This biography is largely based on written material and Walton family photos provided by her eldest daughter Janet Waite. The photo below is labelled “Swatting”.
Early Childhood Years
Joan was born in Trentham on the 26th of January 1921 to Ella Frances and George Harold Robertson. Her father, an Otago trained medical doctor, was working at the Trentham Military Hospital, having recently come back from France after World War I. They later moved to Whanganui where Joan spent her childhood. She was the firstborn of three children. She had two younger sisters, Margaret, and Ann. Her father, in addition to being the Superintendent of Whanganui Hospital, had a medical practice attached to their house. In the early 1950s her parents moved to Auckland where her father had a private practice in Remuera (not connected to their family home this time), as well as being a member of the heart surgery committee at Greenlane Hospital. Her mother, the eldest of six children, came from a farming background in South Featherston and was involved with the family farming business prior to her marriage. She was quite proud of being the first in her family to drive the family car. Apparently, no license was required.
Joan was a clever girl and enjoyed learning. Her parents were very progressive for their time and encouraged her to become a doctor. For her secondary schooling, she initially attended Whanganui Girls’ College and later became a boarder at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School in Karori, Wellington. At the age of seventeen, due to her mother’s ill health, she returned and attended Whanganui Technical College (now Whanganui City College) part-time, where she studied Chemistry and possibly Physics, enjoyed the use of her mother’s car and met her future husband, Geoff Walton. She never had any other male relationships. Her first year at university in 1939, was at Victoria in Wellington where she did Zoology, Botany, and Chemistry. She lived at Victoria House on the Terrace with many of her Whanganui women friends who also went to Victoria University. One, Ruth Ross (Guscott) became a well- regarded historian who worked with J.C. Beaglehole and another was Janet Bogle whose two brothers were Rhodes Scholars. She then decided to do medicine and completed her Medical Intermediate at Otago. She had time to do stage two science subjects but was not allowed to finish her BSc in her second year.
Studying at the Otago Medical School
Joan commenced her training in medicine at the Otago School of Medicine in 1940. Throughout her years at Medical School, she lived at St Margaret’s College, a Presbyterian women’s hostel, on the Otago University campus. She was President of St Margaret’s College Student’s Association in her fifth year in 1944 1. Eight female medical students lived separately in a house called Athol (demolished in 1945 to make way for the Ross Wing) 1 which was located on the grounds of St. Margaret’s as it was quieter.
They had to work harder than the other students. (Marie Ongley was the daughter of a Palmerston North Judge. Joan was consigned by her parents to “look after” Marie. Joan did not find that easy as Marie was very social! She was not in the medical class but married a medical student, Davis Chrisp, and they settled in Palmerston North). If they went out in the evening, they had to sign in and out. All the women had their own single room, and all meals were provided in a large, formal dining room. She never went flatting so her life experiences, up to leaving Medical School, were quite sheltered.
She was in a wartime class which graduated all eleven women including the following two well-known New Zealand medical doctors; Drs Diana Mason well known for her work with SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) and Shirley Tonkin who founded the New Zealand Cot Death Association and was credited with renaming cot death to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
She told her daughter “We never spoke to the men in our medical class. That was considered fast behaviour.” She had a good relationship with the warden who offered her the use of the St Margaret’s College warden’s holiday cottage at the Taieri Mouth for the weekend. She took Geoff and a chaperone. The Warden was surprised by that!
As in previous years, the women sat together in the front row and Joan was known for knitting during the class lectures. In one class, the men had a bit of fun and wound her ball of wool throughout the lecture theatre. She confided to her daughter that although she was by nature a very conscientious student it was easier for her because she could remember everything from reading it over once. She managed to top her class in Anatomy and never had to resit an exam. Her medical contemporaries have since told her daughter that Joan was very clever. However, Janet does not feel her mother ever reached her potential as she was not ambitious – “she never wanted to outshine her man Geoff”, who was also a member of her medical class. He had excelled during his secondary schooling at Whanganui Technical College. This included being head prefect and dux of his graduation class, representing his school in rowing and swimming as well as being in the school’s first fifteen rugby team for two years. He did not come from an affluent family so there was a high expectation that he, the only son, should achieve well at university. Joan felt his parents’ subtle disapproval of her higher marks and toned down her efforts.
Joan was comfortable in her role as a female medical student and was not deterred by being a woman among so many male classmates. She did not expect to be disadvantaged and was dismissive of men who did not take her seriously. She was well liked by other women and was generous in helping her fellow women medical students who were struggling with the work.
