Eleanor Southey Baker McLaglan (nee Baker)

This biography is largely based on material from her autobiography “Stethoscope and Saddlebags”. (1) Further secondary resources are listed in the bibliography at the end. The photographs are sourced from the Patricia Sargison’s book “Notable Women in New Zealand Health: Te hauora ki Aotearoa: ona wahine rongonui”. (2)


Early life at French Farm in Akaroa, Hobart, Goodwood, and Dunedin

Eleanor’s birth on September 13th, 1879 (3) had the potential for sadness and loss – she was born quite small and premature, was baptized immediately and removed from her mother to take her last breaths in a separate room. When checked on later she was still alive and “wailed feebly”. She was able to suck for herself and as was usual in those times was probably given a mixture of cow’s milk, boiled water, and cane sugar via a bottle with a twelve-inch rubber tube with a teat at the end. The teat would have been put in her mouth and the bottle tucked in beside her. Unlike her younger sister she escaped getting mild rickets and went on to live a very healthy life. (1)

Eleanor was the eldest of four daughters born to Thomas Southey Baker and Josephine Dicken. Thomas and Josephine met on the sailing ship, Dallam Tower, on its voyage to New Zealand, in 1873. Josephine was fifteen at the time and during the voyage secretly became engaged to Thomas. Josephine travelled with her widowed father, two brothers and three sisters. Eleanor’s grandfather had inherited a property at French Farm, Akaroa so they had a home waiting for them on their arrival. The little cottage was very different from the home they had left in Staffordshire with its maids, grooms and French governesses. They were practically penniless and Josephine and her sisters had no knowledge of how to even boil a kettle with water from the nearby creek. But they were resilient and learned to cook, make bread, milk a cow and churn butter. Their beautiful family silver was slowly sold off to help fund them in the early years. Josephine and her sister had excellent French and needlework skills, and a slight knowledge of piano playing and water color sketching and were considered “gentlewomen” so were able to find good positions as governesses. This enabled them to send their two younger sisters to a young ladies school in Christchurch. (1)

Meanwhile, two years after their arrival in New Zealand, Thomas found his way to French Farm and bought two hundred acres off the Dickens farm and opened the French Farm School in 1876 and two years later in 1878 he and Josephine Dickens were finally able to be married.

The school became widely known and families from all over New Zealand sent their sons to French Farm. The roll varied from twenty to thirty students. The school had a reputation for fun outdoor education, a strong athletic flavor including the prerequisite of needing to learn to swim in the first semester and good meals. Her mother took the classes for French and music. However, by 1890 the boys were being sent to larger schools (e.g. Christ’s College and Wanganui College) which were becoming established and were also opening boarding facilities. French Farm could no longer carry on. (1)

The family then moved to Hobart for two years where they struggled financially; the day school her father started was never successful. Eleanor attended the Church School opened by the Anglican Sisters and was sent to drawing classes at the Technical School and had happy memories of her years there. She is unsure why the basement of the Hobart house they lived in had a biggish library but she remembers sitting in the corner and devouring book after book. (1) On their return to New Zealand her father established another boys school at Goodwood, thirty miles north of Dunedin. Eleanor was twelve by this time and remembers having many early morning domestic duties. On completion of these she would take a few lessons with the boys about 11 a.m. including Latin. She was a voracious reader and her parents read to the four girls in the evening. She and her sisters were tomboys playing boys games with the students and learned to ride the horses using men’s saddles. (1)

In 1895, at the age of fifteen, she was sent to Otago Girls High School and boarded with the Joachim family probably in exchange for their son attending Goodwood School. This family broadened her artistic and literary horizons and she recalls meeting the famous New Zealand artist, Frances Hodgkins, a couple of times. (1) Her family moved to Dunedin in 1896, where her father became manager of the Rectory, the boarding establishment of Otago Boys High School. Eleanor, attended Dunedin Girls’ High School that year and matriculated at the age of seventeen and sat the extra Latin exam for Medical Preliminary. She planned to get work immediately to assist with the family finances as money was “such a worry to her parents” but they told her she would be going to university to study Medicine and she obeyed. (1)


Studying at the Otago Medical School

Eleanor lived through an era which changed dramatically not only in medical treatments but also in fashion and transport. In her autobiography, she describes what a university girl wore in March, 1897 on commencement of her university studies. It consisted of:

“a black or navy full-flared serge skirt which swept the ground and measured four yards round the hem. Every three weeks four yards of protective braid had to be unpicked from the hem and four more yards sewn on. The girl would wear a cotton shirt blouse, white or striped, a high starched collar and a straw boater hat. She wore black woollen stockings and strong leather walking shoes. In winter she wore flannel blouses or woollen frocks and thick underwear. The girls were innocent of rouge, lipstick, and powder because ‘nice’ girls didn’t use make-up. Corsets were tight and designed to produce the hourglass shaped figure. My own sturdy country muscles refused to mould correctly, though I did my uncomfortable best to achieve the right contour.” (1)

Eleanor describes many adolescent girls suffering from a certain kind of anaemia called chlorosis which produced symptoms of breathlessness, languidness and a greenish pallor and thought to be caused by menstruation and poor diet. However, Eleanor noted that freedom from constrictive corsets by 1914 saw this condition subside. She felt the tremendous pressure on the liver, spleen and pancreas plus the immobilization of the lower half of the chest must have given rise to this disorder. (1)

In 1897 when Eleanor commenced her university education. Professor John Scott was the Dean of the Medical School and the only full-time professor. The rest of her teachers were also practitioners in Dunedin. The classes comprised of between eighteen and twenty-five students, and the curriculum took five years. In her year there were two other girls one of whom left to get married and the other probably Winifrede Bathgate who matches Eleanor’s description of her being a Dunedin girl who did her BSc prior to her medical degree and working later with Dr Lindo Ferguson in the ophthalmic area. The first year covered the subjects of Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Geology and Zoology and were taught in the general university. Eleanor’s memory of the first year was ‘boredom clouded with physical fatigue’ as the days were long (9:00am to 6:00pm) and then she would study for three to four hours each evening. Except for one professor who died just after the conclusion of his Zoology/Botany lecture from diabetes (this was in the days before insulin), the others she found lacked “even a spark of the romance of Science”. (1) One excitement was the recent discovery of X-rays – a small screen was set up in the Physics lecture room and they filed past holding up their hands in front of it and were able to see their bones on the screen. (1)

Attendance for the second and subsequent years was at the Medical School; however, each morning started at Dunedin Hospital at 9:00am where bedside lectures by senior students took place. Often, hospital rounds occurred on Saturday and often Sunday mornings as well. During second and third year, for two hours in the afternoon, they did dissecting without rubber gloves. Eleanor loved to study and during the second half of her studies she averaged third in nearly every subject. (1) Mental illness, she found interesting. In their third and fourth years, they spent two weeks as guests of Seacliff Asylum run by Dr Truby King (famous for starting The Plunket Society). She and the other female student from her year, Winifrede Bathgate, were personally known to the Kings and were invited to stay as guests in their home during these off-site learning sessions. (1)

Eleanor describes medicine at the start of the twentieth century as ‘comparatively simple’. Little was known about the blood, blood groups were as yet undiscovered and the blood transfusions which were attempted often led to death due to incompatibility so were not performed. Insulin was undiscovered and the medications available were simple drugs. Appendicitis was just being distinguished from perityphlitis (a collection of pus round the caecum from a ruptured appendix) New diagnosable conditions were ectopic gestation requiring immediate operation and cardiac apoplexy (coronary infarction). Rubber gloves started to be used at the end of her training and marine sponges rather than gauze swabs were used in operations. The only anaesthetic available was chloroform and for dentists nitrous oxide. (1).

Socially, Eleanor found she was unpopular and a wallflower at dances, whilst her three sisters, “all outstanding beauties were rushed”. She had a close bond with her father and was sensitive to the worry and unhappiness in their home due to increasing living costs and an unfriendly Headmaster. About five months before her final exams she was studying at home when some of the small boys who were boarding at Otago Boys’ rushed in to tell her the Master had fallen off his chair; he had died instantaneously – probably from of a coronary thrombosis. Eleanor described her father as magnificent in body and heart. (1) He was educated at Queen’s College, Oxford where he obtained his B.A. in 1871 (Latin, Greek). He was athletic and was part of the Oxford Eight rowing team for Oxford for three years. In 1965, Eleanor still had one of his winning oars. She felt his education did not prepare him for business training – he was too honest and trusting. His endeavours to provide for his family were often challenging and he died at the age of fifty-three years. (1)

