifestyle not strictly adopted by her father—made Ruth different to others in the area, and this trait that stayed with her throughout her career.
Ruth recalls that her mother was dissatisfied with the education she herself had received in South Africa.
“Her father was a magistrate, but he really didn’t think women needed to go on with education, and mum was always very, very upset that she was never able to even go into a secondary school stage. And she was sent down to Cape Town to be in the dressmaking trade, I suppose, and she started as a pin picker-upper. And she was very sensitive about the fact that she was made to travel in the second-class carriage with all the natives.”
Although she trained in one of the top fashion houses in Cape Town and later worked for elite customers in Auckland, Ruth’s mother held more academic ambitions for her own daughter. Ruth was expected to work hard and do well at school. Although not a ‘brain box’ by nature, she was put up a year in primary school when she spontaneously did the standard two as well as standard one work in one year.
From her small country primary school in Wainui o mata, Ruth then attended the much larger Hutt Valley High school. Here she chose to study History and Geography rather than languages, and she was usually top of these classes. The infrequent bus service over the Wainui hill meant it was difficult to take part in school sports. However, she was strongly involved in music, where she took part in the school orchestra as a violinist, sung in the choir, and from about standard five would frequently perform solo in the school concerts. During her school holidays she would spend her time in Wellington playing in the Secondary School Orchestra, and in the Music School at St Peters Boarding School in Cambridge organized through the University of Auckland.
In the first year of sixth form, Ruth was made prefect along with other mostly second year sixth formers, and the following year she was made Head Girl. During this year, her father became sick with what his family later discovered was a congenital heart condition, and he died a few months later.
“It was a devastating shock. It happened really over the course of eighteen months, my father was sick, and he just died. And nobody understood what was going on.”
Before her father died, Ruth had originally planned on taking up an American Field Scholarship to live and study in America. Instead, she decided to stay, taking up a generous offer to attend university here in New Zealand. Hearing of her father’s early death, one of her mother’s former dressmaking clients, paediatric psychiatrist Dr Kath Todd—one of the sisters of ‘Todd Motors’—kindly offered to pay for Ruth’s varsity education, in any field that she chose.
Ruth had always secretly felt a sense of relief that because of her gender, she would not have to chose between her desired fields of religion or medicine. With this offer in front of her, the sudden decision to choose medicine came ‘out of the blue’ and thrilled her family, although she does not really know where the inspiration came from:
“The local doctor and his wife, I think they were both doctors, I used to babysit for them but that was my only connection, medically really.”
To prepare, Ruth did some extra schoolwork studying biology, physics, and chemistry, and after spending a year studying medical intermediate at Victoria University, she was thrilled to be accepted into Otago Medical School.
Ruth’s mother came down to Dunedin to help her settle into the single sex St Margaret’s college. Ruth remembers all the students standing together on the steps of the Medical School building and the large old lecture theatres.
“It was a lovely feeling being part of a class, you know, and the business of when we all lined up on the stairs and had our initial photograph.”
She also remembers anatomy classes in detail—wearing white jackets while standing in sixes around each stiff, prone body, and looking out the window across to a butcher shop called ‘Delicious Meats’. There were three girls and three boys in Ruth’s dissection group, and to this day she continues to be friends with these boys, meeting up 2-3 times a year.
Seventeen girls were accepted into Medical School in Ruth’s year—an unusually high number. The women were told in no uncertain terms that they were taking men’s places. The philosophy that medical girls were always either ‘clever or attractive’ was also widespread. Ruth, always stirred by a challenge, corrected them by placing second in the first ever anatomy exam, all while dressing attractively. From then on, Ruth was always nominated as the women’s class representative. In fact, Ruth belonged to a fairly close group of five girls who were all good looking and high achieving—without tweed skirts and lace-up shoes.
Ruth and her fellow St Margaret’s medical school girls followed a common philosophy of ‘work hard, play hard’. The girls would walk the 10-15 minutes to medical school in the morning and discuss work in the evenings. They participated in very measured drinking and had strict morals regarding sexual relationships, with some of the girls in long-term relationships needing assistance to get access to the oral contraceptive. Most of their social contact was with boys in medical school.
“I think a lot of girls, you never showed you were drunk, and you never had much.”
