This biography was written by Ailsa Morrison-Galt and edited by Michaela Selway in 2021 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project.
Growing Up During the War Years
I was born in Eltham, Taranaki, on 25 December 1935, the youngest of five children: three older brothers and an older sister. When they had me, my mother was in her forties and my father in his fifties. He was a dairy farmer. They had met on a ship sailing from England to Australia. My mother’s family had emigrated to Australia, leaving my mother to continue her training as a teacher in London. She boarded with married cousins slightly older than herself. She said it was a very happy time and that she had a lot more freedom than most young women in the early 20th Century had; it was suffragette time. When she qualified as a teacher, she emigrated to Perth and lived with her parents, where she taught at one of the local schools.
My father was eight years older and was travelling the world at the time. His parents had separately emigrated to New Zealand from the Shetland Islands in the 1870s. After meeting on the boat to Australia, my parents corresponded and married in 1915 in Perth. They returned to New Zealand, where my mother taught in Wellington, and my father enlisted for World War One in the army, sailing for France in 1916. He fought till 1919, where he was in the army of occupation in Germany. He had been injured in France, sent to England and then back to France.
My mother returned to Perth and taught for the duration of the war. After World War II, my parents bought a dairy farm in Eltham Taranaki, where my sister and I were born. Following this, my parents bought a farm at Clevedon, where my mother, sister, oldest brother, and I lived during World War Two, it was hard to get farm labour. Dad was still in Taranaki managing the Eltham farm, and my two other brothers were in the Airforce. At the age of four, I was admitted to Auckland hospital with Otitis media. I adored the Lady doctor and decided that would be my choice of career; it was met with derision by some, but my brothers and sister encouraged me. My sister was a nurse. My parents were supportive.
In 1945, I returned with my mother and sister to live with my father in Eltham, where I went to the local Primary School. Shortly after this, my parents bought a small retirement farm outside Hawera, and I attended the Hawera Technical High School. By this time, I was the only one at home. I enjoyed school; scholastically, I did quite well, but my greatest loves were swimming, basketball, and any sport I got the opportunity to indulge in. I was enthusiastic about “House” activities and, as a House Captain, I found it hard to understand those that really could not have cared less. I have since hoped I was not a bully. At a “careers” interview, I said I really would like to be a gym teacher, but I think by the time I get to forty, it would be better to be a Doctor, and I was right. It was a co-ed school, and I think it prepared me quite well, as we did physics, chemistry, and maths – subjects that at some all-girls schools at that time were not a priority. Plus, I enjoyed the boy’s company.
University Studies: Medical Intermediate in Wellington & Medical School in Dunedin
I went to Wellington to do Medical Intermediate, and I stayed in a Women’s Boarding College called “Helen Lowry Hall”. The boarding college was quite liberal for the time. We signed out and gave a time we expected we would back. If we were going to be more than thirty minutes later than the time we had written down, we just had to phone the managers. In my first year, I shared a room with four others. There were three beds very close together, then a half wall and two other beds close to each other. We each had a small set of four drawers beside our beds. Two of the girls had been at boarding school, and they seemed to adjust well. Two had siblings closer in age and had shared. I had always had a room of my own since about age five in rambling farmhouses, so I found it quite challenging.
I failed two subjects in my first year of medical intermediate and realised I had to work much harder than I had at school. My father was very reasonable, making it clear I could have another year at Victoria University, but if I did not get into medical school (the only one was in Dunedin) after the second year, I had to choose a different career. I had money from the Higher School Certificate, and my fees were paid. I worked in retail and as an aid in the Hawera hospital during university holidays. My father also financially supported me when needed. During these two years, my family suffered two major medical incidents. On a visit home one term holiday in my second year of Medical Intermediate, my mother told me she had a lump in her breast, adding to what I was to hear many times in my medical life that it did not hurt. It was advanced cancer, and she had a mastectomy and radiotherapy. The previous year my father had suffered a heart attack and was in the hospital. I was going to Curious Cove in Malborough Sound for a University Camp. While on the ferry, I received a telegram to return home immediately to manage the small farm my parents lived on while he was hospitalised and recuperating.
