This biography is largely based on material from Frances’ autobiography “Lady Doctor Vintage Model”. Her daughter Gay Dunckley checked this written biography and was able to add family details not found in the book. She also provided a graduation photo. Further secondary resources are listed in the bibliography at the end.
Early life in Stratford
Frances Isabella Preston was born in Stratford, New Zealand on 18 July 1898 to James McAllister, a well- known photographer, and Helen Frederica, nee Coombridge. (1) Frances was the eldest of their seven children – Frances, Campbell, Donald, James, Bruce, little sister Helen and Ian. Frances’ mother also raised Margaret, her brother Wilfred’s baby girl, as his wife died during childbirth a year after the birth of Ian.
Stratford, a small rural town situated in the Taranaki region on the Pātea River, serviced the surrounding rural area. Although the local library was limited, Frances’ father was an “insatiable reader” and built up a personal, varied library which he added to regularly. They also had the Encyclopaedia Britannica and her father subscribed to The Studio and Royal Academy magazines which all enhanced Frances’ education. (2) Their chief sources of entertainment were family musical evenings and in playing chamber music. Frances learnt to play the viola and the piano and in later years played the church organ.
Stratford High School was known to have a good academic program but, as was common with other district high schools with limited teaching staff, was only able to offer two courses – academic and rural. English was a compulsory subject for both courses. The academic course comprised mostly students destined for university and a professional career. For matriculation (the forerunner of the university entrance exam) one had to pass five subjects, which for Frances included English, French, Latin (compulsory for entrance to medical school), botany and mathematics (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry). (2) Frances was Dux of the school in her graduation year and her daughter Gay understood she won a National Scholarship on graduation.
Frances recalls that “Our upbringing in those days did not foster independence or encourage individuality; we were not taught to think for ourselves; we learned only what our teachers told us to learn; it seemed unnecessary to delve any deeper into any subject unless it held some particular interest for one as an individual. General knowledge was generally picked up at home, from wide reading or intelligent parents, rather than at school. Hard-working families had little or no social life outside the activities of personal friends or the church”. (2) From this early background, Frances, and her fellow Stratford classmate Augusta Manoy, straight out of high school, set off for Dunedin in early 1917.
Studying at the Otago Medical School
Although Frances does not specifically state what her parents thought of her entering medicine, these comments from her nephew Robert McAllister indicate they were supportive. “Frances was 4 years older than her brother Donald. Both were keen on studying medicine, probably influenced by a family friend and the Stratford GP Dr Steven. The family resources could only support Frances, so Donald took up pharmacy. He had a business in Inglewood and in the mid-thirties had sufficient finance to study medicine himself. I remember my aunt saying that a strong memory from her medical career was the lack of support for women doctors, particularly from some of the nursing staff.” (3)
She obtained a scholarship from the Taranaki Scholarship Endowment Fund, a small legacy lying quietly in the bank accumulating funds which was discovered around 1914-1918. Without this scholarship of £60 per year for five years, Frances would not have been able to afford to go to varsity. Her yearly expenditure averaged £100 so her father had to top it up with £40, which was not easy. In her final year, he had to pay £60 for the extra textbooks, and needed to borrow the money. (2)
Frances came from the era where it was demeaning for girls to work. Nevertheless, during her Christmas school holidays she twice assisted in the local Stratford bookshop and once she became a senior medical student she earned a little by giving the occasional anaesthetic. Frances and Augusta Manoy both returned to Stratford during vacations where Dr David Steven, medical superintendent of the Stratford Public Hospital, made them welcome. From their third year on they spent all their mornings at the hospital. As they became more senior, they were able to put into practice some of what they had learned at medical school, such as dressings. (2)
Frances was in the last year to complete the Otago medical course in five years. From 1918, it was six years. The class intake in 1917 comprised 30 students of whom 7 or 8 were women; World War 1 conditions gave women more incentive and opportunity to enter medicine which hitherto was almost entirely a man’s world. Twelve women graduated in 1922, six of whom were from the original class; the starting class did not keep together. Some gave up, usually for health reasons, some dropped back, and some had begun the course earlier than Frances but had repeated a year or two for various reasons. (2)
Frances found the first year very difficult, as chemistry, physics and biology were almost unknown subjects to her. Despite this, she managed to struggle through these subjects during the first six months. (2) She spoke well of her teachers and in particular mentioned Professor Benham (Biology), Dr Inglis (Chemistry) and Professor Jack (Physical Science). Her overall recollection of her teachers is summed up in this quote “Our teachers on the whole took us for granted. Some obviously disapproved of women in medicine, but most were tolerant, some even liked us. We had to be careful to give no cause for offence or criticism and we worked hard – no girl could afford not to. Some women even achieved distinction, but it was fairly obvious, even at that stage, that opportunities for advancement would, for women graduates, be rare. Even house surgeon-ships were very limited, the general excuse being lack of accommodation for women.” (2) p 12
