Margaret Stuart Smith (nee Riddell)

This biography is largely based on Margaret’s Curriculum Vitae, written material from her son Dr Tony Smith and her New Zealand Medical Journal obituary. Other secondary sources are listed in the bibliography.

1936 Graduate


The Early Years

Margaret Stuart Riddell was born on April 13th, 1912 in Wellington, New Zealand. (1) She was raised here by her parents until she went to study at Otago Medical School. Her father, John Riddell, immigrated to Wellington from the Borders area near Glasgow in Scotland. He was an architect and builder. Many houses in Wellington were built by him. Her mother, Edith May Riddell (nee Turner), was born in England and also immigrated to New Zealand, probably already married to John, as there is no record of their marriage in New Zealand.

For her secondary schooling, she attended Chilton House School in Wellington, a private boarding and day school established in 1897. (2) The headmistress was Mrs Henry Smith from whom Margaret may have inherited her dedication to community service. (3) Margaret’s son Tony was told by her that she persuaded her father (after a significant battle of wills) to employ a private tutor to teach her Chemistry and Physics rather than having to go to Wellington College. As a result of this private tutoring, she came second in New Zealand for Chemistry. These subjects, required for medical school, were not routinely taught at girls’ secondary schools during this era.

Chilton House School, Wellington c.1929. Margaret is seated in the front row, far right.

Margaret then enrolled at Victoria University (1) for her Medical Intermediate year prior to transferring to Otago University in 1931. Margaret’s eldest son Rodney clearly remembers her telling him why she went into medicine. As a young girl of about eight years of age, her friend became very sick with diphtheria. The doctor was called but took a long time to arrive at their home. In the meantime, her friend died of an obstructed airway. From that time, she decided to become a doctor, as she wanted to make a difference and to try to stop this type of thing happening again.

Studying at the Otago Medical School

Margaret graduated from Otago University Medical School in 1936 with her Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MB ChB (NZ)). Her brother Claude also graduated in 1936 and later became a physician with an interest in Cardiology. He practised in Christchurch and had rooms at Bealey Ave. Unfortunately, he died at the fairly young age of fifty-three in 1966. (4)

During her third year, her father died while on holiday with the family. He was only in his early fifties. When the will was opened they discovered he had set aside money for Margaret and her brother Claude to complete their medical degrees as well as money to travel to England to complete their post-graduate studies.

Margaret’s account of some of her student year memories: (3)

ln my fourth medical student year in Dunedin, Dr Marion Whyte gave us lectures and demonstrations of anaesthesia on fellow students and on patients in the operating theatres. I became very interested because after all the lectures and theoretical work over the past three years, here at last was some practical work, doing something which would benefit patients. During the Christmas holidays l returned home to Wellington and a surgeon, Mr R.B. Martin, a good friend of my family, asked me if I would like to come and observe some operations on his lists. Of course, l was thrilled, and while in the theatre my interest in anaesthesia increased and I met Eric Anson and Alf Slater who let me do some elementary but important things like “holding the jaw”, emphasising the importance of a perfect airway. From then on, I progressed from doing the anaesthetic under supervision to being on my own, although probably was closely watched through the observation window. So, from the end of the fourth year through fifth year in the holidays and in the sixth year as a final year student in Wellington Hospital, I was in the operating theatre observing and giving anaesthetics whenever possible.

Otago University Medical School Class of 1936: Margaret is seated in the front row, far right.

House Surgeon Years

Margaret spent her house surgeon years, from 1937 to the end of 1938, at Wellington Hospital. During this time, she was influenced by Dr George “Eric” Anson who had received his qualifications in the United Kingdom and by 1922 had returned to New Zealand and was a visiting anaesthetist at Wellington Hospital. He was recognized as a significant anaesthetist who raised the profile of the speciality in New Zealand. (5) Her passion for anaesthetics, first kindled by Dr Marion Whyte and later reinforced by her encounters with Dr Anson lasted her whole professional career. (1) She applied to take the study course and the examinations for the new Diploma in Anaesthetics at Guys Hospital, London. Entry to the course required her to perform 1000 anaesthetic procedures, 500 of them for major operations. Each one of them had to be certified by a supervisor at Wellington Hospital – Margaret achieved this. (4)

Margaret’s account of some of her house surgeon memories: (3)

My junior and senior house surgeon years were spent in Wellington Hospital and they were very busy with medical and surgical runs. At night there were only three house surgeons on duty:

  • No 1 was Medical
  • No 2 was Surgical
  • No 3 was Anaesthetics

I think I was the only house surgeon who liked the anaesthetic run, and quite often when on 1 or 2, I would be asked to exchange for 3. In a way this suited me, because I realised that if I was to make anaesthesia my specialty, I would need training. At this time in 1937 and 1938 there was no post-graduate training in New Zealand, so I then wrote to the Royal College of Surgeons in England and asked their advice on post-graduate education in anaesthesia. They wrote to say that a course was to start in 1937 at Guys Hospital, London and that the Diploma in Anaesthetics of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons was to be implemented in November 1937. The requirements to sit this examination were:

  • To have been a house surgeon in a major hospital for two years
  • To have given 1,000 anaesthetics, 500 of which were to be for major operations. The major operations had to have stated the initials of the patient, anaesthetic used, and operation performed. The above statements had to be signed by the Medical Superintendent.

In a very busy hospital with the routine commitments to surgery and medicine it was not easy to do 1,000 anaesthetics, so I often did extra cases at night to make up the numbers.

Early Career in the United Kingdom

Early in 1939, Margaret travelled to London with her mother Edith, acting as chaperone, (4) and accompanied by the then Matron of Wellington Hospital, Miss Evelyn Stonewigg, who Margaret had developed a friendship with while working on her ward.

Margaret’s account of some of her memories from this time follow:

Early in 1939, I went to London accompanied by my Mother, and armed with my precious certificate of 1,000 anaesthetics and also a testimonial from my Senior Surgeon, Mr David Whyte. These were to be given to Dr Magill, a personal friend, asking him to look after me and point me in the right direction. It also said that “I was one of the best house surgeons he had ever had and certainly the best lady house surgeon”.

When I presented these to Dr Magill, he advised me to do the course, sit the examination and come back and see him. The course was excellent, coordinated by Dr Sheldon of Guys Hospital. There were lectures AM and PM as well as visits to various operating theatres to see famous surgeons and anaesthetists at work. Nosworthy, Rowbottom, Magill and Sheldon shared their knowledge and expertise with the ten people on the course. We were given typed notes, recommended reading, and shown early and current equipment.

I sat the Diploma of Anaesthetics in May 1939, a three-hour written paper and a half hour oral the next day.

Margaret passed the examination, the first New Zealand woman to do so, and was advised to apply for a vacant position as a Senior Resident Anaesthetist at the Leicester Royal Infirmary. One of her mentors encouraged her to do so in a letter from which Margaret quotes: (3)

Her son Tony thinks this picture was the graduation class, May 1939 for the Diploma of Anaesthetics. Margaret is seated in the front row, far left.

My dear young lady, if you want to take my advice – you will apply for this job – one of the best training posts in England – and you’ll be very lucky if you get it.

Well I did apply and was short listed to be at Leicester Royal Infirmary at 11:00AM. I left London by train at 7:00AM. At 8:30AM the air raid sirens went and the train stopped. This really worried me, I could see the job disappearing. However, the “All Clear” went ¾-hour later. I duly arrived at Leicester Royal Infirmary at 10:50AM. I was the last of five to be interviewed. Twelve imposing looking gentlemen sat round a large boardroom table and fired questions at me mostly about my house surgeon years and New Zealand. Soon I was recalled to be told by the Chairman that the Board had done me the honour of electing me to the staff of the Leicester Royal Infirmary as a Resident Anaesthetist. This was excellent training. All the house surgeons had their fellowships, the house physicians their memberships and the three resident anaesthetists their diplomas, so the standard was high. The senior resident surgeon, Buster Macfarlane, was a New Zealander, the head radiologist, Peter Allen, a New Zealander, so the friendliness of the staff was marvellous. We worked in the theatre from 8:00AM to 7:00PM with a break for lunch, and AM and PM tea. Dinner was taken altogether at 7:30PM with the President of the mess and was formal.

Her son Tony recalls: “Mum completed her training at Guy’s Hospital, Great Ormand Street Hospital for Sick Children and the Leicester Royal Infirmary where she was required to perform forty open cholecystectomies as part of her training in anaesthetics.” She gained her Diploma in Anaesthetics with the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians in London in 1939. (1)

By the time she had completed her training, World War II had commenced. Tony recounts his mother telling them how she was summoned to New Zealand House by the New Zealand High Commissioner who suggested it was safer to remain in England as merchant ships were being attacked in the English Channel by the German U boats. The High Commissioner also told her that the war was expected to be resolved within six weeks! She took his advice and stayed.