After two years, Ruth moved out of St Margaret’s and started flatting with other girls. Here she gave up on her vegetarianism, which she found too difficult to maintain, and she traversed a steep learning curve in understanding which meats came from which animal. Her flatting group had a wonderful social life, and they would sometimes hire a van with some of the medical school boys and travel out to the West Coast for the holidays or a long weekend.
After starting medical school, Ruth’s music interests had taken a backseat in her life. In the early days, she would play her violin on the steps of the main university building, or in an unused varsity building, and would play every year in the capping orchestra. By her third year, the National Youth Orchestra was formed, and Ruth was accepted into the first violins. Although this was a real honour, she found the commitment of the holiday practices in Wellington too much and she gave up her position by the end of the orchestra’s first year.
Ruth would write to her mother every week. When she visited home, she would discuss all her new ideas with her mother, who found these “discussions” difficult without her husband to support her Ruth also made sure to write and visit Dr Kath, who never imposed any conditions or suggestions on Ruth or her lifestyle.
During the fourth and fifth years of training, the students spent some time at Waikerei Hospital. As the only girl in her group rotation, Ruth decided to buy a scooter so that she would have her own means of transport to the hospital, which was a 15-20 drive from Dunedin City. One Easter when Ruth had gone home to visit her family, the boys absconded with her scooter and took it to the top level of the Anatomy building, until she eventually convinced them to bring it down again.
Ruth’s scooter also proved invaluable during the long Christmas holiday periods, she would work as a live-in nurse aids in remote psychiatric hospitals—the only well-paid work available for female medical students. This was quite an experience for Ruth, who spent this time wiping bottoms and changing bed linen, as well as helping to administer electroconvulsive therapy to the patients.
Ruth decided to spend her sixth year in Auckland, as it was considered ‘the place to go’. Here her scooter helped her to travel between National Women’s, Greenlane, and Middlemore Hospitals. Although she was separated from the group of medical girls she had studied with, this gave her the opportunity to develop a year-long relationship with one of the boys, who helped her significantly with her studies, and the two are still in contact today. She continued playing squash—a hobby she had started during her years in Dunedin, although she found that if she tried to book the courts for herself and her male friends to play during lunchtime, she was refused and told that this timeslot had to be saved for working men.
Ruth and the other sixth year students worked unpaid while living in the medical quarters and in a little two-storied house opposite Auckland hospital. After completing the year of practical study, they returned to Otago for her final exams. She recalls looking at the notice board where the names were written up—only those students who had failed—and she was relieved not to be among them.
Training as a house surgeon
Ruth decided to spend her house surgeon training years in Wanganui Hospital, while she lived with a casual friend from her medical school class. There were only four house surgeons and two registrars working in the hospital, and by her second year of training, she was one of only two house surgeons. The specialists were very pleasant to work with, and often invited Ruth and the other trainee doctors to their homes for dinner or a tennis match. Ruth worked extremely hard with no time for anything other than work or rest, and she gained experience in many fields of medicine.
After finishing her house surgeon training, Ruth filled in a three-month gap by working part-time as a locum general practitioner in Te Aroha—a small town supported by only two-and-a-half GP practices. Ruth found Te Aroha a welcoming place, and soon discovered that she was under the eye of the town’s matchmakers.
“It was the people contact that I really enjoyed. And as a locum and young, the town was very accepting, everyone invited me out and invited the local dentist who needed a wife, which kept us totally apart for about three or four months.”
Career as a general practitioner
Ruth recalls that medical school training did not focus on general practice as a career option, with a strong sentiment towards specialist training:
“You see the teachers were all specialists, we didn’t have one GP. And GPs were ‘the drongos’, people with not much intelligence who went into general practice. In the whole course, we had one week of general practice in about sixty, where I think we went and spent a week in practice.”
Ruth herself had never previously considered becoming a GP—she was planning on specializing in paediatrics or psychiatry. However, after her locum work in Te Aroha, she left to complete her registrarship in Waikato Hospital, where she found she missed the contact with people that GP work had given her. By the middle of the year, she left her registrar position to work in a practice in Matamata for an additional three months. It was during this time, that she decided to marry Te Aroha’s local dentist, David. As there was no GP practice available in Te Aroha, Ruth instead joined the Health Department.
