Winifred Anne Kennedy (nee Fisher)

This biography is based on an interview with Winifred Kennedy in 2019 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand project. The interviewers were Cindy Farquhar and Lucy Goodman.


Early life: a devout young Methodist reading The Jungle Doctor with her sights on missionary work

Winifred Kennedy was born in Te Awamutu in 1939, the second of four children. Her father was a mechanical engineer who worked as a handyman for local farmers during the depression era. During Winifred’s childhood, her father ran his own engineering business in Te Awamutu, before later becoming an astronomer at the Carter Observatory in Wellington. Winifred’s mother was a domestic servant who helped families look after their children.

“She had to leave school at twelve, she didn’t like that, because she was doing well at school. But in those days, you had to leave if you were a woman, or at least in her family you did. And I think that’s why she made sure that her children had every chance to be educated. Dad was able to go to school at Auckland Boys Grammar till he was fifteen, so he had a little more education than a lot of other people did at that time.”

Winifred was educated at Te Awamutu College. She enjoyed the social opportunities from her large coed school, however by the seventh form sixteen students remained as many had left to earn an income for their families. Winifred was a conscientious student with strong religious beliefs, and by the age of twelve she had decided she wanted to pursue medicine so that she could help other people. With medical school in mind, Winifred chose to study physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as Maths and English which she particularly enjoyed.

“I was a very devout young Methodist, and I used to read these books about Albert Schweitzer, and Dr in The Jungle [sic], you know those sorts of things. And I thought that’s what I’d like to do. Missionary work without too much missionary stuff. But you know, I wanted to sort of help in whatever way I could.”

In 1958, Winifred moved to Dunedin for her medical intermediate year at Otago University. For the one and only time during her studies, she travelled to Dunedin via plane—after that, she would take an overnight rain, an overnight ferry, then the daytime train from Lyttleton to Dunedin. Arriving in Dunedin, Winifred was relieved to see the familiar faces of two boys from her secondary school who were also vying for medical school entrance.

“I just went around with my head up in the air, looking at these wonderful buildings, made from the Omarau stone buildings, and the churches and the university. Yeah, I was quite overwhelmed by it.”

Medical intermediate was a competitive year, and like many others, Winifred did not get into medical school on her first attempt. She recalls the strict but effective teaching skills of the physics teacher, Ms Blackie, and Winifred was happy with the B she achieved in physics. Rather than repeating the subject, this gave her the opportunity to study English, which she particularly enjoyed, and on her second attempt at medical intermediate, Winifred achieved the necessary marks required to get into medical school.

Medical school: comradery, exam anxiety, & empathizing with patients

Winifred began her medical school studies in 1960, as one of 17 female students in her year. The 120 students were introduced to the anatomy labs on the very first day, many suffering some anxieties about what was to come.

“I think we were all very nervous about going into the anatomy room, I remember that… We were all worrying whether we were going to faint or not, you know, and that sort of thing. And so I do remember going into this room and seeing all these grey cadavers and hoping I wouldn’t be the one to faint. The only time I remember anybody fainting was actually the first time we had to watch a post-mortem. That was quite different, and much worse.

Winifred soon noticed the comradery between students in her class. The women sat together in the front row of the lecture theatre—either through necessity or custom—and they soon became friends. The male students and the teachers were perfectly amicable in their attitudes towards women, and Winifred did not feel disadvantaged because of her gender.

“Everyone, the lecturers, the male students, everyone was very polite and helpful, and they still let you go through the door first, it was that era. There were a few occasions when some of the women said, “Oh we can’t do that because we’re women”. And I felt terribly embarrassed by that. I was like “oh, just be quiet”.”

Some gender boundaries differed from today. One particularly unsavory memory that stayed with Winifred was when a male professor conducted a survey about why women do medicine. He asked questions about her career and family intentions, and then proceeded with a physical examination where she was asked to remove her clothes, without any other women present, so that he could listen to her heart.

“I do remember at the time thinking, well he should be doing…? If the women are having medical exams so should the men. In retrospect I look back and I think I don’t think that would happen nowadays.”

In contrast, Winifred’s best memories of medical school were the friends that she made, and her social life largely centered around her faith. The families of the Methodist Church were very welcoming and would take her home for meals or on outings around Dunedin. She also found emotional support from the Student Christian Movement, which run regular camps and other events that she would participate in.

“I didn’t work on Sundays. I didn’t swot even when exams were coming. This is me being terribly religiously strict.”