In the third term they started the study of anatomy which included dissection, which she seemed to enjoy. The students worked in couples, often with the same partner right through undergraduate years; Frances states she was most fortunate to have Muriel Bell as her partner (who later became well-known internationally for her nutrition research). Muriel arrived at results by reasoning and scientific method and taught Frances much. They remained close friends until Muriel’s death in 1974. (2) Women sat in the front row and, because these were war years, idleness in women was frowned upon so knitting or sewing for the boys in the troops was done between lectures. Frances was not a knitter so would sew handkerchiefs prior to classes. (2)
During the worldwide influenza epidemic which reached Dunedin in 1918 at the end of her 2nd year of medicine, the medical students were enlisted to help – it was a maturing experience for them. They often worked from 2pm to 10pm or later. Frances recalls “Practical nursing was not on our curriculum and the knowledge we gained of handling patients, sponging, giving enemas, even laying out the dead was invaluable for later country practice. When it was all over, everyone who survived was exhausted; catching up for lost time made continued hard work for both teachers and students. It was a sudden and tragic introduction to life and death. No one could live through such an experience and remain quite the same; in short, we began to grow up.” (2)
During her third year, Frances recalls “we trailed around in small groups with the medical and surgical tutors learning elementary doctor-patient techniques, practising bandaging and doing dressings, writing case notes and histories. We attended post-mortems and examined specimens of tissue in the pathology lab and watched operations from the sidelines.” (2)
From her autobiography, it appears that Frances enjoyed her years in Dunedin, including the social life. During her first three years, a family friend arranged for her to board with a widow and her elderly daughters. The atmosphere of the house was stilted but Frances was treated with kindness, was well fed compared to those who lived on campus and she was safe and comfortable. The daughters were up at 5am every morning dusting and polishing the house which was run with clockwork precision. They remained friends to the end of their lives. (2) During her fourth and fifth years she lived in St Margaret’s College and enjoyed the increased social aspects but missed the good meals she had during her boarding days. At first, Frances shared a room with a first-year medical student but eventually had her own single room. Baths were rationed but not showers, though the queues were long in the morning and it was frowned on to be late for breakfast. There was only one phone to be shared among 70 women. The building was cold and comfortless, but the company of the other girls made up for the disadvantages. (2)
Frances recalls they had plenty of fun and the junior and senior women students of all faculties organized themselves for strictly feminine entertainment. (2) A fellow student, Marion (Mat) Aroha Radcliffe-Taylor, was a born leader and organiser. “In no time she had the girls of our class bullied into forming a Walking Club named Taurewa, which Mat assured us was the Maori word for “wandering”. Every Saturday afternoon, rain or shine, they set out by tram to one terminus or another, walking into the countryside. (2) In 1917, Marion also approached the authorities for a room for the junior women medical students at the university where their classes were held, as it was too far away from the women’s common room at the Medical School. They were given a small basement room which they decorated and had a kettle to make their cup of tea. (2)
Frances was also involved in the University Musical Society (they had to have an audition to be sure they could keep in tune) and enjoyed attending the Debating Society. She also played her viola in the orchestra for the Capping concerts. (2)
Frances was able to spend three weeks in the winter of her final year as a relieving junior house-surgeon at Invercargill Hospital and received a true insight into the life of a busy hospital. The diseases most commonly treated were some that are seldom encountered today.(2) These included:
- Osteomyelitis in children and young adults – without antibiotics the only treatment was surgery which often necessitated amputations;
- Infected wounds – staphylococcus was the number 1 enemy;
- Sawmill and gunshot wounds were common;
- Hydatid disease usually diagnosed by detection of cysts;
- Pneumonia – most often in young men who “died like flies”;
- Syphilis was rife after the war of 1914-1918; arsenic and mercury were the recognised treatment; miscarriages were common – often syphilitic;
- Rhesus babies always died (a condition that occurs during pregnancy when a mother is Rh-negative and the baby is Rh-positive ;
- Diabetes was common – insulin was not used until 1924.
After 5 years of gruelling work, the final examination was in February 1922. The custom was for most students to spend their last summer vacation in Dunedin swotting.
After graduating it took Frances one year to obtain a position as a house-surgeon, owing to lack of suitable accommodation for women at most hospitals. She was always able to make Stratford her home base during her first year and spent many hours at the hospital between temporary locum jobs at Cromwell, Clyde, and Rawene, Hokianga. (2) Her daughter Gay recalls that, as a small town lass Frances had never learnt to ride a horse, so doing house calls on horseback to the small Māori settlements in the Hokianga was an enormous challenge. The beginning of 1923 saw her arrival at New Plymouth Hospital to take up the position of house-surgeon for two years. It was a new post and the local board was broad-minded enough to appoint either a woman or a man. She was told by the Chairman of the board her handwriting had got her the job. She found the board most friendly and helpful. The number of patients in the wards were about eighty and an isolation block held a further thirty diphtheria carriers for several weeks at a time.