She was appointed as Senior Resident in Anaesthesia and Surgery at the Leicester Royal Infirmary for one year and then went to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in 1940 where she met Sir Harold Gillies [a fellow New Zealander, a consultant to the Ministry of Health during World War II and known as the father of plastic surgery (6)], who asked her to set up an anaesthetic department for Sir Archibald McIndoe [a New Zealand plastic surgeon who worked for the Royal Air Force during World War II (7)] at the Bangour Hospital midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Here she became a Specialist Anaesthetist in emergency medical service. (3)

Margaret recounts: (3)

Bangour Hospital was a large psychiatric hospital which was being turned into a surgical hospital for the three forces – so for three months I bought equipment from Gillies and Boyles, machines, to spinal needles and planned the anaesthetic department and theatres. Here I worked with Sir Harold Gillies, AB Wallace, Henry Wade, Tommy Millar, and Noel Gray. They operated on airmen with severe burns, army and naval personnel for routine and emergency procedures as well as German prisoners. These men could speak no English and thought I was going to kill them. I was there when Hess landed some miles away and we felt quite excited. [Hess, deputy Fuhrer to Adolf Hitler from 1933, flew solo to Scotland in 1941 in an attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom. He was taken prisoner and eventually convicted of crimes against peace, serving a life sentence until his suicide in 1987. (8)]

It was also with pride that we listened to Churchill’s speeches which came over the air before dinner, especially when he said “We’ll fight them on the beaches, in the streets – we will never surrender” and also the New Zealand contribution in North Africa.”

Margaret remained at Bangour Hospital until 1945 and assisted many plastic surgeons in the reconstruction of the faces of soldiers returning from war with battle wounds. Many were flyers who suffered from horrific burns. (1, 4)

Her next appointment in 1946, was as a Senior Resident Anaesthetist at The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London. This appointment confirmed Margaret’s intense interest in paediatric anaesthesia. (3, 4)

Margaret recounts: (3)

In 1945 I applied for the position of Senior Resident Anaesthetist at The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street and was fortunate to be chosen. There were six other anaesthetists applying, two women and four men, (one from Barts and one from St Thomas’s). The men were not pleased with the result and took me to a local pub and tried to ply me with alcohol.

At Great Ormond Street I worked with Bob Cope, an expert paediatric anaesthetist and with Denis Browne, the hare-lip and cleft-palate specialist. I also came to give his anaesthetics in private, and he and his wife Lady Moira often had me to stay for the weekend. Denis, an Australian, was very pro-New Zealand and helped them in every way.”

Career in New Zealand after World War II

Margaret returned to Christchurch, New Zealand in November, 1946. (3) Her son Tony comments that she brought back the sub-speciality of paediatric anaesthesia and became a visiting consultant specialist in anaesthesia to the then North Canterbury Hospital Board for the next thirty years from 1947 to 1977. (3, 4) Tony also remembers his parents telling them that she was initially turned down for this position having been “Wellington trained and a woman!”. Her future husband, Carl Smith, immediately supported her cause and made an appointment with the Medical Superintendent in Chief, Sir Hugh Acland. He persuaded Sir Hugh to appoint Margaret to the position as she had six years of war time experience and had special expertise in anaesthetics for children.

Her appointment was at a stage in which anaesthetists were largely self-trained and used a limited range of techniques and drugs. However, her first ten years in Christchurch saw many developments in the field of anaesthesia and Margaret led the implementation of these new methods on the local Christchurch scene. (4) In her curriculum vitae, innovations she introduced included the use of reinforced endotracheal tubes for cleft-palate and hare-lip operations in babies and Neurolept analgesia for diagnostic X-ray procedures. (3) In addition to her responsibilities at Christchurch Hospital, she also worked in private anaesthetic practice. (3)

In 1952, Margaret was awarded with the Foundation Fellowship to the Faculty of Anaesthetists, Royal Australian College of Surgeons for her services to anaesthetics, particularly regarding children. She was the last remaining Foundation Fellow at the time of her death in 2007. (1)

Her son Tony remembers his parents along with Professor Donald Beavan (a medical researcher in diabetes) and Mr Athol Mann setting up the monthly Christchurch Hospital Academic Meetings. These were used as a forum to discuss interesting cases and to present new research. These meetings continue to the present day.

Faculty of Anaesthetists Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Exordium (1)

Marriage and Family

During her second year as a house surgeon, Margaret and her mother had a holiday at Te Mahia Bay Resort in the Marlborough Sounds. They stayed in the main house while her future husband, Carl Smith, being an outdoors person, was tenting. The staff at the resort organized a fishing trip with prizes for the person who caught the first fish and for the person who caught the largest fish. Carl won both categories and was pleased he did not have to pay for the trip. Margaret and Carl met during this fishing trip. She was impressed with his ability and style, as was her mother, who encouraged the friendship.