Studying in Dublin, Ireland

Eleanor passed her Finals but to become licensed she had to get a certificate that she had witnessed two births. After four years at Dunedin Hospital she had not attended one; she suggests male colleagues did not have this problem. In March 1903, her mother (possibly using money from an insurance policy) took Eleanor and her youngest sister to England following her graduation, travelling as cheaply as possible. She went on to the Coombe Maternity Hospital in Dublin to access the maternity work she required. (1) The hospital was situated in the slums; the drunkenness and brawls were a revelation to an “innocent New Zealander”. Families often lived in one room, water was carried up from a well in the yard and candles supplied the light. Dirt, fleas, and bed-bugs were everywhere. Eleanor and the other two female students often were on the night roster as the male students would refuse the night call outs but they always felt safe as they were instantly recognized as coming from the hospital. (1)

She then spent time in various other Dublin hospitals (Richmond, Whitworth, and Hardwick) as a ‘dresser’ – a kind of inferior house surgeon gaining experience in the Medical, Surgery, and Fever wards as well as Casualty. In this role she received only her board. She and the other woman dresser were accommodated in a disused ward above the entrance to Casualty. Meals were taken with the sisters and senior nurses with the Matron at the head of the table. She got Diphtheria during this time and was put into the Public Diphtheria Ward in Hardwicke Hospital for Infectious Diseases. Typhus and typhoid were also common and she saw several cases during this period. Leeches were still used, often for headaches and pleurisy pain. She finished her time in Dublin by spending a couple of months at various outpatient departments. She watched the oesophagoscope used for the first time in Dublin where a pair of swallowed dentures were retrieved with forceps. (1)

In May 1904 Eleanor returned on the P&O liner Australia via Melbourne and Sydney where she was to pick up a trans-Tasmin ship for New Zealand. The liner was shipwrecked at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne. No one lost their life and it transpired the pilot had the eye disease glaucoma. This wreck probably led to the regular compulsory testing of pilots vision. (1)

Early Career in New Zealand

On her arrival back in Dunedin, Eleanor found a message from her old friend, Dr Truby King. He was in ‘delicate health’ and had been granted a six month leave of absence for a health trip to Japan. In August 1904, he appointed her to be the acting Assistant Medical Officer of Seacliff Asylum. She boarded on the premises and was well paid at £200 per year. (1)

Seacliff was in the country and the farm attached to it, which suitable patients helped on, supplied much of the daily fare. Many of the farmhands were able and happy to work under supervision but unable to look after themselves in the outside world. Since it was on the coast, Sir Truby had secured a fishing boat with experienced fishermen and appropriate patients provided the crew and the fish caught provided variety to the hospital diet. (1)

The duties of the assistant medical officer were varied and included (1):

  • Censoring the daily newspapers at the start of each day. Paragraphs on murders and crimes of violence and sex which might incite the patients were cut out.
  • Censoring patients’ letters and retaining those that were “too mad, too indecent, or so full of hate or unkind delusions that they might hurt relatives.
  • Keeping case notes up-to-date and making sure the committal papers on new admissions were in order.
  • Doing daily rounds of the men’s and women’s side of the asylum including those confined to a cell. Some patients had been at Seacliff from thirty to forty years.
  • Having the keys to the dispensary and making up and dispensing the medicines, including those required for the farm animals, the staff and their families and often a local villager.

Eleanor’s next appointment was at Ashburn Hall, a private mental hospital in Dunedin which she left after six months with little regret. Her youngest sister was now back from England and employed at the Diocesan School in Auckland. Therefore, Eleanor set-up as a general practitioner in Auckland in 1905 but without much success. She found herself in modest demand for anaesthetics and was too hard-up to refuse them. Some of the surgeons were dubious. She describes one doctor who “got a reputation from parents because he would go to the house after dark when the child was asleep, anaesthetize without waking the child and proceed to take out their tonsils. Chloroform was used in that era. Eleanor would creep into the dark bedroom, slip on the mask, and when under the child would be taken to the kitchen table”. She was very thankful that throughout her career she never had an anaesthetic death or near death despite giving anaesthetics for many inexpert surgeons. (1)

Seven miles south of Dargaville was the dying village of Te Koparu which had been constructed around the kauri industry. In the early 19th century it still had a small public hospital in operation. It was unable to get a doctor, so Eleanor applied and when no was else could be found was appointed “temporarily of course, till a real doctor, a man, could be obtained”. Eleanor reports that newspapers all over New Zealand carried the headlines, “Woman Doctor Appointed in Charge of Hospital”. (1, 4-6) To reach Te Koparu, one took the train from Auckland to Helensville, then boarded a little steamer which went across the Kaipara Harbour and up the Wairoa River.

