This biography is largely based on family reminisces written by Gertrude’s late son-in-law Dr Richard Bush. Lois and Richard’s two sons, Tony and Chris Bush, also supplied collected articles and Bush Family photos for this biography. Secondary sources are listed in the bibliography at the end.
Early Childhood Years
Emma “Gertrude” Atmore was born in Coromandel township to George Hubert Applegate and Eliza Applegate (nee Turvey) in 1894. Her father, born at Bradford-on-Avon, England in 1860, had attended Heidelberg University, Germany prior to his immigration as a young man to New Zealand. His father was a manufacturer. Eliza was born in Worcester, England, (DOB unknown). It is thought her family were woollen millers. Hubert and Eliza were married in Christchurch in May 1887, at the ages of twenty-seven and twenty-five years, respectively. They moved at some point to the township of Coromandel where Hubert owned the local hardware store. The family lived in Firlawn House, which was considered one of the grander homes in the township but unfortunately is now derelict. Gertrude had three older sisters (Eva 1889, Blanche 1891 who only lived for three hours, and Frances 1892) and one younger sister (Gwendolyn 1902).
Gertrude showed early academic ability. For her secondary schooling she was sent by boat from Coromandel township to Auckland where she was a boarder at Auckland Girls Grammar School, having won a Junior National Scholarship. (1) In the Forms 5 and 6 she won first prizes for both Mathematics and Science. She was determined to go to Otago Medical School, and in that era, admission required the candidate to have proficiency in a foreign language. Therefore, in her final year, in addition to Latin, she took German and squeezed a three-year curriculum into one year. (1) According to the family history, she topped the whole of New Zealand in German that year. She was admitted to Medical School! Her father was not well off and told Gertrude if she missed a subject then “home she would come”.
Studying at the Otago Medical School
Gertrude enrolled in the period when the length of medical school was still five rather than six years. It is not known if she attended Auckland University for her Medical Intermediate or whether she did this at The University of Otago. Outside of her studies, she was a very good tennis player up to the provincial level and was awarded a University Blue.
Gertrude was the 24th women to graduate from Otago Medical School and the only women in her graduation class of 1919. One of her fellow undergraduates remarked on how the quality of life for women students altered with the arrival of the beautiful, fair-haired girl from Coromandel – they called her “The Golden Girl”. (1) It was a very male dominated environment and there were certain lectures she was not able to attend because “they dealt with subjects unseemly for a lady” but she was still expected to be able to answer any exam questions on that topic.
Gertrude commenced her career for a short time at Thames Hospital and then in 1921 she became superintendent of the Ōtaki Tuberculosis Sanatorium. From 1919, the sanatorium only accepted female patients (2); perhaps why she was offered this position so early in her career.
Prior to her marriage in 1922, she was based at Coromandel Township and was Medical Superintendent for Coromandel. She used to travel on the “Lady Jocelyn” down to Mercury Bay Hospital in Whitianga (approximately 65 nautical miles, 8 hours travel time at 8 knots). Local farmers would be waiting to take her to any patients needing attention. Then she would travel back, probably overnight, often running to catch the boat before it left for her Coromandel township home. (1, 3)
In April 1922, Gertrude married Charles Frederick Atmore, a barrister and solicitor of Ōtaki. He had been awarded a Military Cross and Bar during World War I and probably could have had an illustrious career in the capital but chose to serve the rural town of Otaki, including the civil duties of mayor for nearly two decades. (4)
Later Career and Motherhood
Gertrude set up and ran a busy medical practice with a special interest in obstetrics from their home in Domain Road, Ōtaki where she lived for the remainder of her life. In addition to the surgery, there was a tennis court at the front and a large piece of ground at the back. Charles had a herd of cows on his farm out on Convent Road, run by a farm manager, but on the home property he had some laying hens and two beautiful Jersey cows which he hand-milked himself. They were his pride and joy. (5)
Gertrude was involved in the development of the Ōtaki Child Health Camp and served voluntarily in the early years as its Medical Officer. She was also the visiting Medical Officer for the Ōtaki Sanatorium. In addition, she was closely associated with the care of the large Ōtaki population of Māori people and had a keen sense of duty towards their welfare. She based her practice on obstetrics and became greatly loved by her patients. (1) In 1930, she collaborated with Dr Doris Gordon to establish the Chair of Obstetrics at Otago Medical School and initiated a local appeal for funds. (1) During the depression, she helped with the birth of more than 100 children and was reputedly paid for only one of the births. She would travel with her bicycle by train to Te Horo (5 km) in the south and Manakau (5 Km) in the north. After attending her patients in these rural areas, she would then cycle back to Ōtaki. (1, 6)
Life was busy; in addition to her duties as a general practitioner, Gertrude carried out her responsibilities as a wife and a mother to her two children, Colin born in 1925 and Lois in 1929.
