This biography is based on an interview with Judy Driscoll in 2020 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project. The interviewer was Cindy Farquhar.
Family and early life: attending a private girls’ school
Judith Anne Driscoll (Judy) was born in late August of 1941 in Lower Hutt. Her mother stayed at home to look after her and her older brother as they grew up. Prior to marriage, Judy’s mother had received an MA in Latin from Victoria University, trained as a teacher and worked at a correspondence school. Judy’s father, meanwhile, was the finance manager for General Motors. “He was a successful businessman, but his father worked for the railways, and he was always very careful with money because they never had much money when he was young.”
Judy attended Chilton St James, a very select Anglican girls’ school in Lower Hutt. Although they “had a wonderful teacher for general science”, each science was not taught to a high enough level to prepare Judy sufficiently to study medicine. The school did endeavour to make up for the lack of opportunities by sending Judy and another student (who aspired to be a vet) to the polytechnic for night classes in physics. Judy does not feel as though they learned very much there, and the physics was not particularly relevant as it predominantly focused on motors. Judy mentioned that the school “insisted we go in our rather strange uniforms, and the class consisted of motor mechanics, and we looked at each other as if we’d come from different planets”. The school did not offer any further science training in the seventh form, so Judy made the bold choice to leave school at the end of her sixth form and progress straight into medical intermediate.
The decision to go into medicine: originally wanting to be a vet
Judy grew up hearing about her mother’s academic pursuits, so she always knew that women could go to university. “My mother talked quite a bit about her university days and all the women who were at university with her, so I assumed there were quite a few women who attended university.” Her love of animals inspired an initial dream of becoming a vet. However, the nearest place that she could study this was Melbourne, and her father claimed that they could not afford to send her there. Looking back, Judy suspects that the truth was that her parents did not want her to move overseas at such a young age.
Since she could not be a vet, Judy needed to decide on another career aspiration. She had just read and been inspired by Albert Schweitzer’s autobiography (a man of many talents, including being a physician). The inspiration from this, combined with a vague desire to help people, as well as the assumption that being a doctor would be similar to being a vet, gave her the dream of medicine. The fact that she did not have a great interest in science was not even a consideration. “So, I sort of became a doctor by default, really.” She did have one medical role model in her family: her mother’s older brother, a pathologist who set up the first private pathology lab in Auckland. Judy did not have much to do with him, though he used to visit for Christmas when the children were younger. However, Judy did go up to see him before she started medical school. “He very kindly lent me an old bench microscope from the laboratory to take down to medical school.” While Judy appreciated the sentiment, the microscope he gave her was quite old and she wished that she had bought herself a more modern one instead.
Medical intermediate: struggling with physics
Judy’s lack of science education put her at a disadvantage when she began medical intermediate at Victoria University in 1959. This intermediate year, which could be studied at any of the four main universities in New Zealand, involved chemistry, zoology and physics. Physics was a particular struggle for Judy. She remembers that her partner for the physics practicals was a dentistry student who was even more clueless than her, so could not help her. From this intermediate year, the selection to proceed into medical school was purely based on marks; there was no interview, nor any weighting by gender. Judy did not feel as though she achieved particularly well, but she clearly did well enough to progress into medicine. One fellow student whom Judy remembers from medical intermediate at Victoria University is Anthea Hatfield (nee Wheeler) who went on to become an anaesthetist. Judy did not get to know the male students until they were studying medicine together in Dunedin.
As Judy had skipped the seventh form, she did not receive a university bursary. Instead, she applied for – and was granted – a health department bursary, which covered her whole university degree. The only downfall of this was that for three years after graduation, she was bound to go wherever the health department directed her. Judy’s parents also gave her a small allowance, but not very much. “I remember I was always very poor.”
Medical school: not a perfect course
The momentous move from Wellington to Dunedin was bittersweet. Judy’s parents were proud that she was going to study medicine, though they were, of course, sorry that she was moving away from home. The pain of separation was eased by the fact that Judy’s parents accompanied her for the move down. It also helped that Judy had been to Dunedin once before, so already knew that she liked it. “I thought it was a lovely city. It had character.” Judy did not know many others when she moved down, but she got to know students in her medical class.