The hospital had two wards, one for men and one for women, each with twelve beds and on one side it had French doors opening on to a verandah. There was a small primitive operating theatre, a kitchen, a little dispensary and a biggish room used for board meetings and outpatients. The matron, on Eleanor’s arrival, was grim and poorly trained but later married and was replaced with a pleasant, well-trained nurse. The remaining staff were three hospital aids who were not trained nurses. She also had access to three other doctors in Dargaville when required. Eleanor lived in the sizable house built as the doctor’s residence. She bought a horse and saddle and had saddlebags made to carry her instruments. It was no longer shocking for women to ride astride and a local tailor made her a divided skirt. Most of her downriver work was done in hired launches, but the rest was done on horseback. No serious operations turned up while she was superintendent. Crushed arms and fingers which others might have amputated got along well being splinted. Eleanor recounts that her experience at Te Koparu changed her and gave her much-needed confidence – “she had been on her own, had shouldered responsibility and done a man’s work”. However, in due course a male superintendent was appointed, and she returned briefly to Auckland and Christchurch where she again had little success in establishing a viable medical practice. (1)

One day she received a surprising letter from the medical superintendent at Te Koparu asking her to come and be his assistant and she would have lodgings in his house. He drew up a contract for a three-year period and if either of them broke it they had to pay the other the sum of £200. She returned full of optimism only to find that he was “about the worst doctor I had ever dealt with and my alarm increased from day to day”. She was giving anaesthetics for his “awful surgery” and found herself chained for three years by the £200 bond. The nightmare lasted about six months when one afternoon after telling her off wrote her a three-month letter of dismissal. Eleanor immediately saddled her horse and left the letter with her Dargaville lawyer for safe-keeping. A few days later he was over his anger and asked for the letter back so he could destroy it. He was furious and banned her from the hospital; she moved into the Workingmen’s Boarding House and in due course her lawyer collected her bond and she was legally free. (1)

Eleanor was now well known and respected in the district. She rented a six-room timber worker’s cottage at the foot of the Te Koparu Hospital hill and bought two horses for home visits. She fixed up the cottage to be a surgery and started seeing patients there. She grew a garden which flourished and hired “the nicest little maid” to attend to the housekeeping. The district was very, very poor as the timber and gum industries were finishing and the potential of the river flats were unrealized as they were not yet drained. Her country practice brought her many minor accidents and injuries particularly from the timber mill work and there was a low proportion of neurosis. The distances were long, horseback the mode of transport and there seemed to be an “undue preponderance of night work – possibly because people get frightened at night and often with no nearby neighbour to call on”. Some of the night-time travel along the river was magical but on a night with rain, wind and thunder it created a ‘drenched and wretched traveller’. The chief distractions were dances held in local halls – “gents a shilling; ladies a plate”, the local shows where wood-chopping and log-sawing were important and the weekly football games. (1)

Dr Valentine, the chief health officer of the Health Department, called on her in 1913 to investigate a report of smallpox among some of the Northland Maoris in the communities of Kaihu and Kairora near Dargaville. She went to many small Maori whares vaccinating everyone for smallpox. She came across small Maori villages where everyone was ill except perhaps some old chap who had been vaccinated in early days by whalers and who was now nursing them all. Her name became legendary in the area and Dr Valentine’s report to Parliament described her as “a most gallant lady” and she received a letter of appreciation for this work from the Governor-General’s wife. (7) In light of later knowledge, Eleanor thought the outbreak was the milder, less virulent form of the Variola virus that caused smallpox called Alastrim or Variola minor as the epidemic was of low toxicity, the fatal maturation fever and subsequent septic infection of the pustules were rare and slight. (1)