Her duties as the only house-surgeon comprised:
- Giving all anaesthetics, – 600 or more a year which resulted in her getting very little surgical experience
- Doing all dispensing for the hospital
- Supervising all wards and being responsible for all patients
- Admitting and examining all new patients, giving the necessary treatment and attention
- Receiving and attending all casualty cases, giving first-aid treatment and admitting when necessary
- Lecturing to nurses on anatomy and physiology and demonstrating practical ward procedures
- Doing all the night work and on call 24 hours daily
- Taking regular diphtheria swabs on evening rounds, then walking down to the post-office to send to Wellington (as there was no porter after 5pm)
- During her second year, the New Plymouth Hospital Board were very interested in the new treatment of insulin for diabetes and offered to send her to Dunedin to learn all she could about it. She enjoyed this 2 month learning experience. (2)
- Shortly after starting, the radiologist had a leave of absence for a year, so she was given responsibility for any mishaps which might occur in this department. £50 was added to her first-year salary of £250 pounds for this extra responsibility. She was grateful she was spared the supervision of the porters which had previously been part of the dispenser’s duties.
Her salary was twice that offered by most other hospitals and apart from the lack of surgical experience gained the work was challenging and rewarding but very demanding.(2) Besides her first annual leave she spent only two weekends away from the hospital in the two years. She was exhausted when she left and had lost over two stone in weight.
Early Medical Career in New Zealand
She went home to Stratford to recuperate following the completion of her two years as a house surgeon. During this time, she did a few anaesthetics and another locum for Dr Steven.(2) She filled up 1924 and 1925 with a three-week locum in Rotorua where she had to travel around on a bicycle, as the doctor did not leave a vehicle for her to use – which was by then the common practice. The locum was a specialist one, for “Rheumatism” – a term used loosely for most aches and pains. Aspirin was used in most cases and in addition the Rotorua patients were sent to the “baths”. Frances found most patients seemed to benefit from the baths and the general massage (in the water) which was part of the routine. (2)
She was then offered a temporary appointment as relieving superintendent of Pleasant Valley Sanitorium (located about 35 miles from Dunedin), which she commenced in May 1925. Frances states “Up till then I had not been very interested in tuberculosis (TB), but not knowing quite what I wanted to do, I thought the experience would be useful, so I was glad to accept the position”. She lived in the doctor’s house along with a maid. She enjoyed the independence this gave her and was able to entertain her friends at the weekend. About 80 patients were resident there – half of which were confined to bed. Only early cases in young people had any chance of being cured and only after many months of care. Pleasant Valley Sanitorium was primarily for these cases and more severe cases tended to be sent to Waipiata Sanatorium located in the Maniototo Basin in Central Otago. Her responsibilities also included presiding over a large TB clinic at Dunedin Hospital on a Monday which necessitated staying in the nurses’ home that evening. (2)
Frances recounts the general treatment of tuberculosis in 1925 was methodical and followed a set routine as outlined below. (2)
- The ambulatory patients attended a morning clinic and the bed patients were seen twice daily.
- Patients were housed in hutments built with one completely open side; a canvas awning could be lowered, if necessary, in bad weather but mostly they lived in the open air.
- Treatment in 1925 did not include surgery.
- Patients had bedrest for three to six months; until discharge there was always a compulsory daily rest-hour. There was a graduated work for exercise routine.
- When their temperature became normal and active symptoms subsided increasing periods of activity were allowed until completely ambulatory.
- No specific drug treatment was given but most were given cod liver oil. Sputum and chest x-rays were routinely taken. Of interest, routine chest x-rays of staff and families were not taken nor were they examined for signs of TB.
- Diet was simple, nourishing, and well-balanced. Some vegetables were grown on the grounds. A small farm was run, which included pigs and lucerne crops. These Frances found were part of her job to oversee.
Following the return of the Pleasant Valley Sanatorium superintendent, Frances described her feeling of being ‘at a loose end’. She returned to Stratford and did more anaesthetics and another short locum for Dr Stevens. But she wanted to settle down to something more permanent. Job vacancies were few and she did not have the capital to buy a partnership in a country practice. Her inability to get surgery experience during her house surgeon years was a liability.
