Cecily (Anne) Cowie (nee McNulty)

This biography is based on an interview with Cecily (Anne) Cowie in 2017 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project. The interviewer was Claire Gooder.


Early life: education & dreams of studying medicine

Anne at her MBChB graduation

Anne Cowie was born in Cromwell in 1938, as the youngest of five children born to Margaret and Frank McNulty. When Anne was just five years old, her sister—two years her elder—tragically drowned in the Kawarau River. Despite these difficulties, Anne lived a mostly carefree childhood, and her mother raised her children with principles of organic farming, which would later shape Anne’s career.

“We had a very pleasant life. My father was a carrier and we always had a large home and our own garden with small fruit, fruit trees, vegetables and flowers.”

“I’d been brought up where everything we ate was never sprayed. We had big gardens, and it was great. We never saw doctors very much-my mother had all her own home remedies for different things.”

After two years of schooling at the local convent in Cromwell, Anne moved to Dunedin with her mother. In the next five years, she attended five schools, ending with one year at Otago Girls High School. After her mother became very ill, she returned to Cromwell in 1962 where she attended Cromwell District High School for the remainder of her secondary education.

Fortuitously, moving back to Cromwell allowed Anne to drop French and Latin—a precursor for a career in teaching—and instead, begin studying science. In Cromwell, Anne was also fortunate to receive mentorship that directed her career choices.

“The other thing that was terribly lucky—at Cromwell we had two teachers, Roy Phillips and Harry Evison, who told us that outside these hills there is another life, and if you were bright then you would have a job in the bank or the post office, otherwise you would just stay and do local things. These two teachers taught people who went on to do anything from teaching, nursing, Plunket nursing, dental nursing, agriculture, horticulture, the army and navy.

Initially inspired towards a nursing career, Anne put her name down at Dunedin Hospital for training. During her school certificate year, her teacher told her of his own personal dreams of studying medicine and suggested that she should apply. Anne rejected the idea outwardly, while continuing to ponder his suggestion. Anne was the only student at her school who went on to complete her sixth form and upper sixth form, studying mostly by correspondence, and achieving her University Entrance exam.

University and Medical school: enjoying a new life, friends, & hard work

Anne moved to Dunedin in 1956 for her medical intermediate studies. Physics was taught by a wonderful teacher, although Anne struggled on her first attempt with no background in the subject. Her second attempt the following year was more rewarding, and bolstered by high marks from her psychology studies, Anne was accepted into medical school as the 37th of 39 students from Otago University, and one of only ten women in a class of 120. She and her fellow students soon discovered just how hard they needed to work at medical school.

“It was, as anybody would tell you, hard work. It was different then because we didn’t have all these lovely teaching aids. We had lecturers who walked up and down reading notes which we had to write, so it made my writing-which wasn’t good-unintelligible.”

Anne lived in St Margaret’s hostel for the next four years together with other women medical students including Maureen Lester, Carol Shand, Mary-Lou Harvey, Robyn Hewland and Mary Cameron.

Anne’s family were not particularly well-off, but she spent all her vacations working locally—as a fruit picker, a hotel worker, and nurse aiding at the local hospital—to support her living and study expenses. She valued the experience beyond the monetary gain, as it introduced her to many different people, giving her useful people skills for her developing career in medicine.

Anne at her MBChB graduation ball with her parents Margert and Frank McNulty

During the medical course Anne was good friends with Maureen Lester, and the two flatted together in Clyde Street for a year. Anne and Maureen decided to spend their sixth-year medical training together in Christchurch, where they found the teachers to be very good. The students later returned to Dunedin for final exams, before their graduation in 1962.

Working as a house surgeon in Christchurch, family tragedy, & the responsibility of an entire town

After graduating from medical school, Anne returned to Christchurch where she worked as house surgeon in the Princess Margaret Hospital. The clinical teaching there was good, and although girls were at first an unwelcome addition to the team, their excellent work soon earned them more respect.

In 1963, Anne’s parents, who had never travelled anywhere in their lives decided to travel to Fiji, and Anne took the opportunity to join them. However, the happy vacation was soon cut short by tragedy, when Anne’s mother suffered a major stroke and was admitted to hospital in Nandi. After six weeks, her mother was flown back to Christchurch and was admitted to the Princess Margaret Hospital where Anne was a house surgeon. Her mother was eventually sent back to Cromwell Hospital. The severity of her mother’s illness meant that Anne had to make some difficult decisions about her career path.

“I finished that year, and then the next year I was very undecided what to do because I was determined not to have my mother in hospital long-term.”

“It is amazing how things change in your life.”

Anne went on to complete five months of training in obstetrics as a senior house surgeon at St. Helen’s hospital. While she had harboured some dreams of travelling to the UK for postgraduate training in anaesthetics, she instead decided to return to Cromwell to nurse her ailing mother. Anne worked as a locum for one month in Lawrence, and then in Wanaka for three months accompanied by her mother and father and supported with a live-in housekeeper. Whilst at Wanaka, Anne also covered a monthly clinic at Haast Township.

“You have never seen medicine like it. It was like going back to the [middle] ages, people coming in with sore faces with big ulcers and rotten teeth, compound leg fractures and they were still walking—you saw it all there.”