Eleanor looked back on her three years at Te Koparu as:

happy, strenuous but not very remunerative work; the most soul-satisfying days of my life. People came to me for help. I did the best I could for them. Sometimes a patient might have been better treated by a better doctor if one could have been obtained. But no such person could be reached. I used everything I had of mind, heart and body. But after three years I was more than conscious of being inadequately trained. A vacancy for a house surgeon at Auckland Hospital was advertised. I applied for the position – as a forlorn hope”.  (1)

In her MA (History) thesis K Anderson reported that in June 1913, it was recommended the Auckland Hospital Board appoint a new junior resident medical officer, with an annual salary of £100 plus lodgings and preference be given to a graduate from a New Zealand university. Two applicants applied, one male, a Dr Spedding and Dr Baker. In July 1913 the board voted, Dr Baker received seven votes to four for Dr Spedding. In the Hospital Board’s minutes of September 1913, only two months after her appointment, Baker’s resignation was ‘accepted with regret’ and no reason is given. (8)

In her autobiography, Eleanor reports her name was again headlined in the newspapers – her application to fill an advertised vacancy for a house surgeon at Auckland Hospital had caused a furore. The board was divided, and the superintendent Dr Charles Maguire refused to have a woman occupy the position, but the women’s associations backed her up and she was appointed. (9) Dr Constance Frost’s biography in Te Ara: The Encyclopediia of New Zealand would seem to back up Eleanor’s assessment of Dr Maguire attitude to female doctors. (10) Eleanor recounts that the superintendent and the three male house surgeons were determined to get rid of her. One of the house surgeons on a trip to Australia to visit his family was instructed to find and bring back another house surgeon. She wrote to the superintendent that if they all hated her so much, she might consider resigning. He told the board that evening he had received her resignation in writing and the morning paper reported her resignation had been accepted after only one month in the position. In her autobiography she refers to the superintendent as a “wicked, wicked lying man”. (1) In retrospect, she felt perhaps it was for the best as her personal and professional character was unblemished, only her gender was at fault. She entered a time of “deep, black despair and many tears were shed”. Her mother was dying of an inoperable, malignant growth and her sister was now married and living up north. She was thirty-four years of age, almost penniless and without home or furniture. She heard Dr Valentine was in Auckland, she visited his hotel, told him of her plight and asked if he could help with a temporary job until she could figure out some way of earning a living. He said he could and was as good as his word. (1)

Later Career in New Zealand

In 1912, the School Medical Service was started in New Zealand under the Education Department but after the first few years the Health Department took jurisdiction over the Service with two School Medical officers (one male and one female) appointed in each island. The man in the South Island, with his headquarters in Christchurch, had resigned and Dr Valentine appointed Eleanor to replace him in February, 1914. (7) The appointment, just before her mother died, brought joy to her as it helped allay her anxiety over Eleanor’s future. However, Eleanor felt by accepting this appointment she was ending her career in “real medicine”. She thought the job would be an impersonal job of endless reports and office work instead of the personal contact with patients which she loved. On the other hand, her financial worries were at an end. (1)

Her district covered 19,000 square miles from the Clarence River just north of Kaikoura, to the Waitangi River, south of Timaru and over the Alps to the West Coast embracing Grey and Westland counties. She, on her own, was to be responsible for 350 schools with 36,000 children on the rolls. (1, 7)

In 1912, the objectives of the service were to try to see (1):

  1. Every newly admitted child in their first year of school life (which included a physical examination).
  2. Every leaver, namely Standard VI pupils.
  3. A typical mid-school group – Standard II was selected.
  4. Specials – any child selected by any teacher who was not satisfied about the child’s health, or whom the teacher thought was dirty, verminous (parasitic worms or insects such as lice), neglected or seemed ill, or showed obvious signs of skin infection. Every entrant was given a school medical inspection card on which were noted relevant details.
  5. At the beginning of each year all applicants for admission to the Teachers’ Training College were medically examined.

Eleanor reported for duty to the Canterbury Education Board and was given a list of the 350 schools in alphabetical order but without their geographical location. That was one of her first tasks. She reviews her time in the School Medical Service in her autobiography (1):

“For the first few months I doubted I could stand the job. There were everlasting reports and so much office work. How I missed the open-air life, my horses and my patients. I have often asked myself why I joined the School Medical Service. The reasons were entirely financial ….. Later I did not leave the Service because I did not want to lose my superannuation ….. The years flew by: twenty-seven of them in the Health Department. I was now sixty, the age when retirement is compulsory. I must leave”.