I went to Dunedin Medical School in 1956 and lived at Carrington Hall, which was a mixed residential college. I was made women’s President, and we were all supposed to be in at night by (I think) 10 pm. I had a key and had to let those in that were late; I had tapping on my window night after night. After this, I moved into a house with three other women medical students a little older than I in Maori Hill: Joan Chapple, who became a hand specialist, Viola Palmer (nee Heine), who specialised in anaesthetics and Kathleen Christian, who emigrated with her husband to Australia. It was a happy time.
In my year, there were ten women. I think we all got on well, though one was older and had done nursing, Roma Wilson. I think I remember the anatomy sessions best; we had quite a lot of talk and banter with the fellows around the tables. The women had their own common room, and the men had theirs. I really don’t think we thought much about it. We shared our common room with the women in other years. We picked up a couple of other students as we went (there were 16 graduates in 1960), but the original ten all graduated together. Perhaps occasionally some of the women may have gone to the pub with the fellows. I came from a teetotal family and did not have my first alcoholic drink till I was twenty-two. I was concerned that alcohol might make me more inclined to have sex, and I did not have a lot of faith in condoms; I did not want a pregnancy.
During my Medical Intermediate years, I played basketball and had even gone to “Varsity Games”. I did not, however, do this at Medical School in Dunedin. Instead, in my spare time, I went ice skating, tramping, and indoor swimming.
In my fifth year, my mother died from metastatic breast cancer. At the end of that year, I returned to work as a sixth year in the Hawera hospital where she had been a patient. The Medical and nursing staff were very helpful to me.
I did my sixth year at Wellington hospital, and they provided accommodation. Roger Morrison (a fellow student and later, my husband) and I had adjacent rooms. At this time, it was rare for couples to live together before marriage. The pill was just coming on the market, and few doctors would have prescribed it. Two years before, I had acquired a set of diaphragm rings and measured myself; condoms had been the usual birth control method. Two in my year had married before graduating. Roger and I graduated in 1960 and married the next day.
Early Career: Working in Medicine and Radiology & Learning to Fly
We spent our first year post-graduation at Ashburton Hospital. In the few times we had off, we explored Canterbury and built a little Yacht. Roger bought the wood, designed it, and put it together. I bought a book on sail making, drew the design, and cut out the sails on the library floor. Later in Auckland, we were to sail it from Maraetai Beach to Waiheke Island. We wanted to go back to the North Island, and as senior Housemen, we got appointments at New Plymouth Hospital, now called Taranaki Base Hospital. It was in New Plymouth that we first really appreciated the X-ray Department. Three brothers were working there (The Allen brothers), one of which was a Pathologist, one a Radiologist, and one a Radiotherapist. Every morning, all the doctors on staff met in the X-ray department and discussed the current cases. We enjoyed our time there. Roger spent most of his time in surgery and I in General Medicine. We both got to do some anaesthetics. It was always difficult for the hospital and for us to get time off together. In Ashburton, we had built the yacht, and in New Plymouth we started making honey mead; it proved to be quite popular and saved us quite a lot of money.
During University, Roger had received a Health Department Bursary. One condition of this bursary was that the government determined where he could work in the years following his graduation. In our third-year post-graduation, the Government sent him to Rununga on the West Coast of New Zealand. Clearly, they could not make me redundant, so they created a position for me as Registrar at Greymouth and Hokitika Hospital. We were at first a bit depressed about it, but it gave us both a wonderful experience in lifestyle and in medicine. Roger had to do quite a lot of his own prescriptions, and we soon started making large quantities of cough mixture, as all the miners seemed to have coughs. He had to handle some serious injuries that occurred in the mine; going down the mine is certainly not for everyone. We both had to put effort into studying industrial disease, as I was seeing the miners and timber workers in both hospitals. I had only been a registrar there for a short period when the Superintendent at Hokitika Hospital suffered a retinal haemorrhage and was off work. Three days a week, I became the only doctor at the hospital. There were some stand out times: for example, I dealt with a woman in a thyrotoxic crisis and a sawmiller with a near complete amputation through a femur that I still remember. It was my third year out, and what I lacked in experience, I guess I made up for in relatively youthful enthusiasm.
I had always had a desire to fly, and now I was earning the money that would support it. I went to the Greymouth Aeroclub and started lessons. It was an Auster Plane and a terrible thing to land.