In those days, there were limited postgraduate education options available for GPs, and Ruth did her best to stay current in the field. She subscribed to the American tape system, Audio Digest, which every week discussed a topic taken from the best postgraduate education sessions across the United States, and she would routinely listen to the tapes on her exercycle or while jogging. Ruth continued with this during her entire career and found this placed her a year or so ahead of the accepted practice in New Zealand. She also found GP-oriented postgraduate seminars in Auckland or Waikato helpful in remaining current.
Ruth describes her husband David was the most wonderful and supportive husband that she could possibly have ever had. While Ruth was always the instigator of “unconventional” ideas, David made them work, and whatever Ruth wanted to do, he would help her enable it. Ruth and David built their own house, with a space available downstairs just in case Ruth would ever need it.
Ruth’s first experience at motherhood sadly ended in tragedy, when her child—born about 44 weeks gestation—died 24 hours after delivery. Ruth’s decision to deliver her child locally and as a “normal” patient ended in grief, and for her next two children, she decided to deliver at the National Women’s Hospital under Dr Mont Liggins, whom she had held in high regard during her student days. She was grateful for fast and normal births.
When her children were 2 and 4 years old, a local practice became available, and Ruth worked there for the next 23 years. She managed to balance her family life by working in the mornings, leaving the afternoons available for the children, and was supported by a number of wonderful older people who helped her with the children and the housework. Before it was commonplace, Ruth employed practice nurses and she allowed them to job share so that they could manage their own family dynamics. She also built a good working relationship with the local GPs, who treated any of Ruth’s patients who needed care in the afternoons in return for working on call one night a week and every third weekend.
After a gap of five years, Ruth and David unexpectedly had their third child—a second son—born at home. Ruth took three months off work before returning to work with the bassinet beside her desk. However, when her son started walking at only 9 months of age, Ruth’s mother visited from Wainui o mata to help out in the mornings. She was an exceptional granny who devoted herself one hundred percent to the children when she was with them, and she would often take the children for school holidays.
Ruth and David often took their family for a ten day family holiday in Fiji during August. They would work on Friday morning, catch the plane at 3pm to arrive in time for dinner, and by the next day they felt as if they had already been there for days. Often, they were accompanied by a friend or family member and their children, who afterwards would describe the experience as the best holiday ever. This allowed Ruth and David to have a proper holiday as someone was always available to watch the kids while they were snorkeling. These family holidays continued until the children were in their teens.
Travelling overseas with children was not common during these times, but Ruth and David would often take them on these adventures. On the plane, the kids would give out lollies to the other passengers and were allowed to go and see the captain’s cabin. In Asia the locals loved to run their hands over the kid’s blonde hair, and they were delighted when John—a pre-schooler—bargained for a purchase.
Ruth and David spent a number of years homeschooling their children. When their son Peter was in his second year of school, he suddenly became disinterested in learning. The school was not very supportive of this problem, and Ruth and David eventually decided they would like to take charge of his education. They faced a great deal of resistance from the Education Department and from the school principal, who felt that Ruth’s actions were driven by her own guilt as a working mother. After threatening to go to the Human Rights commission they were eventually given permission to homeschool their oldest son and daughter. Later the couple homeschool their youngest son for two years, as his undiagnosed ADHD was causing him difficulties, particularly with reading.
Homeschooling required a certain amount of organization on Ruth’s part. She would take her children’s lessons before she started in the surgery in the morning, and would leave them work to do until David popped home for an hour in the morning. Ruth then spent the afternoon with them, before they went and played with friends or went to Cubbs and Brownies. The children loved this set-up. Ruth and David allowed them to decide when they would return to school, which they did after two years, and in that time Peter had skipped ahead a class.
“and then we might come home for lunch and the table would be set and they’d have a big glass of sherry for us. Or you know, bomb the house out, and that sort of thing”
With her role as a doctor, Ruth was able to help other children unhappy with the education system. She would sign them out of school and enroll them in the correspondence system due to minor health issues. She would also ask the kids involved about their feelings with the change—which were mostly positive—and she found that homeschooling was an excellent option and easy for most parents to manage.