The men soon resigned as School Medical officers, possibly to get into general practice and away from the routine or for World War I service. This left four women doctors who organized and practically ran the service on their own. Initially they were under the Minister of Education, Dr Josiah Hanan, who always referred to them as “my four clever girls”. Later, school nurses were added. One year he felt their report did not reflect the “great and noble work they and their school nurses were doing – And doctors dear, how can I get you a bigger salary if you don’t tell of the great and noble work you are doing”. Later they came under the Health Department.

The main conditions they encountered in the schools and endeavoured to address included (1):

  • Tonsils and adenoid infections
  • Defective vision (parents were often actively obstructive to their children needing eyeglasses and in one family they had to keep their glasses at school)
  • Unrecognized deafness (these children were often regarded as mentally challenged)
  • Skin problems including scabies, impetigo and pediculosis (lice); They had a pamphlet printed entitled “Contagious Skin Diseases” giving parents short practical advice on treatment. The mothers were indignant with the pamphlet until they figured out that this was the era of World War I and venereal diseases were frequently being discussed in the newspapers and were referred to as “contagious diseases”. The heading was duly changed to “Catching Skin Diseases” and all were happy again.
  • Congenital defects
  • Rotten teeth – the children in New Zealand, according to Eleanor, were known to have very bad teeth. There were no dental departments in hospitals in those days, so often the work was done in the hospital outpatients. The School Dental service commenced in 1921 and made a huge difference in this problem area.

In November 1918 the influenza epidemic spread southward. Christchurch was unfortunate as it not only had the Agricultural and Pastoral show on the week of the 8th with the big NZ Cup race meetings at the Addington trotting grounds and the Riccarton Racecourse but the city also went ahead with a celebration rally and parade on the 12th to celebrate the end of World War I (despite cases of  the 1918 influenza having already reached the city from the north). People crowded into Christchurch for these two events and consequently took the deadly flu back to the outlying rural areas. Dr Herbert Chesson, the Medical Officer of Health based in Christchurch, was very capable and alert to the growing epidemic and instituted many useful measures independently of Wellington. (11) The schools were closed and Eleanor was assigned to the Health Office and sent to help at Christchurch Hospital and rapidly learned to estimate the outlook for the never-ending arrival of patients – “this one won’t last two hours – put him in Outpatients. This one will probably live until morning…., This one may recover….”. The hospital superintendent contracted the flu very early on and his place was taken over by Colonel Wylie, Commanding Officer of the NZ Medical Corps during the war, who was a very good organizer. He and Eleanor had no let up for over a month and neither of them got even a mild attack. Gradually the epidemic waned and she was then sent for a short while to a country district, were the local doctor had died of the flu, to look after the residual influenza and his other patients. She found the local two room school had been turned into two wards, one for men and one for women and the schoolmaster’s house was the cookshop and hostel for the volunteer nurses. The local volunteers were generous in giving their support – cutting firewood, cleaning, cooking, et cetra. (1)

During the 1920’s, Eleanor worked with Dr (Sir) Charles Hercus, who in 1920 was appointed a district health officer and based in the Christchurch Health Department. Twice in his TeAra biography comments are made on his work with Eleanor: first, in relationship to their goitre research and secondly, on her positive report on Toronto’s public health nursing programme which he acted on and subsequently recommended Mary Lambie undertake this training with a view to setting up a similar course at the University of Otago. (12)

Eleanor commented that North and South Canterbury, the West coast and other parts of New Zealand are bad endemic goitre areas and Dr Hercus became interested in this problem and wanted a survey of its incidence. She spent months collecting the data first through the South Island as well as to other districts as far away as Tauranga. They endeavoured to have observations done by one person so the results could be as homogenous as possible. Before visiting a school, she would have a teacher make a complete list of students, the students would line up and the teacher would read off the names. Eleanor stood at the teacher’s desk and would examine the neck of each child and have the teacher write down one of four letters – L, M, S or O (large, medium, small or nought) for the right, middle and left lobes of the thyroid. Eventually a large goitre map of New Zealand was made, largely based on her figures. Dr Hercus became a worldwide authority on the subject, and in 1924 a trace of iodine was added to New Zealander’s table salt as a result of their research. (1, 13-15) Her school investigations on the incidence of goitre produced some interesting anecdotes including one macabre story illustrating the persistence of superstitious beliefs at that time. Eleanor felt it would be useless to visit the mother to check the following story as the mother of both the student and the baby would have certainly denied it – so the story may or may not be true but she felt it was unlikely the student would have made up such a gruesome tale. From the Standard VI girl (1):

