Lady Helen Margaret Irwin Liley (nee Hunt)

This biography is based on an interview with Helen (Margaret) Liley in 2020 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project.


50 Years as a Registered Medical Graduate from Otago


Early life and Family

For the first seventeen years of Margaret’s life, she had not considered becoming a doctor. She had been born into a family in which tertiary education and an academic or major business career were reasonably common for the male gender. In fact, her grandfather was the Director of The Dominion Laboratory in Wellington (now the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR)). His brother, having held a double professorship at Victoria University, was now the Director of the Massachusetts Industry of Technology (MIT). His nephew was prominent in business as chairman of the NZ Dairy Industry, and a cousin of Margaret’s father was similarly placed in the sheep farming industry in Otago. These families (Maclaurins, Goodfellows and Hunts) were all well-known.

Margaret’s parents (William Irwin Hunt and Helen Maclaurin) married in 1923. At this time, the area was just emerging from the devastation of the First World War and the even deadlier influenza pandemic, which had severely interrupted farming development. Margaret’s father had served two years ‘at the front’. He was involved in ‘breaking in’ a family-owned block of land for himself, his younger brother, mother, and sister.

Margaret was born at home in a largish house on a reasonably profitable farm just south of Te Kuiti in 1928. From 1928 onwards, the family was plunged into the major western economic depression, known as “The Slump”. As a result, Margaret’s family was reasonably isolated – not visiting town more than once a week, and more usually only once a month. Margaret was not eligible for school until nearly age seven because she had not turned six on January 1st as was required. Thus, she came to know the farm as ‘home’ where everything was available: food from the cows, sheep, vegetable garden and orchard, and clothes manufactured by their mother in their ‘sewing room’ (which was later shared as her father’s office as he steadily became the owner/managing director of a large farming operation).

Margaret came to participate in both farming and household duties, according to needs and seasons. During “The Slump” many farms failed, and her father took over two units, both larger than their home farm, at the request of the Bank of England to which they had been mortgaged. This greatly increased his administrative duties, which in their change from ‘breaking in’ ‘virgin’ land now involved a lot more livestock work and all that that entailed. Margaret was tasked with feeding pet lambs, going round the sheep, helping with haymaking, shearing, gathering orchard and vegetable produce, and helping in all household tasks. She managed to fit in all these jobs even after she started primary school at age seven.

School in Te Kuiti

Country children were transported in school buses or came by train to school from as much as 12 miles distant. Margaret and her brothers had to be ready at the gate by 8 a.m. Since they were on the first of the bus’s two runs, they had to leave as soon as the bell rang at the end of the school day, so they had little time to join in with the town kids’ activities. By the time Margaret was at school, the director of education in Wellington had decreed that pupils were not to be informed of where they stood academically in the class and not to be advanced more than annually. Thus, through primary school she was generally older than the class average and had time on her hands to misbehave. The headmaster called in her parents to complain about her behaviour. Her older brother was already at boarding school and, following the trend, she departed to Hamilton as the Second World War was commencing in 1940 for Form One.

Coincidentally, Bill Liley, Margaret’s late husband, a pupil at Onehunga primary school and also a year old for his class, misbehaved and received ‘the strap’ daily from his teacher. When he sat the entrance exam to Auckland Grammar school, he and his family were surprised to learn that he had topped the list by miles!

School in Hamilton: War Years

Although Margaret attended a Diocesan school run by the Church of England, she does not recall that religious teaching dominated in any way. From Form One, they studied English, French, Latin, history and mathematics, and it was not particularly competitive. Rather, her focus was on competing to be in school teams: basketball and hockey in winter, and tennis and cricket in summer. By Form Two, her teachers decided that her ability was beyond the age group for the class. As she was about a year older, she was advanced to Form Four, leaving out some critical teaching in algebra and geometry in which she never adequately regained competence. School lasted for forty weeks with ten weeks at home on the farm, allowing more experience farming at an especially busy time when much additional labour was required. War imposed petrol rationing and later food, domestic staff and teacher shortages. Boarder pupils did not get home except for the two-term holidays and the longer Christmas break.