Unlike many other medical students, Winifred lived in a flat with non-medical students rather than university student accommodation. She received a boarding bursary of 90 pounds a year that covered her rent and food, and she shared a room to save costs. She was the only student in her flat, and she would study at a little desk in her room. This had its disadvantages, as she often felt she was missing out on group study that her medical school peers enjoyed.

“Everyone helped each other, you know, there was no competition once you were in med-school. It was good. I think I slightly envied the people that were in the university halls because I could tell that they were practicing exam questions and things with each other, which I wouldn’t be able to.”

Medical school was exhausting, with lectures and practical classes all day from 8am, and Winifred often felt envious of the arts students who had more spare time. Winifred found she had to work hard to pass her exams, and that she lacked the studying skills needed to deal with the sheer volume of work. Although she needed to repeat her exams in anatomy and microbiology over the summer on one occasion, she passed these and made it through successfully to the following year of study.

“I probably worked too hard, didn’t have enough time to refresh my brain. I just kept on going for hours and hours and hours. And so yes, I would have studied differently, now… I got the impression later that some of the other students did know about these techniques of fast reading and underlining and then learning the facts that mattered. But I just did this plod, plod, plod thing.”

In the fourth year of their studies, the students moved into their clinical training, which included living in Queen Mary Obstetric Hospital for two weeks. Winifred recalls feeling sorry for the hospital patients in Dunedin, who bore the brunt of the medical school student’s learning, whether they wanted to or not.

“Any patient in Dunedin just will have several people around the bed, and I can remember one of my classmates saying, “Why has he got a black tongue?” And thinking— Poor guy. And they weren’t asked if they minded, no. And the same with gynaecological examinations, nobody was asked if they minded. It was just what happened if you were a poor Dunedin patient. I think sometimes the Dunedin patients liked it because they got lots of different opinions and they could hear all about their problems, but yeah. I think it was very good when the medical school made the move to send out the clinical students to other cities as well, for fourth year and up.”

In the summer between the fifth and sixth years, Winifred completed a summer placement at Wanganui Hospital, where they were desperately short of house surgeons. She found this a frightening experience, where she was required to take on a role far beyond her level of experience, under limited supervision.

“I can remember one weekend, just being on call, the only person backing up was the superintendent of the hospital, and no other doctors. And accident cases coming into casualty, and you know the buzzer going just all the time, I didn’t have any breaks. And very dangerously ill children being brought in, a car crash and one with meningitis, and somebody— This is over Christmas— carol singers singing outside the ward, and this child had been brought in grey and moribund. That was absolutely terrifying, having so much responsibility. Not knowing what I was doing.”

Winifred spent her sixth year of training in Wellington Hospital. This was an enjoyable time where she lived together with a small group of about twenty other students in the hospital.

“I think we did like it. Overly confident, probably. Thought we knew far more than we did. I found getting intravenous drips in very difficult and felt terrible giving some people a hard time.”

Winifred returned home twice a year throughout medical school, where she would work summer jobs to raise money, including one job as a cook in Wellington Hospital. Her mother in particular was very supportive of her decision to study medicine, and she would send her money and write to her frequently. In return, Winifred managed to save enough money from her bursary so that she could pay for her parents to attend her graduation in Otago at the end of her studies, and she was thrilled that they could be there.

Early training: house surgeon years in Wellington versus California & leaving religion behind

Winifred spent two years training as a house surgeon in Wellington Hospital. During her second year she started a relationship with her future husband Graeme, who she had met previously at a Student Christian Movement camp. As Graeme—a linguist— had already committed to studying for a PhD in UCLA, Winifred finished her two years training and moved to California with him, where the couple were married.

In California, Winifred worked as an intern—equivalent to house surgeon in New Zealand—at Santa Monica Lutheran Hospital’s Accident and Emergency Hospital. Winifred found the exams for her California registration much easier than anything she had undertaken during her medical school training in New Zealand. The day-to-day operation of the hospital was also vastly different to Wellington Hospital. In America, gunshot wounds were a daily occurrence, and patients would be left to die from an overdose when they couldn’t afford to be treated with an artificial kidney machine, which Winifred found particularly difficult to accept.

“The exams, compared to Otago, were so easy. I mean I got nine As. Now, you’re talking about a struggling C student in Otago. The anatomy question would be ‘What structures do you cut if you cut through the upper arm? Well, you know, at Otago you had to say course and relations of every tiny little thing… That was sort of a surprise, really. Because they think they’ve got the best medical system in the whole world and they really don’t.”

“Us interns were given far too much responsibility and I remember ringing up the on-call obstetrician, because a woman came in passing meconium—meaning infant distress—and I said she needed a caesar, and he said, “Oh well, you could do it”. Yeah— I’ve never ever done any surgery, let alone… And I said no. And he came in and did it, and I helped him.”