She also supported her husband as mayor (from 1929 to 1933 and then again 1938 to 1953) and took on the office of Lady Mayoress for twenty years; a period which covered the Great Depression and the start of World War II. Her medical knowledge and wide acquaintance with the people of the borough made her ideally fitted to discharge the social welfare duties of this public office. (7) As Mayoress, the duty of entertaining the military personnel from the United States army camps (Camp MacKay and Camp Russell) at what is now Queen Elizabeth Park, (8) was thrust upon her. During the war she was Chairman of the Ōtaki Women’s Emergency Committee, helping in all the wartime activities concerning the women, including the organising of parcels for overseas. (1)
Into this very full life, she was able to fit in her interests in sport, particularly tennis, and her social interests, which included bridge, flower arranging and collecting antiques. She was described as always beautifully groomed and attractively dressed, with feminine attire being one of her interests. (1) One resident remembers her high heels, her floral, belted print dresses in the summer and tweeds, cardigans, and brogues in the winter. (9)
“She was strikingly beautiful, a tall, statuesque woman with a quick intelligent mind and wide interests. She was an astute medical practitioner, with a large practice of devoted patients, as I found when I did a 9-month locum for her in 1955 when she went to Europe and Britain for an overseas holiday. She was a most memorable and lovely lady.”
Due to ill health from breast cancer, Gertrude retired in December 1957 at the age of 64. She died, in her own home in Domain Road, after several months of illness on February 24th, 1959. In remembrance of the esteem with which the Ōtaki Māori people held her, she was afforded a ceremony at Raukawa Marae prior to her church funeral. It was one of the largest attendances for a tangi at the Marae (6) with Pākehā, Māori and Chinese all paying their respects. Following a short ceremony at the Marae, her casket was draped with a chieftain’s cloak made of korowai feathers; this highest honour for a chieftain showed how highly esteemed she was. It was then taken to the Ōtaki Rangiatea Church, specially offered by the Māori people, as a fitting place to say farewell. (1)
Gertrude was greatly loved and esteemed by the Ōtaki community. In 1964, a clocktower was dedicated in her honour. It includes a stone wall enclosing memorial seats and a stone column surmounted with a clock. (10) Mayor Otho Yates at the 1964 dedication, read the clock tower inscription: “May I appeal to you as you pass by and glance at this evidence of affection and love of the women of Ōtaki, to emulate the indomitable spirit of service so nobly shown by Doctor Gertrude Atmore.” (6) The entrance to the library has an inscription on a large stone to their “Beloved physician for 37 years and Mayoress of Otaki for 19 years”. The “supper room” at the Memorial Hall in Ōtaki is named the Gertrude Atmore Lounge. (6)
When Ōtaki College opened in 1960, the Atmore family made an endowment to create the Dr Gertrude Atmore Memorial, the annual income to be applied to three prizes: for dux, for the pupil in lower forms showing promise in science subjects and for the Māori student showing the most promise during the year. (1) Her memory lives on in the community through these yearly prizes.
Gertrude was survived by her husband Charles, her son Colin, a farmer in the Otaki area, and his wife Deirdre and their four grandchildren, and daughter, Mrs Lois Bush, a qualified dietician, and her husband, the paediatrician Dr R.T. Bush of Lower Hutt Hospital and their five grandchildren. (11) Charles, who spent his final years living with his son and daughter-in-law, Colin and Deirdre, initially would go into the office each day and return for his lunch. He passed away in 1970 at the age of 76 from a heart attack.
A nursing sister who was associated for some time with Dr Atmore in her work paid this tribute:
“I admired Dr Gertrude more than almost anyone I have met, and I loved her ….. No one I have ever known has lived so joyously or given so freely to her fellows.” (7)
- McLellan B. Doctor Gertrude Atmore Beloved Physician. Otaki Historical Journal. 1987(10):40-1.
- Otaki Sanatorium Palmerston North: Palmerston North City Library. Available from: https://manawatuheritage.pncc.govt.nz/item/e5ecc592-c713-4fb5-955f-f7f330b44feb#tab-item-description
- Hospital: 19 Buffalo Beach Rd, Mercury Bay, Whitianga Wellington: Heritage New Zealand; 1986. Available from: https://www.heritage.org.nz/the-list/details/4631
- Roach RT. The brave and modest Charles Atmore. Otaki Historical Journal. 2012(34):18-20.
- Lutz J. How I came to Otaki for a short time only. Otaki Mail. 1929 28 August 1929:61-2.
- Who was Gertrude Atmore? Otaki: Otaki Today; 2019 [updated 18.07.2019]. Available from: https://otakitoday.com/Who%20was%20Gertrude%20Atmore%3F
- Obituary: Emma Gertrude Atmore. New Zealand Medical Journal. 1959;LVIII:398-9.
- Queen Elizabeth Park, New Zealand: Wikipedia: The Free Enchylopedia; [updated 12.09.2021]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Elizabeth_Park,_New_Zealand
- Hyland QR. Dear Doctor. Otaki Historical Journal. 2002(24):34-5.
- McLellan B. Woman doctor remembered. The Evening Post. 1987 09.06.1987.
- Bills R. Death of Dr Atmore Will Be Loss to Town and Medical Profession. Horowhenua Chronicle [Obituary]. 1959 25.02.1959.