Candidates sat the University Entrance exam in the fifth form. Having passed this, Margaret spent a somewhat un-progressive sixth form year teaching the fourth form science class using her old school notes and generally assisting where the school was short of domestic staff. She was also appointed a sub-prefect. However, it was now time to contemplate the future. Margaret’s headmistress, Miss Fitchett, had the current head prefect spending quite a bit of time acting as her private secretary, and she foresaw Margaret as following suit. Margaret’s intentions at the time were to join one or two of her brothers farming, as her father had abundant land in economically productive order and was contemplating retirement before long. However, when she raised the matter at home, her parents were both concerned that she might not be able to handle the competition from neighbouring farmers, and she said that perhaps she might study medicine. Her mother had two brothers working as GPs: both advised against that course as they said, “it makes women hard” (four of their songs and two other male cousins were at medical school with Margaret). To Miss Fitchett’s disgust, Margaret decided to transfer to Epsom Girls’ Grammar School (EGGS) to prepare herself for University. Thus, in the year that World War Two finally came to an end, Margaret was to be found studying hard for the end of year University Scholarship Examination. “It is to be understood that although EGGS was able to teach to a high academic standard, it was designed for girls who wished to proceed to become teachers, secretaries and nurses … certainly not engineers and very few doctors!”

University: the trials of flatting

When Margaret travelled down to Dunedin in 1946, she intended to complete the medical intermediate year then progress straight into medicine. But the harsh reality was that it would be extremely difficult for her to get in through this path, and she was discouraged from this course of action when she went to enrol. “The registrar reminded me that getting into medical school was extraordinarily difficult at that time, because they had 50 of the 120 places reserved for returned servicemen. And then, in addition to that, those that had a degree already got entrance.” Upon hearing this wise advice, Margaret altered her subjects slightly so that at the end of her first year she did not qualify for entry into medicine, but she did qualify for a Bachelor of Science (BSc) majoring in physiology. She also studied components of biochemistry, chemistry and zoology. As biochemistry Stage 2 was also studied at medical school, Margaret attended classes alongside students who had gained entry. To some extent this was also the case with physiology, which since the arrival of Professor Eccles, was a new degree option. Rosamund Eccles, the professor’s eldest daughter, also enrolled for a BSc majoring in physiology. 

Both completed their degrees in 1948, and Margaret then entered year two of medical school in 1949 and resumed the five-year boarding bursary awarded for her credit pass in the University Scholarship Exam of 1945.

Margaret spent her first year in Dunedin at St Margaret’s College. At the time, the Hall catered for Training College students and Otago University students. There were very few medical and science students, and Margaret found the meal-time routines and lack of quiet for study difficult to handle. She often used to take the tram to a city library; since she was so short and did not wear make-up, the conductor used to refund half her fare, taking her for a child! 

Her second year at the Hall was cut short when her friend from Diocesan, Margaret Corbett (whom they called Corbie), persuaded her to go flatting instead. It was not hard to convince Margaret. She had left the Hall by Easter. The girls’ initial experience of flatting was, however, a negative one. “We had a bit of an ogre of a landlady, who made us sweep the stairs I remember. We used to have to get down on our knees with a little hearth brush and sweep the stairs.” 

Neither of the young women appreciated the lack of freedom, so the hunt for a new flat began. Margaret discovered an empty unit above a women’s restroom, and with her determination, she found a way to climb up and explore it. Deciding that it would make a good student flat, she approached the Dunedin City Council to seek permission to rent it. Although they were not prepared to release these rooms, they did offer her a three-bedroom apartment that was due for demolition to make way for extensions to the Medical School. Corbie moved in while Margaret returned home to work on the farm over the summer and sent money back for furniture. 

Margaret was in for an unpleasant surprise when she returned to find that it was no longer just the two girls living there. They were now joined by Corbie’s widowed mother and sister (Elizabeth (Bunty) Corbett, a 1956 medical graduate). After working so hard to secure the flat, this was not the experience that Margaret had hoped for, particularly as she had not envisaged Corbie’s mother as their cook and house-keeper. “She wasn’t a woman that I could really get along with. And so I used to absent myself quite a bit and have meals in town, and that.” Corbie later gave up her university studies and married a French dress designer from the Home Science School. Bunty Corbett graduated with a medical degree in 1956  and married Robin Irvine, who became the Medical School Superintendent.