It was in California that Winifred also experienced a rare moment of gender discrimination from a male colleague.

“There was one American trained intern, and he was quite nasty to me, about being a woman, I think. Mainly because I didn’t sort of give in to his charms, you know he was one of these who thought he could sleep with anybody if he was nice and did, with the nurses. And I think from then on, he made my life as hard as he could.”

After one and three-quarter years, a few months shy of receiving her Californian registration, Winifred stopped work to have her first child. Her experiences as an obstetrics patient in America were somewhat unusual to the norms at the time, as she chose to give birth naturally, attending Lamaze childbirth classes in advance to learn breathing techniques.

“I did want to do a natural birth and almost everybody there had spinals and so when I was actually giving birth the nurse helping went to push on my fundus, you know to push the baby out, and the obstetrician, who actually was Danish, he said “Oh no, no, no, she hasn’t had it.” You know—a spinal—in other words, I would feel this if she did so.”

Despite a straightforward delivery, she found the postnatal experience in America more difficult without family support. Mothers were advised to follow a strict feeding regime, and when her newborn daughter did not gain weight as rapidly as expected, Winifred decided to look elsewhere for advice.

“Just two days in and out of hospital before your breastfeeding has settled. And no Plunket. I wanted my mother— Here was me at thirty, I just want my mother. Or someone to come and tell me how to breastfeed. Yes. And yeah, it was quite hard, actually. She lost weight.”

“It was also very strict four-hourly breastfeeding at this hospital. And by then I’d read La Leche League, and so that’s one thing where I’m not usually assertive but I was on that, I just fed her whenever she was hungry, and she put weight on again by the time of the next visit.”

During their time in America, both Winifred and Graeme underwent an important change in their lives—leaving their faith behind and moving towards atheism. The couple went on to raise their children without a religion, and at first, she worried that their lack of Sunday School education would leave them without a moral compass.

“We tried going to church in America, but it was so bizarre and artificial and all sort of staged and everything, I don’t know. I just couldn’t relate to it at all. I miss it, it was a terribly important support for me through med school, and probably through the house surgeon years. So very important. And you know, it’s a very important social group, as well as, you know, whatever you believe about things. And so things like death and that were much easier to cope with if you believe, and I can see why we have religions because you know, it’s all so difficult to understand otherwise.”

Living in America allowed Winifred and Graeme other uncharacteristic experiences. Although Winifred had little interest in smoking, she was willing to try a marijuana cigarette in California when the opportunity presented itself.

“I never had a smoke. But then we were very put off, I think all the smokers in my class, by the time we’d see all these blackened lungs at postmortems, pretty well no one was smoking, by the time we’d graduated.”

“After I’d had little Lizzie we had to move out of the hospital, and we were in a little flat. And at one stage we had a flatmate, and he grew two marijuana plants in the garden. And Graeme and I were very uneasy about this because we knew we’d be sent straight back to New Zealand if it was discovered. They were very strict there, but anyway… He did cut them down and put them into cigarettes. So, we each had a little puff to see what it was like. I did notice things like the pictures seemed to be sharper, on the wall. Because I was breastfeeding Lizzie, I had to do it at a time that I wasn’t— You know… straight after a breastfeed, to make sure it was out of my system. My family think that’s very funny, the only cigarette I ever had was a marijuana one.”

Returning to New Zealand: an expanding family, Family Planning, & women’s rights

Winifred, Graeme, and their young daughter returned to New Zealand after three years, when Graeme was appointed to a Victoria University lectureship, and their family soon expanded to include their son. Maternity leave or parental support was never available to Winifred, and she was fortunate that her husband received a general income. Year later, the couple expanded their family even further, adopting two more children—a dream of Winifred’s that Graeme was happy to go along with.

“It was one of those things I’d always wanted to do, actually—adopt one. And so, we put our name down to have another child after our two had got to school, but a school-aged child. And they came up with a brother and a sister from Invercargill who were eight and six. And by then ours were twelve and ten. After some initial difficulties with the older children they settled into the family. I would say I’m very lucky. All four of them keep in touch and they’re still very supportive of me, all the time.”

After returning from California as a young mother, Winifred re-entered the workforce, first by working part-time in general practice. With a suggestions from Dr Margaret Sparrow, Winifred expanded her work into Family Planning. She found that this worked well with her family commitments, as Graeme was available to care for the children while she worked at night.

Winifred found working in Family Planning a steep learning curve, as although her gynaecology training was good, she had received relatively little education in contraception during medical school.

