This biography is based on an interview with Viola Palmer in 2021 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand Project.
Early Beginnings: From Germany to New Zealand
Viola Heine was born in 1936 in Hamburg, Germany. She is the youngest of four children – Peter, Candida, and Volker (Volker also pursued a career in the sciences – Physics – and became the director of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge). In 1939, the family made the decision to leave Germany. The parents were political dissidents, which proved difficult at the outset of World War Two. They were “persecuted and uncomfortable so they decided to migrate. They were fortunate enough to be allowed to come to New Zealand being accepted here as immigrants.” On the way to New Zealand, the children temporarily stayed in a boarding school in Holland designed for looking after children who needed help.
They arrived in New Zealand early in 1940, however, her father was only in the country for a short while before he returned to Germany due to family issues. He remained there for the duration of the war. During this time he was a manager of a ceramic factory that was family-owned, and he also worked as a lawyer.
Though her mother was a housewife in Germany, she had to enter the workforce in New Zealand, so she found employment as a housekeeper. As she had no money to support the four children, the eldest three went off to board with different families around New Zealand. The eldest son, Peter, boarded in Wellington, and Candida and Volker boarded with separate families in Wanganui. Later in life, Viola discussed this time with her mother, who described the experience of leaving her children behind as horrible. As Viola was only 3 years old, she stayed with her mother. Her earliest memory was going to an exhibition in Wellington with her mother at the beginning of 1940.
Her mother picked up work in various places around the North Island: Wellington, Hawkes Bay, Wanganui, and then Auckland. During one of their holidays, while her mother was working on a farm in Hawkes Bay, the other siblings came to stay with them. Unfortunately, in these early years, her mother was regarded as a spy and was constantly interviewed by the police: “And every time she shifted, she had to let them know where she was and that was ongoing and she didn’t get put on Somes Island, but only narrowly averted that.” Viola believes she only avoided this because she had four young children.
Viola’s father returned to New Zealand in 1947, where he obtained a job doing scientific research in the laboratory at Crown Lynn in Auckland.
Preparing for Medical School
By the time Viola was ready to enter high school, she and her mother had settled in Auckland. She entered Avondale College in the second year of their academic stream – until that point it had been a technical college. At school, she was both academic and involved in sports. She was the captain of the hockey team, and in the off seasons she played tennis and swam. She was also a good student: “I enjoyed school, and I did the work, and I enjoyed it, and I had some very good teachers.” Her final year subjects were Physics, Chemistry, English, Math, and German (which she had to relearn).
Her first choice for her university studies was veterinary school. She had enjoyed having pets on the farm in Hawkes Bay. At that point, however, students could only study veterinary in Australia and her family could not afford that. Her second option was social work, however, students had to be 21 years old to enrol in the program, which Viola was not. “I think they thought you needed a bit of life’s experience.”
Therefore, she enrolled in the program that was her third choice: medicine. She was encouraged by her teachers to pursue this. Viola, along with her schoolmate Brian Trenworth, were the first from Avondale Academic School to attend Otago Medical School.
Intermediate Year and Medical School
Contrary to what was typical, Viola travelled to Dunedin for her intermediate year rather than staying in Auckland. She took the two-day journey alone, which involved a train, boat, ferry, and then another train. Viola entered her intermediate year in 1954 and her class was quite big. She made some good friends during this year, many of whom were her fellow women students. She worked hard, well enough to get into medical school. Her subjects were Zoology, Botany, Organic Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, and Physics. One lecturer that she remembers fondly was Miss Agnes Blackie who taught physics in the intermediate year. She particularly helped the women with physics because many of them were struggling.
Viola private boarded in Dunedin and so biked to University. She was the only boarder at that home and she had two different land ladies. She did not particularly like Dunedin though. “I suppose I just accepted it without really thinking about whether I liked it or not. I mean, now I look back and I think what a lovely city it is. And certainly, in my later years, I grew to like Dunedin very much. But at the start, I don’t think I really had much opinion about it at all.” After her second year she moved into Carrington Hall, where her parents supported her. The following year she went flatting with three other women students in Dudley Place in Maori Hill, where she stayed for the rest of her time at university.