Although the flat was very close to the Medical School, Margaret started searching for somewhere else to live. Her investigation led her to a property in the Northeast Valley containing both an empty two-bedroom and a tenanted four-bedroom cottage. Not afraid to take a risk, she bought the property with a £300 bequest from her grandmother and a £600 mortgage. The mortgage payment was financed by the rent from the four-bedroom cottage, which was 25 shillings a week. Once she had moved into this cottage, she cycled to the Medical School daily. She was wholly independent – unlike some of her male cousins in hostels who sent their washing home to the North Island! The neighbour for whom she provided babysitting had a telephone.

Experience of Medical School: At an Advantage from her BSc

Margaret found that her knowledge of physiology, biochemistry and zoology gave her a head start. In fact, in her second year, she was “quite near the top of the class … definitely in the top third.” Of the curriculum, anatomy was the most feared and caused more to crash at the end of the year and have to sit “specials” in February (upsetting their time earning).

Women students generally were “in awe” of Professor Bill Adams, as many will comment.

Near the end of 1949 (her first year in medical school), Margaret was approached by Albert William Liley (Bill). Despite her protests that she needed to study for anatomy, Bill’s persistence finally secured him a date with her. At the end of the year, Margaret as usual, returned to the farm while Bill went cruising timber for the New Zealand Forest Service. They wrote to each other over the summer and continued their relationship when they returned to Dunedin for third-year medicine in 1950. 

After completing the preclinical years (years two and three) of the medical course, top students were invited to take a year out to do research, which would earn them a B.Med Sc degree. Bill undertook to do this under Professor Eccles, whose speciality was Neurophysiology. Margaret proceeded on into fourth and fifth years at Otago. For sixth year, the students were divided among the four university centres. Margaret and slightly more than a quarter of the class relocated to Auckland. Bill, now returning to fifth year, remained in Dunedin living at ‘The Cactus’ as the northeast valley cottage was known.

Sixth year clinical studies involved a lot of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (O&G), which was taught in Auckland at National Women’s Hospital (NWH) and also paediatrics and anaesthetics with experience in ‘the emergency’ departments at the main hospitals. Students could board in units owned by the Auckland Health Board in the Cornwall hospital campus while studying O&G and neonatal paediatrics.

The 1953 graduating class at a reunion in 2003

After Graduation: An Intern in Auckland

Margaret’s first year following graduation (1954) was spent as an intern in Auckland. She did four runs of three months each: her first was on Cornwall Geriatric, followed by three months on Neonatal Paediatrics, then Paediatrics at the Princess Mary Children’s Hospital and lastly on a Surgical Ward at Greenlane. Bill was also in Auckland, balancing his sixth year of medicine with his role as a full-time research assistant to Harvey Carey (Professor of O&G) at Cornwall Hospital. The main emphasis of his work at the time was haematological considerations. When Margaret was a house surgeon for Neonatal Paediatrics, she and Bill together provided 24-hour cover. They became very talented at doing exchange transfusions for babies born with haemolytic disease. Dr Matthews, a paediatrician, commented that this was the one period in the history of the unit which recorded no neonatal deaths.

The campus in the Cornwall grounds on the slopes of One Tree Hill in 1953 contained the hospital – 49th General – built by the American Army during the recent Pacific region of World War Two. This was now divided into two sections; one was used by The Cornwall Geriatric Hospital and the other by the NWH and the Neonatal Paediatric unit. There were also some residential units.

While all were owned and administered by the Auckland Hospital Board, they were independently directed. NWH was there temporarily and had the funds to build new premises for which the architectural design was underway. It contained facilities for various clinics, a delivery suite, wards for postnatal patients with nurseries attached, wards for gynaecological patients, radiology, laboratory and physiotherapy departments and the professorial teaching and research unit containing lecture rooms.

When Professor Harvey Carey was appointed postgraduate professor of O&G, he also assumed the position of medical director. He envisioned this as a tripod facility developed to provide medical O&G services for mothers and babies; undergraduate teaching of medical students; postgraduate teaching of graduates wishing to update or advance to MRCOG; and the research facilities to complement these. The necessary teaching staff were drawn from the local O&G specialists, many of whose patients had transferred to NWH, and they were given posts as heads of the B, C, and D teams – A team being the professorial team.

The main management complication was that the hospital was run by the nursing hierarchy.