Inspired, Anne returned home and decided to start her own practice out of her family home—the McNulty House—where two rooms were changed into a waiting room and a surgery, and over time, Anne slowly increased her medical and obstetrics practice.

When Anne married Lyal Cowie in 1966, she left the other practising doctor in Cromwell covering her practice while she celebrated her honeymoon. When she returned, she found he had left for the army. Anne was soon overloaded with work, as, in addition to maintaining her general practice, she took on the role of Deputy Superintendent of Cromwell Hospital—located on the site of the current Rippon burn Retirement Village—where she covered twenty medical beds, eight obstetric beds, all anaesthetics, and x-ray work.

However, Anne was not completely unsupported in her work. She was helped greatly by specialists at Dunedin Hospital who enjoyed holidaying at their baches at Wanaka. Where necessary, they would call into the Cromwell Hospital and confer on difficult cases. The registrars at Dunedin Hospital were always pleased to take telephone calls to help with any problems.

Anne’s working life was busy and varied, and her daily schedule took her between the hospital, home visits, and her own practice at the McNulty House. The area covered was large from Haast, Makarora, Wanaka, Hawea, Tarras, Cromwell and surrounds. The following year in 1967, Anne gained her Diploma of Obstetrics from Dunedin Hospital, and she delivered up to 40 babies every year.

“I had never thought about becoming a General Practitioner and obstetrics, but thoroughly enjoyed the care of families from antenatal to geriatric. I loved it, it was a great challenge, and the community people were friendly and helpful.”

“A solo GP is an extremely busy one. People were very good and would only call if it was an emergency.”

At 10.30pm on a cold Anzac night, Anne received a message that a bus had gone into a ditch in the Kawarau Gorge. She ordered an ambulance and set out to attend the accident. She saw a light being waved ahead and the next thing she remembered was clambering up the hill over two buses in a huge washout. The accident was serious, causing one fatality, injuring the bus driver who fractured his upper leg, and Anne herself suffered lacerations of her scalp and concussion. A doctor was called in from Queenstown, and Anne was taken to Frankton Hospital.

Following the accident, Doctor Cook, Superintendent of Dunstan Hospital, took over at Cromwell Hospital and also completed a surgery list once a week.

Overseas adventures: Australia & the United Kingdom

Sadly, in 1967, both Anne’s parents died within three months of each other. Without her parents to care for, in time Anne decided to move away from her hometown in search of new experiences. After appointing a new doctor, in 1969, Anne and Lyal’s first destination was Australia, and Anne worked mainly in group practices in Melbourne, Mudgee, and Sydney for about two years, which she found different but enjoyable.

After saving enough money, Anne and Lyal then travelled to England. They purchased a VW caravan and travelled all over Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia and most of Europe for ten months, before returning to Australia where Anne worked in a Sydney practice and then later returned to New Zealand.

A medical career supplemented with alternative medicine

After a short while in Cromwell, Anne and her husband left their previous life of orcharding behind and in 1972 moved on to Auckland where Anne went into general practice in the suburb of Greenlane.

From around 1978, Anne began developing an interest in what would become one of her life’s passions—complementary medicine. Anne’s new interests had been seeded by her childhood experiences, and she found that complementary medicine gave her a new perspective on medicine that she had not appreciated during her medical training or since. She completed a course in acupuncture and trained with the Australasian College of Nutrition and Environmental Medicine. In time, her interests grew, and she frequently travelled to Australia to complete a fellowship with the Australasian College of Nutrition and Environmental Medicine in Melbourne.

Anne believed that complementary medicines, particularly nutrition and health, gave her a different perspective and a wealth of new treatment options that she could customise for the individual. Although other doctors could be particularly judgemental about her treatment choices, Anne’s personal beliefs in complementary medicines have held strong.

Beyond medicine—an organic lifestyle

Anne and her husband separated in 1990. Anne continued to work in Auckland for the following year, before taking a much-needed overseas holiday visiting several different countries, where she took the opportunity to further improve her knowledge of complementary medicines. She also purchased a rest home and hospital in Auckland, and for the next three years, Anne continued to work in Auckland, putting into practice her newfound knowledge.

In 2004, Anne decided to end her career in medicine. With her life­long principles of organic farming in mind, Anne moved to Oamaru where she purchased land and planted and operated an organic cherry orchard. She found this hard work, and after three years she sold the orchard.

Anne decided to build a spec house in Oamaru with a builder friend, which she found an interesting experience. Three years later, Anne moved to Tauranga, where she kept busy attending seminars and maintaining her knowledge in complementary and mainstream medicine. Most of these seminars were based in Auckland, and after 18 months Anne tired of the travelling and decided to move back to Auckland. In January 2012, Anne decided to move into a retirement village in Dunedin.

A happy life

“I’m very happy with my life. Because I’ve led a peripatetic lifestyle, travelling all over the place. I can’t say that I’ve settled down and become a great physician which some of my friends are, but I have felt that I have enjoyed it. I have met so many people, wonderful people, from different backgrounds.”

The McNulty House—Anne’s family home where she operated her own general practice—is now part of a community heritage restoration project operated by Old Cromwell Incorporated.

Link to: http://www.cromwellheritageprecinct.co.nz/historic­buildings/mcnulty-house/

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