By this time, I had decided I wanted to specialise in General Medicine. I also decided to sit the American Entrance exam. This I did in Wellington and passed with credit. I flew by charter from Greymouth to Wellington and back. On the return flight, I got to fly and land the four-seater Cessna; it was more of a thrill than passing the exam.
We applied for Auckland Hospital, and I got a Medical Registrar position at Middlemore Hospital. I enjoyed the Registrar position and my colleagues. However, flying was becoming quite a passion and, when on call, we had to be within a certain distance of the hospital. I would fly but made sure I was always within that distance so the Aero Club could radio me. When this occurred, I would return, land, and drive to the hospital.
Between my registrar position, flying, and Roger doing night casualty at Auckland Public Hospital, we hardly saw each other. We felt that our marriage was getting threatened. We made a mutual agreement to change course, deciding that we would both do Radiology. Thank you to the Allen brothers in New Plymouth.
We both became radiology registrars in Auckland in 1965. I now had my private pilot’s licence, which meant that I could fly us and colleagues to radiology conferences around New Zealand. On one occasion, bad weather forced us down, and we arrived six hours late. It was thought they had lost three radiology and one medical registrars in an aircraft accident. By this time, Roger, who was red/green colour blind and denied the right to fly powered aircrafts, had joined the gliding club, and I joined him in this pastime.
Travelling to England and Career Overseas
At this time, the government offered a substantial bursary for overseas study to doctors who had completed four years in hospital service. We both qualified and set off for England. We took the long route to England so that we could travel for three months. We visited many countries. Unfortunately, we were in Abadan in Iran during the 1967 seven-day Arab/Israel War. We went to the airport, running with our luggage that we threw onto an SAS aircraft that took us to Istanbul. We eventually made our way to England and now had to find jobs. Roger had GP experience and so immediately got a locum in Rugby. When the practice was told I was also a doctor, they asked if I would be their practice nurse for a week since theirs was on holiday. This I agreed to (thank you Hawera hospital nurses who had taught me so much when I worked as a nurse aide in university holidays). I was thankful that I was a woman, as they probably would not have asked a man who may not have had the experience anyway. The following week, the other GP partner took two weeks leave, and I experienced Private Practice for the first time. I was called out to my first visit, which was in council housing. I went up the narrow stairs accompanied by a large dog. The young man was about eighteen years old and was lying on the bed. He had a headache and neck rigidity. I went downstairs, sat in the car, and thought, “how do I admit a patient into hospital?” There were no mobile phones in those days. In the end, I did get him into the hospital. He had had a cerebral haemorrhage. They told me he had a secondary bleed five days later and died; I have never forgotten it.
Following the locum work, we both got Radiology Registrar positions in Clatterbridge, where we had accommodation in a very comfortable Caravan. Later, I applied for and received a more senior registrar position at the Royal Southern in Liverpool. Their teaching was good. We went to London and sat Parts One and Two of the Diploma in Medical Radio Diagnosis (DMRD), which I passed. By this point, I was thirty-two years old and thought I should start a family. My only son was born ten months later.
While I was pregnant, we returned to London. In all my career, it was the only time I thought as a woman I was probably unemployable; I was eight months pregnant, and I would not have employed myself. I started doing visiting Radiology sessions at North Middlesex and Harlow hospitals. I took my two-month-old son with me and breastfed while at work. In retrospect, I would have done things differently.
During our early years in England, we had been to Switzerland and bought a Glider (a sport we both enjoyed), and it proved to be a great way to meet and socialise with locals.
Returning to New Zealand, Tragedy, & Working as a Solo Parent
We returned to Auckland, New Zealand, in December 1969. We had built two blocks of eight flats in Avondale before we left New Zealand, to which we returned. We also had a block of land at Titirangi that we were going to build a house on. I was offered a staff Radiologist position at Auckland Public Hospital. I was particularly interested in Rheumatology and General Medicine and enjoyed the meetings I chaired with physicians in the X-ray Department. I also had a daily meeting in the Critical Care Department to discuss the progress of their patients’ Chest X-rays. The extended intubation that some of these patients underwent caused tracheal stenosis, and I devised a way of anaesthetising their throat and larynx and puffing tantalum into the trachea to demonstrate the extent of the stenoses. However, it was always embarrassing to see that tantalum persisted in the peripheral bronchi some years later.