Canberra: working made easier by a kind receptionist

In January of the following year (1955), the couple took the Wanganella ship to Australia. John Eccles (their old university professor) had been made the head of the Physiology Department at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra and was seeking research staff. Bill was awarded an ANU research scholarship, which was arranged by Professor Eccles. Professor Eccles also found Margaret a job as assistant to Dr Moya Blackwell, whose practice was mainly O&G. Their first residence was at University House, but it did not cater for families, and Margaret was pregnant with Bill Junior. Mr Blackwell, a lawyer, kindly provided conveyancing for a house that Margaret found in Ainslie. At the time that Margaret’s pregnancy was coming to term, Moya temporarily retired to look after her sick daughter.

Margaret experienced rooming-in when she gave birth to Bill Junior (Billy). His birth taught Margaret several things. One of these was that a mother having her baby at her bedside on ‘Demand Feeding’ is the best course. She also learnt to ignore any “nonsense” about staying in bed for days if the mother is fit and well following childbirth. She and Billy headed home on the fourth-day post-natal from a very crowded maternity ward.

Following Billy’s birth, Margaret started working as an assistant to Dr Marjorie Granger, a GP who did a lot of work in Obstetrics. Her work for some time consisted of seeing patients in the surgery in the morning and doing house calls in the afternoons. Very few of the young population had cars, and bus services were limited. Margaret was fortunate in that she was able to bring her baby into work with her in a basket. She left him in the reception where “the receptionist used to be very kind to him.” By the time Billy was walking, Granny Liley had come for an extended visit and enjoyed taking him out in his pushchair. To her dismay, he was not interested in dodging snakes and anthills but would put his thumb in his mouth and go to sleep.

The following year, 1956, Margaret became pregnant again. About mid-1956, her pregnancy with Helen had advanced to the stage where she reduced her work with Marjorie, who found another assistant, so Margaret took on only anaesthetic and small jobs. One of these was to initiate ‘exchange transfusion’ in Canberra, which she and Bill were the first to do there! On Monday August 20th, early signs indicated labour, and Bill dashed off to the post office while letting Margaret’s replacement know that things were underway. It transpired that only Bill was there on time to assist the birth without damage to either mother or baby. Helen was born at home. Dr Granger, Margaret’s GP, suggested that she take her baby to the hospital, where she was booked, presumably to be cared for by nursing staff. Margaret did go, but only for a few days, and certainly not to put Helen in the nursery!

Bill was meanwhile left looking after Billy, although this was not in keeping with his long hours at the laboratory where he carried out his experiments by day and did most of his analysis at night after the technical staff had left. He had had to learn to do his own technical work as the hierarchical system dictated that professors and fellows had priority over scholars. By about October, he was ready to present his PhD thesis. After receiving the award in the short time of two years, he was able to consider the plea from Harvey Carey at NWH to take up a research appointment under the NZ Health Research Council (HRC). His employment with the HRC was arranged by Professor Carey.

Back to Auckland: An Overhaul of the Conventional Maternity Ward Design

In 1957, once Bill’s PhD was completed, they were summoned back to Auckland by Professor Harvey Carey (the Postgraduate Professor and Director of NWH), who had arranged a research appointment for Bill at NWH. He was the ‘right man for the job’ at the time, being a scholar, teacher and administrator in many disciplines and holding an MRCOG qualification. His specialist knowledge of neurophysiology became especially important in the changing management of pain relief in labour and the whole discussion surrounding ‘Natural Childbirth’. By this stage in their lives, Margaret and Bill had had a long and close association and knew intimately what each other was doing. They also knew their professors well, who knew that they needed monetary backing. 

Bill rapidly became aware of the conflicting interests controlling NWH. On one side were the Nurses & Midwives Board in Wellington, who believed that childbirth was a surgical matter. They promoted the use of anaesthetics when a woman went into labour so that the women woke up to be handed a bathed and swaddled baby to admire. The mother then had at least ten days of bed rest in the postnatal ward, while their babies were looked after by nurses in the nearby nursery and were brought to their mothers five times a day to be fed. This was the widely accepted routine in the English-speaking world, but it was being questioned by the advocates of natural childbirth and demand feeding, which were being observed elsewhere. The main opposition came from The Parents Centre organisation and was backed by The National Council of Women (NCW), who were advocates of natural childbirth. They took their argument from Grantley-Dick Reid, whose books advocated much more training for childbirth, particularly by way of physical preparation and relaxation exercises. He attributed the often severe pain of first stage labour to fear of the unknown and tension. He cited patients of his who had suffered to the point of requiring full anaesthesia with their first long labour but had experienced a much shorter and easier experience after using his training methods with their second. Public opinion was split between supporters of the two different sides.