“Once I went into Family Planning, later, I thought there should have been more than the one lecture a year on contraception that all the students could come to. It was held in a big lecture theatre, it was just an annual event, was the one on contraception, with the blown-up condoms floating on the ceiling and all that… When I did do Family Planning I had to learn how to fit diaphragms from the nurses and you know, all the sort of things I knew nothing about.”

Despite her strongly held religious beliefs from her youth, Winifred’s attitudes towards abortion and women’s rights changed over time. Working in Family Planning exposed her to the realities of women’s rights, where only women with money could access these types of services, while others were left ostracized. Along with her mentors and colleagues, Margaret Sparrow and Carol Shand, Winifred’s work expanded to include surgery for early-term abortions, although she chose not to work as a certifying consultant, believing that the decision to abort should generally lie with the woman rather than her doctor.

“She [Margaret Sparrow] actually did influence me about abortion as well, I have to say. She’s very open and honest about it. She got me into abortion, and I thought this is ridiculous, to get paid for making a decision I think the women should make. We did operating only, we didn’t do certifying consultant. It was against our principles, you understand.”

“Me being reared as I was, well I was spending all that time in the church, it would never have crossed my mind that I would do it. But there’s nothing like working at Family Planning, and you see, you know– I remember one week a couple of young women coming in. One was from a very strict Brethren church and her sister had already been thrown out of the family for getting pregnant. The other was from a rich Catholic family, and she said—“Oh no problem, my parents will pay for me to go to Australia”.”

“It’s really money, isn’t it? Whether women got abortions in that era. And I thought that was just terrible. And I don’t like asking people to do things, I’d rather do them. So I was one of the first three at Parkview Clinic. There was Margaret Sparrow and Carol Shand and myself, for several years we were the only operating doctors. But they always put their heads above the parapet and you know, got things changed. And I do admire them both incredibly.”

“I think the late pregnancy termination requests are very difficult to deal with, aren’t they? But the women who want them are very determined, and I remember sending one or two out to Australia because they were too late under NZ law, and just thinking—”Oh, I wish you wouldn’t do this”. But, you know— You know they’re going to do it anyway.”

Winifred Kennedy (nee Fisher), 1999
Family Planning 60th anniversary occasion and museum opening, where Winifred received a long service leave certificate.

Winifred retired from general practice and Family Planning when she was 65. She found moving to a computerized record-keeping system particularly difficult—while she could manage lab reports and prescriptions, she found it more difficult to take computerized notes while maintaining rapport with a patient. Given that Graeme had retired that year, the decision came easily.

“I was mainly given the menopausal kind of work anyway, you know, given my age. I was getting too fuzzy to be very accurate or useful. I decided that was a good year to retire. I missed the staff, but I didn’t actually miss the work.”

Graeme was later diagnosed with Lew Body disease—a rare type of dementia. He lived with the disease for eight years, and Winifred nursed him at home for the final few years, until he died in 2016. This was undoubtedly a difficult time for Winifred. She admired everything that her husband achieved during his life as a linguist, dictionary editor, and supportive family man.

Reflections: balancing career and motherhood

Winifred is modest about her achievements.

“I think all the glass ceiling had been smashed by the women well before me, that’s why I say in some ways I didn’t feel I was an early medical woman at all. I probably had a fairly ordinary low-key kind of GP life, I didn’t do any research, I didn’t do any— you know, changing trends. I always wanted to work in the gaps, should I put it like that? Yes, I didn’t particularly want to do anything else. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to do, you know, half-time mothering and half-time medicine, and that I lived in an era when I could do it, versus I wouldn’t be able to now. The fees are so high now and my family were debt averse.”

“I mean it is this juggle between looking after your family. I wanted to be home after school when they got home. So, I really only worked part-time, right through. I don’t see how women can do the extra hours you need to take on these really responsible jobs that— I don’t know how you solve this, I never did work out how to solve it. And I felt Family Planning clinics actually were very good, in that when I had sick kids I could take them in there.”

“I really enjoyed seeing patients and we got on well, nearly all the time. And I never got bored, I think everyone’s story is so different. Just that one-to-one with the patients was very rewarding.”

Winifred can see her own interests in missionary work and third-world countries upheld through her older son, who is now a doctor with a focus interest in refugees and has worked with Médecins Sans Frontières.

“I never got to do those things, but he did. But there was absolutely no pressure. But it’s been absolutely delightful because I can discuss medical things with him.”

While Winifred is grateful that she could balance a career between family and medicine, she is most proud of her experiences as a mother to her four beautiful children.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email