This biography was written by Norma’s foster daughter, Norma Harris, in 2020
Norma, or “Doc”, as she was known to her patients, was born in Napier on 1st November 1910 to Herbert and Florence Benson. Herbert taught in various schools in the North Island, including Meeanee School, Napier, and was headmaster of this school between 1907 and 1910. Norma had two siblings, Joyce and Frank, who were twins (both now deceased). I know little about Norma’s early life. I assume she went to Meeanee School followed by a Napier high school, but I am not certain. However, Norma was in Napier at the time of the major earthquake on 3 February 1931. But by 1935 the family had moved to Lower Hutt. From school, Norma went to Victoria College, Wellington (now Victoria University of Wellington), and was awarded the degrees of BSc in 1933, and MSc with honours in zoology in 1934. Nevertheless, Norma decided that zoology was not for her and so she next read medicine at Otago University Medical School graduating MB ChB in 1940. As a newly qualified doctor, she spent some time working at Whanganui Hospital, where she met Kathleen Nira Dorset (1916-1993) (known as Nira), who was a registered nurse. They remained together until Nira’s death in 1993.
Norma and Nira moved to Auckland, where Nira’s parents lived, and set up a general medical practice at 1294 Dominion Road, Mt Roskill, Auckland, with Nira as the practice nurse. Nira’s brother, Norman Dorset, made some of the furniture for the surgery. Throughout her career Norma especially enjoyed paediatrics. She kept up-to-date by reading every issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal from cover to cover. This continued even after she had retired. She loved children and fostered a series of children, often with medical problems. Her first, in 1944, was Norma Dooley (now Harris) who she delivered and then fostered her from when she was two weeks old until she married. Other children who she fostered on a long-term basis were, in chronological order: Graham Mansell, Malcom Mansell (Graham’s brother), Mary Hole, Reg Hole (Mary’s brother) and Robert Mansell (another of Graham’s brothers). There were also a number of other children who were fostered on a short-term basis. These included children and even grandchildren of the people mentioned.
Norma was very much an old school GP and enjoyed talking at length to her patients. Her last appointment of the day was frequently scheduled for 9pm, but the last patient often didn’t leave the surgery until the early hours of the morning! Norma did home visits, as well as going to National Women’s Hospital and maternity homes in the area to deliver babies. I remember, as a child, going with her in her car while she made these visits. This was at a time when few people had cars. Wednesday afternoon was her half day unless a traveller was due to visit. We caught the tram from Mt Roskill to the city to go to the bank (The Bank of New South Wales, now Westpac). Norma would also buy books, which were wrapped up in brown paper, as well as school clothes for me. In particular, I remember a pair of red shoes that was bought on one of these trips. When I was older, and able to drive, I sometimes drove her in her car to events, such as medical conferences. On one such journey, we stopped for lunch, which she had packed in a picnic basket. After taking this out of the car, out came a blanket, followed by fine china and silver ware. Nothing was done by halves!
Norma continued to practice at the same address until she was aged 70 when she moved to her holiday home in Tindalls Bay, Whangaparoa (17 The Crescent, Tindalls Bay). In her last years, Reg Hole, one of her foster children, looked after her. Norma passed away on 25th October 1996 in Auckland.