Her first two years were spent at St Margaret’s College, where many women stayed. “Well, it was a good place to stay. Several of the other women in my medical class were staying there, and you got to know people from other courses as well.” Judy remembers that the Hall was very strict, as it required students to sign in and out upon entering and leaving. After the first two years at St Margaret’s, Judy moved into a women-only flat, for it was not the done thing for men and women to flat together. One of her flatmates, Marise Thacker, was a fellow medical student who went on to work in Christchurch in anaesthetics. The other two flatmates were home science students.
When Judy began medicine, she did not have a long term plan about what she wanted to do. She simply wanted to get through the degree. Unfortunately, she did not have a great passion for science, so she found the two preclinical years rather dull. “Well, I didn’t really have a bent or a great interest in science, so I found these first two years doing the basic subjects not interesting, and I must say, many of the lecturers were extremely boring, and they weren’t at all inspiring.”
Judy did not sit in a particular spot in the “great big cavernous lecture theatres”, but she tended to stick to the middle or back. One memory from the lectures which stands out is that of Dick Graham, a classmate who had been a pilot until polio struck him. He walked with callipers, but was unable to get up the stairs, so the other men in the class used to carry him up. One teacher whom Judy remembers, though not very fondly, is Professor Eccles. He taught biochemistry, a subject which she loved. However, “he wasn’t inspiring, he mumbled, and he just went through the textbook.”
Judy also remembers the anatomy labs, taught by the intimidating Professor Adams. Her group for these labs comprised four men and two women. At the end of her first year, Judy failed her anatomy exam “more probably because I didn’t work hard enough than that I struggled with learning.” The outcome of this was that she had to come back early the next year to sit a special exam, which she passed. “That taught me a lesson, having to spend all my holidays studying anatomy which I hated.” She was surprised by how kind Professor Adams was to her in this exam.
Judy stayed in Dunedin in her fourth year (1962) when the clinical work began. Her favourite subject in the clinical years was general medicine. “I think general medicine, I found it interesting because of the challenge of diagnosis, and also it seemed to give you more of a chance to get to know the patients and form a relationship with them.” During these years, students were meant to do two weeks working in general practice. Somehow, Judy never did this, so she missed her only opportunity to have contact with general practice in medical school.
In their sixth year (1964), the students were divided across the four main hospitals in New Zealand and Judy went back to Wellington. Their class graduated at the end of this year, when Judy was only 23 years old. Her family came down for the event, and everyone had a good time. 15 women graduated. Judy commented that this was “the largest number of women they’d had for some years. If ever.” However, they lost a few along the way, as they had started with 18 women in 1960. Judy never knew what happened to the female students who did not come back.
During her medical school years, Judy predominantly socialised with other medical students. She did not drink much alcohol – not because she did not want to, but because she could not afford to. The men, meanwhile, had lots of money from their holiday work, so they used to go to the Captain Cook Hotel every Friday night.
Judy spent her summers working. She found it unfair that the men were able to get well-paid jobs, while the women worked just as hard but earned far less. “I mean back then, the men could work on the wharves, on freezing works, and the men made good money and were able to support themselves well, whereas for us women, we got jobs but they paid a pittance, it didn’t really help.” She managed to pick up a variety of jobs. Once, she worked for the Wellington City Council and the department that tested water: “that was a cushy job, we seemed to spend a lot of our time sitting in the sun.” She also got a couple of jobs through her father’s connections. One of these was at a chemist, while the other was in a private pathology lab in the Hutt. This pathology job involved doing pregnancy tests by injecting women’s urine into frogs. “So my first job in the morning was there was this big concrete pond out the back, and I had to go and fish the frogs out, and I hated the slippery frogs. I think more escaped into the garden than I actually got into the lab … I distinctly remember drawing this urine up into a straw, and then injecting it into these poor frogs’ backsides.”
In Judy’s eyes, the medical programme was by no means perfect. “Well, I think the worst thing about the medical course, and particularly, I mean this is when you got on further through it, it was all taught by specialists. And you ended up feeling that only the dropouts did general practice.” Some other topics which Judy felt were not covered sufficiently were women’s health, communication skills, psychology and musculoskeletal medicine. “You know, when we finished doing orthopaedics we knew all about every fracture and how to treat it, and all about things like tubercular disease of bone, which we were never going to see, and yet, simple muscular things and sprains and strains, we had no idea how you treated them.”