“Yes, my goitre is bad. My mother heard that if the hand of a dead baby was tied to my neck all night the goitre would go away. A little baby died down our street and its family let my mother have one of the hands, and my mother tied it around my neck for all one night, but it didn’t do my goitre any good.”

Eleanor felt one education development she could take personal credit for was the inauguration of classes for defective speech. It came about as follows: in a small west coast school an intelligent ten-year-old boy had good written skills but his speech was unintelligible causing him to become furiously angry at times. She felt The School for the Deaf at Sumner might manage to teach the boy to speak but the parents were poor and unable to pay for this service. She managed to get the Education Department to cover the cost. Within a year he was able to speak with clarity and precision. The teachers at the school became very interested in this problem and eventually classes were set up at Christchurch Normal School and one of the teachers from the Deaf school was in charge. It eventually became a routine service in New Zealand. (1)

Under her watch, she also oversaw the establishment of the Health Camp in Christchurch, eventually buying a big old building on the Cashmere Hills to hold permanent camps. She always regretted it was not on a beach.

One of the great compensations of her time as a School Medical officer was the traveling it entailed, visiting all sorts of little country schools in out of the way communities. The more difficult the travel, the better she liked it. In the early years it was quite strenuous with travel by trains, trams, horse and trap, bicycle, occasionally a government car and by foot. To get to Greymouth, she would need to coach over Arthur’s Pass. In 1930 she bought one of the first small Morris cars and was given permission to use it in her work. In the late twenties or early thirties she would use Air Travel Limited to get to the small communities south of Franz Josef. (1)

Compulsory Retirement

At the age of sixty, Eleanor had to retire from the Health Department. During the depression, salaries had been cut by ten percent twice and income tax increased. After twenty-seven years her salary had gone from £410 to £625 per year. Her superannuation was £280 per year. She still carried heavy family expenses and hadn’t saved much. She needed to supplement her small income.

It was 1940, and doctors, including house surgeons with at most one year’s experience were being called up for the New Zealand Army. Eleanor was able to get several locums but she realized medicine had advanced during her time in the School Service and she must try for a house surgeon position. Due to the war house surgeons were in short supply so she applied and received a position at Timaru Hospital. She received an unexpected very warm welcome – “We are so pleased to see you”. Thereafter, her fear of house surgeons following her time at Auckland Hospital in 1913 disappeared. She spent three months here, then went to Wanganui Hospital. She was then made a Junior Medical Registrar at Wellington Hospital under the Hospital Superintendent Dr Cairney. He obviously admired Eleanor’s skills and as the young doctors started coming back from the war and needed to complete their training, he managed to hang on to her. Eventually, for six years, she became second in command at Wellington’s Geriatric and Incurable Hospital at Silverstream. Initially she saw it as a comedown but in the end, she was happy looking after a vulnerable group who weren’t able to be responsible for their own care.

Eleanor concludes her autobiography in these words (1):

“Between my salary as a Junior Registrar (much larger than my final salary in the Health Department), my pension and the fact that with my position I was boarded and lodged, I at last began to save a little money. At seventy-three, after just on fifty years in Medicine, I thought the time had come for me to retire. I’d never done bad work and wasn’t going to risk doing that now.

When I became a house surgeon in later life, I bought modern text-books, swotted like a final year student and adored it. I liked everyone and – shades of an unpopular girlhood! – found that people, even young men, the house surgeons, liked me. Gone were those poisonous chloroform anaesthetics. Much safter open ether had taken its place. Surgeons for whom I had latterly anaesthetized were competent men. I saw the arrival of sulpha drugs and the first penicillin and the first antibiotics. Miracle workers.

After resigning from Silverstream I moved to Auckland, near a sister and settled down to a rather twilight existence. I am now eighty-five. Hardly one of my contemporaries is left. I must surely join them soon., and I only hope that my passing will not be long or painful. Otherwise, I am ready.”