Carey invited The Parents Centre to supply advocates to come to the hospital to initiate antenatal preparation and natural childbirth, and to participate generally. However, any such move was firmly opposed by both the nursing hierarchy and the hospital board itself. The compromise reached was to get the AHB to create a new appointment – “physician in charge of Antenatal Education” – and also to enlarge the physiotherapy department so that it could cater for prenatal exercise classes. Carey then invited Margaret, a registered medical practitioner, to fill the physician’s post.

Margaret, who was pregnant at the time, had been looking after the two children and finding a house. She accepted Carey’s offer and held this position from 1957 to 1984. During this time, she gave birth to three other children – Ben, Janet and Rosalind – so she only worked part-time at NWH. While there, she was intent on introducing a new look at how unborn and new-born babies were perceived and cared for – both within the hospital and by mothers. She later became interested also in how they were perceived by fathers and the family generally.

Carey also persuaded those in charge to let him start a trial ‘rooming in’ ward in Ward 26, while Wards 27, 28 and 29 continued in the conventional manner. This was a result of the growing movement (particularly in the USA) to allow mothers more access to their babies (known as ‘rooming-in’) and along with this ‘demand feeding’. Rooming-in was the system that Margaret had used when she gave birth to Billy in Canberra. She believed that it would allow mothers to get to know their babies and learn how to care for them before they went home. When the system was first introduced in New Zealand, it was not greeted with enthusiasm. “But there was a huge outcry in the community; mothers being asked to look after their babies?”

Thus it came about that from August 1957, Margaret’s paid duties were to set up prenatal classes for pregnant women, both those booked at the hospital and others, and integrate them with physiotherapy birth training. The Antenatal Education classes included the physiotherapy of pregnancy, films depicting the birth process, intrauterine development and life pre-birth, preparation of a layette, physiotherapy, a tour of the delivery suite, and an opportunity to discuss post-natal care. Between 1957 and 1963, this department expanded to offer five sessions weekly, each consisting of a series of six weekly classes. Those scheduled for the evening (three a week) invited husbands and were well attended. They also encouraged fathers to be present for the birth. Margaret wrote that “The baby inherits exactly equally from his mother and his father, just as they were the products of their two parents. Pregnancy is, therefore, a shared responsibility, and one of the most interdependent conditions of life. The woman can no more get through her pregnancy without the man than the baby can get along without her.” The teaching staff included Plunket nurses. It was clear to Margaret that education was needed. In Modern Motherhood, she wrote, “We found, however, that most young mothers were not equipped to receive their infants. The majority had never before held a baby. Only about one in ten had seen a child being breastfed. Many mothers were frankly fearful of the tiny strangers they had produced.”

Margaret’s unpaid activities consisted of keeping data such as baby birth weights, daily weight gain or loss, date and weight at discharge, breastfeeding, night crying, staphylococcal infection, nurse carrier status and other details, and comparing and contrasting the data from Ward 26 with that from Wards 27, 28, and 29. As Bill was a full-time research officer he was able to assist with observing babies hourly at night to record their crying patterns. All the data kept was reported to the professorial unit, where it was used to determine how the new NWH should operate.

Their findings caused the whole new hospital to be redesigned for rooming-in. The second attempt at design is blamed by many as the hospital’s failure, but it was probably more the result of nurse training requirements. “And the whole of the new National Women’s had been designed on the principle of mothers in wards and babies in nurseries. And so, they had to now turn around and start redesigning it all.”

A few years after this system had been introduced, Margaret wrote about it in her book, Modern Motherhood: “Ideally [the baby’s] exposure into an entirely new world – the world of feeling – should come from his mother. In our hospital, if the mother is in a good emotional state after the delivery, we give her baby to her for a quick cuddle, and then the mother and the baby are both asked to rest and sleep off the whole exhausting business. Before we put this relatively recent program into effect, both newborn babies and their mothers frequently cried following the birth. Now our mothers do not cry at all and the babies cry far less.”