In February 1970, we took a German friend down to Waharoa, where our glider was stored. We had a great day’s gliding. When we were driving back to Auckland, we had a motor vehicle accident at an intersection on State Highway 27. My husband Roger was killed. I had a fractured pelvis and fracture-dislocation of the hip. Our son, David, had a broken femur, though it was suspected he had internal injuries and an exploratory laparotomy. Our German friend had two broken ribs. I had six weeks immobilisation and was a bit lame for a short time. I went back to work after six weeks because I recognised that I must try and continue to be a happy, stimulating mother for David; self-pity was not respected or tolerated by my parents. Waikato Hospital and Auckland Hospital did a great job with conservative management, as it is now 51 years later, and I have not had to have a hip replacement.
I continued as a Diagnostic Radiologist at the Auckland Hospital and in 1977 achieved the Member of The Royal Australasian College of Radiology (MRACR). I became particularly interested in Xeromammography after attending courses in interpretation held by a visiting Professor in New Zealand. I was an advocate for breast screening. I was a foundation Radiologist at the Auckland Breast Screening Unit. In 1985, I achieved the Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists (FRANZCR).
My hours at Auckland Public Hospital ran from 9 am to 3 pm. During this time, my son was at daycare. I set up an X-ray reading facility at the home I had bought in Remuera, and I had boxes of films from North Auckland delivered. I had renewed my pilot’s license and wanted the North Auckland Hospital board to pay for me to hire a plane and visit twice a week. It would have kept my flying hours up and my license current, but they declined. I decided to sell the glider because I realised I was working all week and then leaving my son with friends and relatives while I was gliding or flying on the weekend. When David started school, I returned to full-time work. I was enormously fortunate that my father and mother-in-law devoted almost every school holiday to looking after David. I also had great assistance from my oldest brother and sister-in-law, who had a farm about 25 miles away and conveniently close to Ardmore aerodrome. However, I shortly decided my pilot’s licence was too hard to keep up; it required too many hours to stay safe. This had nothing to do with my sex – it was the reality of being a full-time Specialist and a solo parent.
A New Chapter in Australia
We did not have Tinder or eHarmony or such, but I seemed to meet quite a few men, though they were all relatively brief liaisons. I needed a sport; I had always enjoyed exercise but going to the gym I found got boring. I joined a golf club, and within two weeks I met a man named Max who was bringing up two delightful little girls basically on his own; his wife had health issues. He had a Yacht and sailing became my passion.
In 1978 at an International Radiology Meeting on the Gold Coast, Australia, I met a radiologist that offered me a locum position. During the four weeks of this locum, I sent David to the local Anglican School. I was offered a partnership and decided it was time for a change, so in January 1979, I emigrated to Australia. Unfortunately, the first partnership was not satisfactory.
I was a big advocate for women’s health and had spoken at many GP meetings and Women’s groups to encourage mammography. I was offered a position with view to partnership in the established South Coast Radiology Practice on the Gold Coast. Women’s health radiology was a field the Partners did not feel comfortable in, and I was offered the enticement of ordering any mammography machine I wanted. I also did a few sessions at the local hospital. Once again, I became a foundation Radiologist when we established a public breast screening facility in Southport. For a while, I drove to Brisbane to do sessions in the Wesley Private Hospital Breast Screening Facility.
I had done a small number of medical ultrasounds in the Auckland Hospital, but when I got to the Gold Coast, the Private Radiology Practices had ultrasound machines. I visited The Ultrasound Institute in Sydney; it was inspiring, and I really had to do a crash course. It became so essential in breastwork but also in general medicine.
I became a full Partner of South Coast Radiology in 1981; I was the fourth partner. I had visiting appointments as well at Tweed Head Hospital and Murwillumbah Hospital in New South Wales.
In the early eighties, the Gold Coast clearly needed a CAT Scanner; the Public Hospital did not have one. So, I completed a course and conducted three weeks at “The Alfred” in Melbourne purely on CT scanning. Together with a Brisbane Radiology Practice, Southcoast Radiology formed a partnership and put in a CT scanner. We also rented commercial space in Southport, working day and night as we scanned all the accidents and general patients from the public hospital. Long gone were the days of Radiologists not going out on call. Later we put in teleradioghraphy that allowed us to report from home.