Her own parents were considered well off and financing her medical education was not a problem. However, they were not able to give her much emotional support as her father was overworked and her mother was often not well as she suffered from depression. Although she was not prone to homesickness, she sometimes had nowhere to go during the holidays. During the mid-year holidays the male students went into camp at Burnham. They had to be prepared for service overseas. No one knew how long the war would go on. During the year Otago students could not get back to the North Island from Dunedin, because of the limits on travel imposed by World War II. They did go home for the long summer holidays. The male students were summer man power so Geoff worked in the Wool Stores in Whanganui. There was a crisis on one occasion and Joan’s father had to ask a World War I nurse friend to take her in. As a student, she did not work during the summer vacation. However, because of the war and once she had gained some clinical background, she did some work at Whanganui Hospital.
Joan enjoyed her years at Dunedin and made many lifelong friends with other students in her medical class. She played the cello in the university orchestra, played some tennis with St Margaret’s College, and enjoyed one ski trip to the Rock and Pillar Range in the Maniototo.
She and Geoff took many long walks and became well acquainted with the city environs. There were few social activities and celebrations in the war-time city and always there was a lack of men around. Apart from the Capping Concerts and the occasional Ball, life was quiet. It was not considered appropriate for students to be socialising when men were away at the war. Alcohol and smoking were not part of her student experience. Her sixth year was spent at Wellington Hospital.
House Surgeon Years
Joan and Geoff were married in December 1945 and moved to Wellington to complete their two years at Wellington Hospital. There were no house surgeon quarters for married couples’ at Wellington Hospital, so they lived in a flat in the suburb of Thorndon. They did not own a car, so commuting five kilometres to and from the hospital was sometimes difficult. Joan had to stay at the Nurse’s Home when she was on call. She remembered feeling nervous when called to the Fever Hospital some way above the main hospital. Walking up the hill to the Fever Hospital in the dark on an unlit path, clutching a torch was very disturbing. As house surgeons they received a salary which was enough to live on and to cover the cost of their flat.
In her second year as a house surgeon, Joan became pregnant with their first child and worked up until her baby was born in the last month of her contract. Her last run was anaesthetics and she carried baby knitting in her white coat pocket so she could prepare for the birth during any “down time”.
She and her husband would have preferred to have a training position in a teaching hospital to gain further experience, but the returned World War II servicemen were given preference. Therefore, Joan and Geoff arrived in the rural town of Bulls, in the Rangitikei in late January 1948, with their three-week-old baby girl, Janet Margaret born on the 9th January. They became the sole general practitioners in this large, busy, rural community practice. Joan’s father had sourced this opportunity for them as he knew the Marton doctors were struggling to cope with covering much too large a rural area.
There was no available accommodation on their arrival, so they boarded privately with the local librarian for a time. Joan soon went back to work, joining her husband in the general practice. From then on, her family was cared for by others. They built a two bedroomed house on a spare council section. Geoff told the Borough Council he would leave the town if they did not find them a section. This house grew as they added on a surgery and bedrooms, as the family grew. They lived in the house until they left Bulls in 2010.
Twenty-two months later, on the 29th October 1949, Joan had her second baby, Michael Llewellyn. Again, she returned to work after a brief maternity leave. Her marriage was a partnership; she and Geoff worked as a team and relied on and supported each other. He was energetic, well organised and an attentive father.
They believed some post-graduate training was essential and knew this would involve expensive overseas training. They worked in general practice in Bulls, for four years, saved 4,000 pounds which was a lot of money in 1952 (2021 equivalent is $323,000), went to England where they stayed for two years and lived on their savings. They employed a nanny to look after their two children.
Joan took the Diploma of Child Health at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London. She passed the written exam for the MRCP (Member of the Royal College of Physicians) but failed the clinical exam in Edinburgh. Back in Bulls she worked in general practice, specialising in women’s and children’s health. She did not enjoy living in England as the English were rude to colonials and there was terrible air pollution. Nevertheless, they did a lot. Concerts, visiting relations and friends, and taking in all the tourist sites. They were assisted by the purchase of a Morris Minor, so they could get around. The accommodation was difficult because Janet and Michael were energetic and noisy and there were complaints. They employed a nanny so Joan could study full time and attend courses. Rationing was still present and their NZ family sent food parcels which included shortbread, apples and Chesdale cheese in tins.
Joan wanted children and a career. Her family life was important, and she was a little disappointed she did not pass her membership exam in Edinburgh. However, she never expressed any doubt she had made the wrong decision about her career. She never seemed ambitious about her career – just focused on doing the best job she could.