Marriage and Family
Frances describes the onset into her next career pathway in her own words:
“I did not want to give up my profession or the work which I loved; neither could I afford to be a hanger-on-the-fringe any longer. So, in the end I took the easy way out and settled down to country life with a readymade family. It was very satisfying to feel that I really was needed; I plunged with enthusiasm into learning to be, as far as possible, an efficient farm-wife: a career no less demanding and exhausting than the one I had abandoned. From hospital to farmhouse was truly a leap into the dark. To find oneself suddenly responsible for the domestic well-being of a household of eight, after ten years of sitting down to meals prepared by vague background figures – ten years of taking no thought for tomorrow’s breakfast, or preparing to meet sudden domestic emergencies – this was indeed a dramatic contrast, but at the same time a challenge I had to accept.” (2)
The Preston’s were an old Otago family. Members of the Preston family first migrated from Yorkshire to New Zealand in 1857, when Joseph Farrar Preston arrived with his wife Elizabeth and their four oldest children. Joseph established the Longlands Station sheep run in the Maniototo and developed other properties at Centrewood (near Palmerston) and Forestvale (near Fortrose). The management of Joseph’s properties passed to his sons in the 1870s and in 1883 James Henry Preston took charge of Longlands. James purchased Haldon Station in 1889 and other runs associated with the family included Ben Ohau and Aviemore. James’ son John Preston (not being able to find a manager when he was called up to serve in World War 1 in 1916) sold Haldon Station and on returning from service in World War I he established Hazlehurst, a farm at Waikouaiti only seven miles from his parents’ home at Centrewood, and married his first wife Florence. (4)
In 1926, Frances married the widower John Preston and became stepmother to his children John Junior and Patricia Maud; they had a further four children; Helen (Gay) Margaret, Jances, Allister, and Flora. John was a sheep farmer in the Waikouaiti area at the time of their marriage but they later moved to his elderly mother’s farm on the coast at Centrewood (near Palmerston) for three years during World War 2 while John Junior, who by then lived with his widowed grandmother, served overseas. They then returned to Hazelhurst until their retirement to Dunedin in 1966.
Frances wholeheartedly engaged in farming life, which had its challenges during the economic slump of the Great Depression and the World War 2 rationing years. She learned to bulk cook for the shearing and threshing gangs, to grow her own vegetables, to bottle fruit from their garden, to recycle clothing stored away in the homestead from two previous generations into ‘new’ garments, and to unravel jerseys and re-knit into pullovers for the children. (2)
Her husband John was a prominent farmer politician, particularly associated with Federated Farmers, the Otago Harbour Board and the Otago Catchment Board. Through his encouragement, Frances became influential in the Women’s Division of the Farmers Union which helped to ease the burden of farm women who faced unbelievable hardships. (2, 4) She discovered, on becoming a member, that she was the only member between North Otago and Southland. It became her responsibility to organise branches of the Women’s Division throughout the province of Otago. By 1927 she had three branches established and had attended her first Dominion conference at Wellington. She had the privilege in 1971 of attending the Associated Country Women of the World conference in Oslo which fulfilled her life-long ambition to see the world. There are papers in the Hocken Collections, University of Otago concerning John Preston’s involvement with local bodies particularly relating to Federated Farmers, Primary Producers’ Co-operative Society (PPCS), the Otago Catchment Board, Otago Harbour Board, and roading and transport authorities. Papers concerning Frances Preston particularly relate to her medical career, her involvement with the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, and her extensive historical and genealogical research. (4)
In her autobiography, Frances writes:
“Personally, the Women’s Division of the Federated Farmers has meant a great deal in my life. An outlet for youthful energy and idealism, it was at the same time a broadening influence, preventing one from sticking in the rut of domesticity. For me, the rewards far exceeded the investment: though I did put into the cause all the effort I was capable.” (2)
Although she did not practise medicine following her marriage, she maintained an interest and involvement in medical matters. In the 1970s she published her autobiography in 1974 (2) and a history of the Preston family in 1978. (5) She passed away in Dunedin 18 October 1983 aged 85. (6)
- Thomson J. Southern People – A Dictionary of Otago Southland Biography. Dunedin: Longacre Press; 1998.
- Preston FI. Lady Doctor – Vintage Model. Wellington: AH & AW Reed Ltd.; 1974.
- Wootton S. A cataclysmic emergency”: the influenza epidemic in Dunedin: Corpus; 2018 [cited 2021]. Available from: https://corpus.nz/a-cataclysmic-emergency-the-influenza-epidemic-in-dunedin/
- Preston family: Papers (1757-2010). Available from: https://hakena.otago.ac.nz/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/DESCRIPTION/WEB_DESC_DET_REP/SISN%203844?sessionsearch
- Preston FI. A family of woolgatherers : from the mills of Yorkshire to the high country pastures of the Antipodes Dunedin, N.Z. : J McIndoe 1978.
- Wright-St Clair RE. Historia Nunc Vivat: Medical Practitioners in New Zealand 1840–1930 [Internet]Christchurch, NZ: Cotter Medical History Trust; 2013 [Available from: https://docplayer.net/13932642-Historia-nunc-vivat-medical-practitioners-in-new-zealand-1840-to-1930-rex-earl-wright-st-clair.html