Close association with the Professorial Teaching unit enabled Antenatal Education Classes to confidently expand lay knowledge of up-to-date Obstetric information. They were able to confidently assert that the regular pains in the first stage of labour were caused by the strong contractions of the uterine musculature forcing the foetal presenting part against a tightly closed cervix. The cervix was the source of pain, and it could be controlled by injections into the lower spinal cord (“epidural anaesthesia”), leaving the mother fully conscious. They were able to describe how the unborn baby aligned up ready for birth as the womb became a less comfortable accommodation. It was possible to inject dye into the amniotic fluid, knowing that it would be drunk and find its way to the abdomen where (using X-Ray) a doctor could direct a catheter containing red blood cells to save the life of a baby made anaemic by haemolytic disease. The detrimental effects of maternal diabetes and high blood pressure were also better understood, as was a premature birth. In fact, the baby about to be born was recognised as a sensitive person.

In her book ‘The Rise and Fall of National Women’s Hospital: A History’, Linda Bryder states “As National Women’s Hospital was about to open its new purpose-built premises in the early 1960s, the newborn baby was becoming an increasingly important consideration in the services the hospital offered the public. The ‘neonate’ had become a patient in his or her own right, and even the foetus was poised to launch its career as a patient, resulting in fresh social and moral dilemmas over the ensuing decades. Liley was internationally renowned for having created a new patient, the ‘unborn child’.”

United States: Publishing a Book

In September of 1964, the family travelled to New York for Bill’s year-long sabbatical. Margaret took the children (the eldest was nine, the youngest two and a half) by boat “because I wanted them to see how big the world was.” Bill, who had some lectures to give en-route, flew and met them there. Margaret was paid four-tenths of her salary from NWH for six of these months. As she was the primary caregiver for her five children, she had no desire to register to practise medicine over there. She had the material from her investigations at NWH to write up for a Public Health thesis, but instead, she commercialised the material into two books and many serialised magazine articles. She wrote her book, Modern Motherhood, while Bill was working and the children (apart from the baby) were at York Town Heights school. In the introduction to this book, Margaret declared that “It is to mothers-to-be, prospective fathers, and college students of human biology that this book is dedicated. As a mother of five children, as well as a practising paediatrician, I can personally guarantee that the more prospective parents know about their baby, the happier both they and their baby will be.” The book was revolutionary in that it discussed pregnancy not only from the perspective of the mother, but also from the perspective of the baby – both born and unborn. It was very successful. “And so, the basic thing that was used for this book was all this investigatory work that I’d done on rooming-in.” Margaret “was getting royalties for this book”, primarily from selling the chapters separately, rather than from selling the master copy. The money she made was useful in helping to raise the children. After nine months of hard work, the family undertook a ten-week, largely camping trip, from the East to the West of the United States. Margaret is sure that the children benefited from this trip overseas during their primary school years.

Home to New Zealand: Adopting a Baby 

Upon returning to New Zealand, Margaret continued part-time in her position at NWH, teaching antenatal and post-natal care. She also worked part-time as an Assistant to the Medical Director of the Plunket Society. This was Dr Neil Begg, who was based in Dunedin.  In 1973, Bill was awarded KCOMG for his work as the first to actively treat the unborn child. Now located in the new NWH, there were many changes. The postgraduate chair in O&G was now in the hands of Professor Denis Bonham. He was not trained in medical research and rather emphasised the teaching and clinical application of endocrinology, particularly relating to reproductive physiology. For this, great advances had been made by pharmacological companies, particularly with respect to the production of synthetic pituitary, adrenal, ovarian, and testicular hormones. Thus original medical research went, to some extent, into decline. Nor was Bonham the Medical Superintendent; it was now Dr Warren. The nursing hierarchy, however, largely controlled the hospital in day to day patient care.

In her ten years as Assistant to the Medical Director of the Plunket Society, a lot of attention was given to providing children at intermediate school level in the whole wider Auckland area with Mother & Daughter and Father & Son evenings. The motive was to introduce how the body prepares itself for reproduction. It was not ‘sex education’ in terms of understanding relationships, but rather breaking barriers under which parents had explained new babies by way of storks and cabbage trees.

The Plunket nurses who participated in the evenings for intermediate level school pupils and their parents also assisted with the ante and post-natal teaching at NWH. The course consisted of six teaching sessions repeated five times a week over a six week period. At one of these which dealt with the care of the newborn, Plunket was asked to cover subjects such as layette and baby care generally.