I became an advocate for Bone Density studies and installed the Dexa Bone Density machines in several Practices.
The pinnacle of my career was probably when I was nominated for the Telstra Business Women’s of the Year Award in 2001. I was a Queensland finalist. It recognised my contribution to radiology and my business management. I had joined South Coast Radiology (SCR), the largest provider of medical imaging services for the Gold Coast in 1981 and contributed to the growth from four partners to thirteen partners and 150 staff in 2001. For the last two years, I held the position of Chairperson of SCR’s Board of Directors. I put effort into Corporatisation of The Partnership, as I viewed it as a necessary change in practical management. That was to take place after my retirement.
I practised medicine for fifty-four years, but the last few were in part-time locums in Women’s imaging, mainly in Brisbane.
Life Outside of Medicine
Medicine was not my only life. Shortly after emigrating to Australia, Max and his two daughters joined me. He sailed our Yacht from New Zealand. We built a house with a jetty at the bottom of the garden. However, the yacht was not suitable to sail in shallow waters, and we soon sold it. After we married, I stayed Dr Morrison at work and Ailsa Morrison-Galt socially.
We regularly played golf together. We travelled extensively overseas (usually dictated by my radiology conferences). We also travelled extensively throughout Australia, even buying the proverbial four-wheel-drive station wagon and going around Australia by road.
I could never have achieved in the Radiology business what I did without the seven days a week support of my husband, Max. He did the marketing, cooked nearly all the meals, and collected the children if they landed in the sick bay. Those three children, now all over fifty, are my greatest reward. They all got degrees and are married with “children”, who range from teenage years to their twenties or partnered with stepchildren. I am enormously proud of all of them, and they have all achieved well even with a full-time working mother.
I was widowed again in 2004.
Health Complications and Pursuits in Later Life
I was not surprised when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. Many, many times, I had heard women lament, “I nursed my husband just a year or two ago with some terminal disease.” I had the usual lumpectomy and radiotherapy. I thrived on tamoxifen so did my endometrium. In 2013, I had the usual total hysterectomy, bilateral salpingectomy, and oophorectomy for endometrial cancer. I received my histological diagnosis on a Tuesday. A recommended Gynaecological Oncology Surgeon saw me at 7.30 pm Wednesday night. He asked me when I wanted the operation. I replied, “as soon as possible”. He put me on the operation list for the very next day: Thursday. I recuperated on Friday and went home on Saturday. That night, my son drove me to (I think) the Versace Hotel, where the inaugural meeting of the Women Radiologists on the Gold Coast was being held. I had been the first and the only one for nearly ten years, and I think there were about ten people there. The surgery was no problem; I could remember the days when a hysterectomy required a six-week convalescence and was very debilitating. Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy followed. That was eight years ago.
When I reached a significant birthday five years ago, I decided I had to start a new venture, so I joined a dance academy where I started learning Ballroom and Latin. I have really enjoyed it; it is exercise that is fun. I have travelled to competitions and danced for exams. There are all ages – I suppose I am the oldest, but it does not seem a problem.
I enjoy horse racing, and I have a small interest in a few racehorses by being in a syndicate. I intentionally bought into syndicates where the horses were being trained in Sydney and Melbourne as an excuse to visit. Covid has put a stop to that.
I still belong to two golf clubs and try to play about two or three games a week; at my age, my 24.1 GA handicap is acceptable. I no longer walk but hire an electric cart, as I do not want to wear out my hips. Like many of my peers, I do take an interest in the number of steps I do a day, and my family last Christmas/Birthday (it is the same thing for me) gave me an Apple Watch that tells me to Breath, Stand, and do activity; it is much more acceptable than a medallion around my neck to remind me that I am old and may need some assistance.
I am perhaps not involved in as many pursuits to stave off Alzheimer’s (such as Sudoku and Crosswords and Bridge) as my friends. Since retirement from Radiology, I have been able to lead a reasonably comfortable lifestyle by property investment. I manage my commercial real estate myself, probably because I have too much Scottish ancestry to pay an agent up to 9%, and I would much rather fill in occupation as Property Management than Retired.
– Ailsa Morrison-Galt