In about 1968, Ruth and David decided to go to Saudi Arabia for a year, both for the experience and for the money. They found a medical couple—a doctor and a dentist—to take over their respective practices for the year while living in their house. However, their luck changed when the people who they were meant to be taking over from in Saudi Arabia decided not to leave, and Ruth and David were left without any income or residence. Fortunately, the couple taking over their practices agreed to put back their contract for six months, and Ruth and David then went on an Australasian adventure. They explored the South Island in a small camper van, then to the east coast of Australia, and on to Singapore where Ruth gave a talk on birth alternatives at the World General Practitioner meeting. For the next few months, they lived in cheap and affordable accommodation, while managing to avoid getting sick, until travelling on to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Fighting for her beliefs: an advocate for women’s and children’s health
Throughout her career, Ruth was heavily involved with patient education, particularly of women.
In Te Aroha she started antenatal classes and a breast-feeding group, despite possessing very little knowledge herself at this time. She found that the management of early breastfeeding in particular was an area of contention. Ruth was delighted when La Leche League’s New Zealand founders, Yvonne Procuta and Jane Ritchie, approached her to join them, and from this she learnt so much. Some of the knowledge she gained was through observations from Wattie Whittlestone—an animal physiologist dealing with cow’s lactation problems.
Armed with her increased knowledge, Ruth would often give talks at the Parents Centre and La Leche League conferences and was involved in educating Plunket Nurses on topics of parenting, breastfeeding, birthing, and women’s life balance. Later, she became La Leche League’s first Medical Advisor, was on the New Zealand Professional Advisory Board, and was eventually placed on the International Professional Advisory Board.
Over the years, Ruth became very interested in the topic of birthing alternatives. At that time, giving birth was a very rigid procedure, where the woman would lie flat on her back with her feet in stirrups. Ruth believed that the conventional treatment philosophy was disrupting the positions best suited to push and the smooth working of the hormonal system to achieve this. She read widely on the topic and spent two weeks with Ina May Gaskin—the author of ‘Spiritual Midwifery—in their commune in Tennessee, where she learnt that women isolated from the conventional birth experience were experiencing far better results.
Hoping to bring these philosophies back home, Ruth discussed these matters with an older midwife—Joan Donley—who had previously supported different treatment options for birthing women. Joan later went on to work with Helen Clark to develop policies allowing midwives to work on their own, instead of under the supervision of a doctor. Ruth found that her own efforts to provide women with alternative birthing options were not well received, but slowly things began to change. She worked with Claire Hutchison from Hamilton who was a very wise and experienced midwife, and in time, women wanting home births would come to Ruth specifically for this. For hospital births, Ruth would allow women to move around during labour, or give birth sitting or squatting.
Support for women during childbirth
Ruth also strongly believed that a woman’s husband or support person should be allowed to stay in the room during labour, so that the birth would proceed as smoothly as possible. Unfortunately, this was frowned upon during Ruth’s time working in obstetrics, and she would have to ask permission each time from the Matron on duty for a husband to come into the room.
“No, it was very much their domain. And they didn’t like the business that I wanted to give less pain relief and wanted to try other things and not have them flat on their backs with their feet up and all that. I wasn’t popular at the hospital. Because all the midwives were probably twenty, thirty years older than I was, I was a bit of an upstart.”
Parental support for sick children in hospital
Ruth was also concerned with the policy that prevented parents from accompanying their sick children into hospital. The hospital staff claimed that allowing parents in would often upset the children, and it was better that they stayed away. James and Joyce Robertson—a husband and wife psychologist and social worker—conducted some observational research on film and showed that children were quieter without their parents because they were significantly more upset, and would experience a range of emotions including sadness and aggression that could have long-term effects.
Ruth worked with Elsa Wood from Hamilton, who did a lot of work trying to change these policies in Waikato Hospital. Ruth would speak to the Medical Superintendent to ask for permission for the parents to stay with their child, and he would yell at her over the phone before begrudgingly giving permission. However, the parents would always return home the next day as the nursing staff made it so difficult and unpleasant for them to stay, and it took a long time for ideas to change.
A heart in the right place
In the early 1980s, Ruth decided to study for a Diploma of Obstetrics, in the hope that further training in the area would benefit the local women. She spent a couple of weeks at the Maternity Unit of the Waikato Hospital and then in the National Women’s hospital prior to sitting the Dip Ob qualification. Unfortunately, the maternity unit was closed down in 1986, and birthing women were instead sent to Morrinsville Maternity Unit, which was 20 minutes away. Ruth found this impossible to work with, as she was called in to births either too early or too late. Ruth decided to investigate alternative options. Always open to novel ideas, she wondered if she could fly over to the hospital via helicopter, and she began investigating possible landing sights.