Later Career and Motherhood
They returned to New Zealand at the beginning of 1954 and settled back into life in Bulls, took up their general practice responsibilities and thereafter, never considered moving anywhere else. Over the next five years, Joan had three more children (Katherine 25/12/54; Andrew 17/7/56; and John 1/4/59) with brief maternity leaves after each one.
A fulltime housekeeper was always employed to manage the children and the household. The surgery was attached to their family home, so Joan was able to breast feed her babies between seeing patients. Later, this arrangement allowed her to keep in touch with what her children were doing. The children were brought up to be independent, walking to school and their after-school activities. Her small, supportive community of Bulls allowed her to organise family life well. The only rule Janet can remember was the need to be home before it was dark. From the age of eleven, the children went to boarding school; these included Marsden School and Scots College in Wellington and St Georges Prep School and Whanganui Collegiate School in Whanganui.
Throughout the decades she enjoyed sharing the busy general practice with her supportive partner and husband Geoff. Joan worked every afternoon in the practice and did her Ministry of Health work in the mornings, Her Ministry responsibilities included working with the Public Health Nurse, vaccinating (e.g. Polio) at all the local schools in Palmerston North and Marton, visiting clinics with the Plunket Nurse, performing five year old checks at all the local primary schools, health visits at Ratana Pa and doing anything else the Ministry required. Their nights were broken when Geoff went out to car accidents and the birth of babies. The birth rate was high during the 1950s with the return of soldiers after World War II. Their waiting room door was always open, and they were available to anyone 24 hours of the day, seven days a week.
Joan and Geoff became part of the Bulls community. She was involved in the local Anglican Church, the Rose Society (winning prizes at the local Rose Show), a friends’ lunch group which met from 1966 until she left Bulls in 2010. She and Geoff enjoyed a wide selection of the arts including chamber music, ballet, opera, and various concerts in Palmerston North.
She stayed abreast in the medical field by attending the weekly medical meetings at Palmerston North Hospital and the Ministry of Health conferences in Wellington. Their home was filled with British Medical Journals which she would try to read during her odd spare minute. She was active in the Palmerston North branch of the New Zealand Medical Association. She vividly remembered attending her first branch meeting in the late nineteen forties and her colleagues ignoring her. She was probably the only woman present and felt the disapproval of the male profession. Over the decades, attitudes changed and in the 1990s, she was the President of the Palmerston North branch of the New Zealand Medical Association.
Joan loved her work and never had a sick day until her retirement in 1991, aged seventy. They had a happy retirement, and she continued her interests developed over the previous decades. These included the reading of countless non-fiction books, particularly New Zealand history, tramping through the New Zealand bush, camping holidays, her garden, botany, sewing, knitting, entertaining, and keeping up with the wider family. Joan managed her busy life with determination and drive, but her eldest daughter believes she was disappointed professionally. Deep down she was ambitious, and her busy domestic life distracted her. She was a “perfectionist and a puritan” with honesty, responsibility, hard work and self-control as a core part of her ethics. Her daughter reflects on her mother:
“She loved saving to go to England and pretty much continued in this same vein through the decades! They worked hard and did make a lot of money but Mum always reminded me of the savings she made; making clothes, bottling fruit, making marmalade, sewing in the evenings. A heritage from her own mother’s farming background. At the end of her life, she felt disappointed she had not contributed more professionally. I think she was so occupied managing everything she did not have any energy left over for her own career advancement.”
They did enjoy ten happy, active years of retirement. They spent a lot of time at their bach in Miro Bay, Pelorus Sounds and they enjoyed their gorgeous garden. Geoff was an excellent gardener.
On retirement the community of Bulls jointly recognized the huge contribution of this husband-wife team over the previous four and a half decades. In the 1993 Queen’s Birthday Honours they were awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for public service2.
In 2010, due to Geoff’s declining health, they moved to Sprott House in Karori (a residential aged rest home and hospital) as it was close to where two of their children lived. Geoff passed away on the 16th April 2015. For the last ten years of his life Joan looked after Geoff who suffered from dementia. She was devoted and conscientious, but it was a very difficult time because their roles were reversed. Joan passed away on 19 December 2017 at the age of ninety-six.
A local woman said of Joan:
“She had a great and good influence on the district, she was a strong woman with her own standards, a great example and a leader, but gentle, kind, loyal and generous. She was proud of her profession, loved her work and was a great example in her marriage and relationship with her husband”.
- Grant, S. Vision for the Future: A centennial History of St Margaret’s College, Dunedin 1911-2011. Dunedin: Spectrum Print: 2010.
- 1993 Birthday Honours (New Zealand) – Wikipedia Accessed 22.09.2021.