The war years interrupted their courtship but in 1948, Margaret married Carl Clough Smith, by now owner of Munns menswear shop in Christchurch. In addition to being a well-known Christchurch businessman he was also a singer, poet, and musician. He supported and encouraged Margaret throughout her professional and domestic life sharing some domestic responsibilities along with the addition of some parental help. (3) They raised three children, Rodney David, Anthony “Tony” Carl, and Jillian Margaret Warlow (nee Smith). Tony and Jillian later became doctors, Tony a Gastroenterologist in Hamilton and Jillian, a General Practitioner and Surgical Assistant, in Brisbane. Margaret took pride in being a pioneer “working mum”. She took only one month off after the birth of each of her three children. Tony reports that he has been told she breast fed them between operations! He also remembers her as “a great mum to the three of us who would often talk about interesting cases she had seen at the dinner table”.

Left to Right: Rodney, Tony, Margaret, Baby Jillian, Carl.

Retirement Years

In 1977, Margaret retired at the age of sixty-five years and continued to be active in anaesthetics and was appointed Honorary Consultant Anaesthetist to the Board. (3) During her career, particularly from the 1960s onwards until her death in 2007, she took an active part in several professional organisations some of which indicate her activity in promoting women’s rights. The following are included in her curriculum vitae and the dates indicate those activities which extended into her retirement years: (3)

  • President and life member of the New Zealand Medical Women’s Association – Christchurch Branch 1960-1969
  • President and life member of the National Council of Women – Christchurch Branch 1972-1975
  • National President and life member of the New Zealand Society of Anaesthetists 1975-1976
  • Committee Member Canterbury Branch, Medical Association of New Zealand 1968-1969
  • Member of Social Development Council 1974-1976
  • Member of Mastectomy Rehabilitation Service Committee 1975-1977
  • Representative of the National Council of Women on the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation Committee 1967-1995
  • Charter Member of the Zonta Club of Christchurch 1970-2004
  • Committee Member International Women’s Year 1975
  • Committee Member Regional Women’s Decade 1976-1986

In 1977, she was awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal (QJM) for services to the community and in 1990 the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to Medicine, especially Anaesthesia and the Community and for her work in England during World War II. (1, 3) In 2002, at the age of ninety years, she was awarded the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists’ medal. Only one of these medals is awarded each year. At the presentation she was praised for her “pioneering contributions to anaesthesia, especially with her children’s work, particularly in association with correcting birth deformities of the mouth and palate”. (4) At the presentation, she gave her lecture to the Australian and New Zealand Anaesthetic Society in Tasmania on the subject “Training in Medicine in the 1930s”.

On the occasion of the presentation of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists’ medal in 2002.
ANZCA Archives, Series 118, Item Number 328. (1)

Margaret and her husband Carl were active members of Christ Church Cathedral where she was a lector until 1992. (3) They were able to reside in their Christchurch family home in the suburb of Merivale until she died on the eighth of August 2007 following a cardiac arrest at the age of ninety-five. Her husband Carl died a few weeks later at the age of one hundred following surgery for a fractured femur.

Margaret is fondly remembered for her enthusiasm and dedication to medicine and her love of family.


  1. Lives of the Fellows: Margaret Stuart Smith (Riddell): Geoffrey Kaye Museum of Anaesthetic History; 2007 [cited 2021 29.6.2021]. Available from:
  2. Trust CH. Chilton St James School : School records Wellington: National Library; 2008 [cited 2021 12.7.2021]. Available from:
  3. Weston S. The professional career of Dr Margaret Stuart Smith, OBE, QJM. In: project EMWoNZ-, editor. Christchurch 2004. p. 19.
  4. Crean M. Margaret Stuart Smith [Obituary]. New Zealand Medical Journal; 2007 [cited 120 1261]; [85-6]. Available from:
  5. Lives of the Fellows: George “Eric” Frederick Vernon Anson: Geoffrey Kaye Museum of Anaesthetic History; 1969 [cited 2021 29.6.2021]. Available from:
  6. authors W. Harold Gillies: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.; [updated 7.7.2021; cited 2021 12.7.2021]. Available from:
  7. History NZ. Archibald McIndoe: Ministry for Culture and Heritage; 2017 [updated 8.11.2017]. Available from:
  8. authors W. Rudolf Hess: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.; [updated 30.6.2021; cited 2021 8.7.2021]. Available from:


Print Friendly, PDF & Email