As it was usual for new mothers and fathers who composed most of the class members to have never held a newborn, we were able to ‘borrow’ resident babies from the adoption ward to use for live demonstrations and, under nurse supervision, they were also passed around the class. This seemed to better replace using plastic dolls.

At a baby-care class in 1974, Margaret borrowed a baby who had been at the class six weeks before. It was explained by the charge nurse that the baby, who had Down Syndrome was finding it hard to find a foster placement. Working with Plunket, Margaret was already aware that the Child Welfare Department did not allow the adoption of any baby with anything that could be classed as abnormal – a foster placement was required. It was justified on the grounds that many adopted babies were returned because of blemishes. Margaret felt an instant connection with this baby (Stephanie), and she and Bill adopted her. Her older siblings came to love her dearly, and she was always a delightful baby, responding happily.

When the Plunket Society appointed a full-time paediatrician as a local assistant to the Medical Director, Margaret undertook work with the Auckland Blood bank. This involved supervising collections of donated blood and, in part, involved collections arranged at all the major high schools, industries and services (except the AirForce) in the Auckland region. Attending collections of blood at the wharves and the breweries were particularly interesting.

During her life in Auckland, Margaret was frequently called upon to do ‘a locum’ for nearby general practitioners needing time off. The longest was for Helen Borg while she completed her MRCOG in England, but others enabled her to keep up with local practices.

Maintaining her Childhood Love of Farming

Though she had given up on her childhood dream of being a full-time farmer, Margaret never completely gave up on farming. A major project throughout her life has been forestry and livestock farming mostly conducted simultaneously with 50 years as a practising Medical Practitioner. 

In 1973 an advertisement for Retaruke farm appeared in the Herald, and in 1974, Margaret and Bill bought the relatively cheap property from the Johnson family. The house on the farm was very old (with only one electric plug), the fences were poor, and the swing bridge across the Retaruke River was partially collapsed. They initially overcame this by building two flying foxes (one going in each direction), then Bill built a new bridge which was completed by 1977. This bridge allowed for the movement of sheep, motorcycles and wild bulls. The family’s goal was to grow forest plantations, and they succeeded in being the first to establish forestry in the Kaitieke Valley. The planting began in 1974, once they had cleared the land and placed fences to protect the trees.

The family did not live on the farm permanently. They came and went while continuing with their employment in Auckland. They often invited friends to stay at the farm too – once they invited all 32 members of their daughter Janet’s Bible study group to stay for Easter! Thus, in the latter part of her children’s childhood, Margaret and Bill were able to provide residence within the Grammar zones and in addition give the children experience in livestock and forestry farming.

In 1985, following Bill’s death in 1983, Margaret moved to Taumarunui, where she worked full-time in her own general practice for 17 years. Her years as a GP were conducted while being the managing director of a 900 hectare farm and forest and having other land and forestry interests. For this period, the farm was kept afloat by Margaret’s income as a GP.

The family knew that when it became time for logging to occur, they would need a bridge that would be suitable for logging trucks, as many of the trees were planted across the river. A vehicular bridge was built using money from Margaret’s interest in her husband’s estate earnings and was opened in 1994. It was dedicated to the late Sir William Liley. The logging on the other side of the river commenced in 2011, about 35 years after the trees had been planted. The farm was not only focused on forestry; Margaret and her son Ben built up the livestock farming as well.

Thus, Margaret’s work-life has involved farming and forestry as much as medicine. She retired from medical practice in 2004 at the age of 75 and only stopped her work on the farm in 2019, at the age of 91. Since then, Margaret’s time has been spent with only the garden and dispersal of her estate to concern her. She has led a very fulfilling life and has had a big influence on the systems around childbirth and parenting.


  • Interview with Margaret Liley for Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project: recorded 18th July 2020. Interviewer: Cindy Farquhar.
  • Oral history interview transcript: recorded 26 May 2005. Interviewer: Penelope A. Dunkley.
  • Liley, M. (1966). Modern Motherhood. Random House.
  • Bryder, L. (2014). The Rise and Fall of National Women’s Hospital: A History. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.
  • O’Connor, Kathleen. (2011). Albert William Liley (1929-1983). Embryo Project Encyclopedia. ISSN: 1940-5030.
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