Ruth’s investigations brought her unwelcome news. Her flying exam detected a possible silent ventricular infarct, and she was sent for coronary arteriograms and cardiac muscle biopsies before being diagnosed with dominant gene familial dilated cardiomyopathy. This diagnosis explained why her grandfather had died at 50, her father at 51, and her eldest brother at 41. Sadly, there was no accepted treatment for this condition and the best prognosis was about six years. However, Ruth fought on. After several failed treatments, she gave beta blockers a try, and she responded unexpectedly well. While her heart function declined again a few years later, she doubled the dose and responded well once again. Since then, she has been able to use this information to help both her niece and eldest son, who experienced similar dramatic responses to beta blockers, although her youngest brother sadly received his diagnosis too late and died in his early 60s.
A GP looking for new experiences
In 1996, Ruth’s husband David was given an offer to buy his dental practice—a rare event for a rural dental practice. Due to his age, he decided to take the offer and cut back to working part time for the new owners. Ruth decided to follow suit, and closed her own GP practice after 23 years, working instead for other Waikato practices, with the benefit of no more after hours on call work.
After a few years, Ruth decided to join a locum agency that arranged work for locum GPs in hospital A&E departments in coast Victoria and New South Wales, Australia. After Ruth told the locum agency that she hadn’t worked in a hospital setting since 1967, they suggested that she first upskill, so she spent the weekend at the Rotorua A&E department. By that lunchtime, she decided she had had enough, and reasoned that there was nothing wrong with being at home knitting. However, by the end of the weekend, she was hooked. She loved being back in the hospital tea again, and after another three months of weekend work, she headed over to Australia for 10 days a month.
Ruth found she was by far the “grand-mother” of the Kiwi locums, who were mostly aged about 30 and taking a break from study or earning some extra money. But with her 20+ years of general practice, the specialists were happy for Ruth to work on duty by herself and overnight, as they felt she knew when to call for extra help. After four years of this, she suddenly decided she had had enough and resigned.
However, Ruth wasn’t quite ready for retirement just yet. After a couple of years, she found that she really missed the people contact, and decided to return to general practice several days a week in Hamilton. The practice worked on a charity model, and to receive the funding they had to keep track of patients’ immunisations, cervical smears, regular checks, and follow ups. Ruth found that with all the required administration she had very little time left to deal with the patient’s problem that they had come in for. She decided to retire for the last time.
Five years later and at the age of 77, Ruth realizes she is forgetting a lot of medical practice, and now she does not mind. She feels she is living a fulfilling life, and her husband is also retired and comfortable with his life. Together they read a lot, listen to podcasts, have people visit for meals, and go to Hamilton to help out with their granddaughter. Ruth has started to learn chess with the aim of enthusing her granddaughter, and hopes to start a local chess club.
Ruth has a creative streak and has always sewn a lot of her own clothes, either from scratch or bought second hand and altered to fit. She loves knitting and crocheting for porcelain dolls that she has previously made. She has a regular exercise program and spends three sessions at the gym each week. She also helps David in the garden and they have turned the surgery area into a B&B area.
Ruth and David have started to cut back on their overseas travel, which previously consisted of 1-2 long distance trips each year, and now will be more short and lazy trips to Australia to visit their wine-making son in South Australia. Ruth has recently started playing the violin again, after a gap of 50 years. She was pleasantly surprised by how her skills are returning and hopes to join the Hamilton Orchestra next year.
Twelve years ago, Ruth had a fulfilling experience accompanying her daughter to her antenatal classes. She discovered that the issues she had fought for in her day—birthing choices, breastfeeding and so forth—were now routine, encouraged, and taken for granted. She feels that this capped off her whole professional life with a bouquet.
Ruth no longer has any interest in returning to medicine. She is very pleased with her life, both previously and now.
“Yes, well I’ve retired now for the third time and final time. And I miss the people. The patients. The patient contact. I think I would always go for general practice because I think otherwise you see people in passing. But I love my time in medicine.”