Her obituary in the New Zealand Medical Journal records her passing on September 20, 1969 in Selwyn Village, Auckland, at the age of ninety and concluded with “and so passes on a noble member of the medical profession”. (7)


Little is known about her marriage to Captain Sydney Leopold Temple McLaglan, a widower, a captain in the Middlesex Regiment and seven years her junior. Eleanor travelled to Britain in August 1923 and married him in December of that year. (3) The August 12, 1924 issue of the New Zealand Herald reports that “the Captain and his wife, Dr Eleanor McLaglan (formerly Dr Baker, of Dunedin) arrived at Wellington by the Ruahine. Captain McLaglan will be remembered as a former resident of Wellington and instructor of ju jitsu and bayonet exercises”. (16) They lived together until at least 1926 but the marriage was short-lived and without offspring. (3) Michael Fallow writes an extensive and less than complementary article on Leopold’s history before and after his short-lived marriage to Eleanor. (17) The marriage is not mentioned in her autobiography (1) or obituary (7) and her death certificate describes her as a widow. (3)


  1. McLaglan ESB. Stethoscope and Saddlebags. Auckland: Collins Bros. & Co. Ltd.; 1965.
  2. Sargison P. Notable women in New Zealand health : Te hauora ki Aotearoa : ona wahine rongonui. Auckland: Longman Paul; 1993.
  3. Tennant M. ‘Baker McLaglan, Eleanor Southey’ Wellington: Ministry for Culture and Heritage; 1996 [cited 2021 16 April 2021]. Available from: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3b5/baker-mclaglan-eleanor-southey
  4. A Lady Medico. Bay of Plenty Times. 1908 3.2.1908. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/BOPT19080203.2.20?end_date=31-12-1915&items_per_page=10&page=2&query=eleanor+baker&snippet=true&start_date=01-01-1903
  5. Lady Doctor. Hawera & Normandy Star. 1908 3.2.1908. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/HNS19080203.2.59?end_date=31-12-1915&items_per_page=10&page=2&query=eleanor+baker&snippet=true&start_date=01-01-1903
  6. Interprovincial News. Timaru Herald. 1908 4.2.1908. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/THD19080204.2.35?end_date=31-12-1915&query=eleanor+baker&snippet=true&start_date=01-01-1903
  7. Macgregor IM. Obituary: Eleanor Southey Baker-McLaglan. New Zealand Medical Journal. 1969;70(449):272.
  8. Anderson K. Beyond The Pioneer Woman Doctor: A Study of Women Doctors in Auckland 1900 -1960. Auckland: University of Auckland; 1992.
  9. Hospital Lady Doctor. Dominion. 1913 17.7.1913. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/DOM19130717.2.34?end_date=31-12-1915&query=eleanor+baker&snippet=true&start_date=01-01-1903
  10. Anderson K. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Frost, Constance Helen Wellington: Te Ara; 1996 [cited 2021 21.5.2021]. Available from: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3f14/frost-constance-helen
  11. Rice G. NZ: How did Christchurch cope in the 1918 influenza Pandemic 2007 [cited 2021 6 May 2021]. Available from: https://flutrackers.com/forum/forum/oceania/h5n1-tracking-ai/new-zealand/20221-nz-how-did-christchurch-cope-in-the-1918-influenza-pandemic
  12. Dow DA. ‘Hercus, Charles Ernest’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Wellington: TeAra.govt.nz: ; 1998 [cited 2021 6 May 2021]. Available from: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4h28/hercus-charles-ernest
  13. Danger of Goitre: School Doctor’s Warning. Ashburton Guardian. 1927 July 23, 1927.
  14. Nothing Done. Prevention of Goitre. Example in Christchurch. Auckland Star. 1927 July 22, 1927.
  15. Hercus CE, Baker ES. Statistical study of the incidence of goitre amongst the school-children of Canterbury and the West Coast. New Zealand Medical Journal. 1921;XX:116-21.
  16. Personal Items. New Zealand Herald. 1924 August 8, 1924.
  17. Fallow M. Leopold McLaglen: soldier, showman, scoundrel . . . Stuff; 2017 [cited 2021 20.5.2021]. Available from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/last-post-first-light/91772960/leopold-mclaglen-soldier-showman-scoundrel—-


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