At this stage, women in medicine were treated reasonably well but not perfectly. Judy did not have any problems with the way she was treated by her male classmates, who were all respectful and friendly. All the teaching was done with men and women together, and as far as Judy knew, female medical students were not perceived poorly by the public. “But, there was very much the feeling that we were keeping a good man out of medical school who would have worked all his life, and we were going to not work, or work part-time.”
After medical school: finally doing what she wanted to do
Judy spent 1965, her first year as a house surgeon, at Whanganui Hospital. She was glad that she was finally able to practise medicine, and she had a wonderful year there. All the physicians and surgeons who she worked with were very helpful and approachable, and she made good friends among the nursing staff. “I remember a couple of months into the year standing, doing a ward round, and thinking, you know, this is amazing. I’m being paid to do something I really love doing.” Judy spent six months on the medical ward and six months on the surgical ward, while also doing stints in Accident and Emergency (A&E). They used to get lots of patients from the Desert Road who had been in accidents, which was always very upsetting for Judy. “We had probably half a dozen young men arrive in the ward with paraplegia. And one with tetraplegia from these motor accidents.”
Judy remembers one particular surgeon she worked with at Whanganui Hospital, who frequently attempted new techniques which were beyond his capabilities. Once, he did a grafting operation on a patient with a dissecting aneurysm, who died from uncontrollable bleeding during the operation. The surgeon left all the clamps from the operation in place when he closed the body up and subsequently instructed the mortified Judy to ask the family if they could have a post-mortem or open the body up to get all the clamps back again. “I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life.”
During this year, Judy went to Australia with a few nurses. They watched three operas in Sydney then spent a couple of weeks on the Gold Coast. This was the first time that Judy was introduced to smoking; she was encouraged to buy duty-free cigarettes on the way out from Wellington. They smoked all these cigarettes while they were away so that they would be able to get more duty-free on the way back. Judy’s time as a smoker did not last long. “I was never a great smoker, and my first year in general practice, after about two months sitting and telling people to stop smoking, I would go to light up a cigarette at night and think, why on earth am I doing this? So that was when I stopped.”
In Judy’s second year as a house surgeon (1966), the terms of her medical bursary caught up with her. The first place the health department proposed to send her was Denniston. This was an old mining village high in the mountains of the West Coast, so it would have been very isolated, and Judy had no desire to go there. Since she turned down this first offer, she and two others with medical bursaries were sent to Kew Hospital in Invercargill. “There were great political shenanigans between the superintendent and the younger specialists who wanted to get rid of the superintendent, and everyone knew about it except us. And so they had no applications for house surgeons that year, so it was very convenient to be able to direct three of us.” While there, the trainee doctors worked very hard. They received the standard house surgeon pay and were not paid overtime for the extra hours they did. “We worked very, very long hours. Because there were only three of us, we’d work a whole weekend on duty, and then the Monday as well, without a break.”
To Judy, Invercargill seemed like the end of the earth, but when she got there, she discovered how much she loved it. The people were very friendly, and in her time off she was able to go hiking, though she witnessed enough broken bones to put her off skiing. Judy stayed in Invercargill for two years (1966 and 1967). When she started to think more about her future, she decided that she should try to find a job which would be easier to fit in with children in case she ever married.
The following year, 1968, Judy moved to Wellington, where she spent a year as a pathology registrar. She rapidly discovered that this was not the job for her, so in 1969, she returned to Kew Hospital, where she worked as a medical registrar whilst trying to decide where her passion lay. She finally decided on general practice.
At this time, the College of General Practitioners was still in the process of being established. 1969 was the first year that an exam for entry was introduced. They needed candidates to sit this exam, so the three doctors at Kew Hospital and Peter Snow (a GP in Tapanui) sat the written exam then went to Wellington to sit the oral exam. They all passed. After Judy’s practice had been going for about two months, it needed to be approved by two members of the college. Judy had joined a group of GPs who covered each other for holidays, and both the GPs who checked her practice were part of that group. “And they weren’t going to say I wasn’t up to scratch because they needed me there to do holidays anyway. And I remember they had a brief look around my rooms, we sat and had a cup of tea, and that was it. Slightly different these days.”
While Judy was working in general practice, she had to deliver babies. She had little experience doing this, so she chose to spend some time at National Women’s Hospital where she went round with the registrars. Judy did about 100 deliveries each year, of which there were very few complications. Fortunately, there was a good obstetrician in Invercargill who was very helpful.
Brief trip overseas: meeting her husband
Judy spent four years in general practice in Invercargill, then decided that she wanted to work overseas. She travelled there on a ship. The journey was free for her as the ship’s doctor, but she did not have to do much since there were only a dozen passengers. It is fortunate that she chose to go on this ship, for she went on to marry the marine engineer in 1972.
Once she arrived in England, Judy worked at a very depressing mental hospital called Moorfields, just out of Plymouth. At the time, there were many large mental health hospitals like this one. “I mean, they weren’t a good thing, but on the other hand, now having got rid of everything like that, we now have these people who fall between the cracks, the mental health people who live on the streets. So, there has to be some compromise somewhere in between.” Judy’s husband was keen to come back and settle in New Zealand, so they only spent a short period in England before they set sail back to New Zealand.
Back home in New Zealand: working part-time
When the couple first returned to New Zealand, it was hard for Judy to find employment as there were already lots of doctors around. The first town that the couple settled was Bluff, where Judy’s husband got a job with the harbour board. Judy did some locum work for the local GP, who had a house in Queenstown and liked to go away to stay there often. The couple only lived in Bluff for about a year.
They had two daughters, one of whom fulfilled Judy’s childhood dream of becoming a vet. Judy stopped working for two or three years when they were young, and after this, she did part-time work in other people’s general practices. The family moved around as Judy’s husband worked in a government department and chasing promotion there often involved moving, and finally settled in Waikanae where Judy worked full time for the last eight to nine years of her career. “So we lived in Tokoroa for a year, we lived in New Plymouth, which was lovely, for about seven, eight years. And then we lived in Porirua for four, five years. And then we finally moved up here [Waikanae] when my girls were at high school.”
There were some struggles associated with only working part-time. “It was difficult doing the accreditation, the College of General Practitioners, as a part-timer, there were certain things you could do, but the audit things became difficult.” Once Judy had moved to Waikanae, a peer-review group had started up. The idea was that this would be a means by which part-timers could communicate their concerns to the College of General Practitioners. However, since many of them were male-dominated, they did not represent Judy or other women very well. One woman, Sue Wilson, had the idea that they should set up a female peer-review group. “And it was very, very helpful, there were between six and eight of us at any one time, and we all had the same problems.” One issue that Judy encountered was that she found it hard to keep up to speed with the new antihypertensive drugs when they came out since she was working so few hours at that time. When she worked in other people’s practices, Judy found that some patients (particularly women) liked having a female doctor. Sometimes, patients would specifically choose to come back to her, rather than their own doctor whom she had been covering for.
Looking back: advice for young women embarking on a medical career
Judy’s work in general practice was very rewarding. She learned a lot from the people she came across. “I wouldn’t be without my general practice, it really provided me with a very satisfying life.” She does believe, however, that she could have had an equally happy life if she had pursued her passion for the arts. When she was younger, she was not aware of all the possibilities that the arts could provide, so did not consider this path seriously enough. “I didn’t have the imagination to see that there were all sorts of things like library work, translators, that sort of thing.” Despite this, she believes that her medical life was more satisfying for her than a life in the arts would have been.
When asked what she would say to young women who are beginning a medical career, Judy stated that she would not discourage them. Interestingly, she would not recommend general practice, as she found that there is lots of administration and paperwork these days, and much less chance for patient contact.
Judy has always understood the value of presence and listening to others. In her last practice in Waikanae, she had many elderly patients, for whom there was not much she could do medically. But simply by being there with them and listening, they left feeling very satisfied with the way they had been treated. “Oh, I think I was just a very ordinary GP, I managed to help some people. The one thing that I did find particularly satisfying was, in particular in my last practice, I had a lot of elderly people with multiple problems that you really couldn’t do very much for. And I learnt that if you were really present and listened to people, that often these patients, you didn’t do a single thing for them, in terms of their medical treatment, but they went away very satisfied and happy that they’d actually been listened to.”