“The challenges of going through medical school were financial constraints, definitely. Just looking after myself financially, I had to be quite careful and so did my flatmates. It was not unusual. We were all fairly careful with how we spent our money.”
Though Viola had a bursary, she worked every holiday break as a babysitter, waitress, housemaid in a hotel, a nurse in one of the mental institutions, and one summer she worked at Paul’s Book Arcade on High Street.
There were 12 women in her class of 120. By this time, the women were allowed to sit anywhere in the lecture room, though they were separated for a few sensitive lectures in the anatomy classes. Likewise, in the anatomy dissection classes, all of the women were assigned to one dissecting body. Viola assumed that it may have been designed this way to allow women students to meet each other outside of the classroom. They also had a separate women’s common room at the medical school. “That was a place where one could get away from these dominant males who talked a lot and knew everything.”
In general, the women were treated as normal students. “Some of them [the men in her class] treated us as ordinary human beings. Got ignored by a lot of them”. She remembered one teacher, Professor Alan Aldridge, who was an orthopaedic surgeon, who was not very nice to the women students and often said things such as “What do you women want to do medicine for anyway?” And to those outside of the university “we were just bluestockings. We weren’t social beings”. Viola said that she was a very shy student. She did not have a very big social life, though she tried smoking once. In fact, it was her mother who gave her the cigarette because she was a smoker. It was acceptable in the medical community at that point. Once a year she travelled back to Auckland to see her family.
Outside of her studies, Viola was a member of the tramping club. They went tramping every few weekends in the Dunedin area. She also went away on a week-long tramp every holiday break. The rest of her break was spent at work. It was through the tramping club that she met the man who would soon become her husband, Phil Palmer. They were partnered up and roped together for support. “We were tramping at Arthur’s Pass and fell down a mountain together and managed to survive”. Because they were roped together, when the one fell, so did the other.
Phil was a year behind her at university and they got married in Christchurch at the end of Viola’s fifth year. They got married there because a few years prior, her parents had moved to Christchurch for her father to take up a new job. “Being married at medical school was pretty unusual … I think that the doctors and lecturers had trouble getting their heads round that, the fact that I’d changed my name, and they still called me by my maiden name even after I had married”.
Viola performed well at university and graduated in 1959 along with nine other women.
Kew Hospital, Specialising in England, & Continuing Her Career Part-Time
Both Viola and Phil were fortunate to gain positions at Kew Hospital, Invercargill, as House Surgeons following her graduation. There were at least 6 House Surgeons at that time. “I suppose the part I remember best was the emergency room, where one was called upon to do all sorts of things which were totally strange and out of our range of knowledge … They had a maternity hospital away from Kew Hospital, and all the really difficult patients who they couldn’t cope with there were sent to Kew Hospital, and then we were expected to do something with them. It was terrible. And I mean, they were employing an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Kew, but often, we were expected to do the anaesthetics and assist and [we were] thoroughly out of our depth, actually.” She felt like medical school did not adequately prepare her to be a junior doctor. It was extremely theory based with not a very big practical component. There was also a large emphasis on anatomy and not much else.
She worked at Kew for a year before she fell pregnant with their first child, Anne, who was born on Boxing Day. After their one year at Kew, the couple moved to Dunedin where Phil obtained a position. The following year they made the decision to move to England for Phil to pursue further study in pathology. On the way to England, Phil worked at the ship’s doctor. The family settled in London where Phil held positions at Hammersmith and then Central Middlesex.
Since they were in England, Viola also decided to do some further study. She enrolled in the Diploma in Anaesthesia, which was a year-long course. She had become interested in anaesthesia at Kew Hospital, where the registrar had begun training some of the house surgeons. She had learnt to intubate and use the machinery, so she felt like she had a headstart on the diploma. As a bonus, she felt like the schedule that comes with working in anaesthetics would fit in well with the family, as it gave her the opportunity to do sessional work.
She completed her diploma primarily through Kingston on Thames and The Royal Free Womens’ Hospital. While she was at work, a friend of theirs, who was also from New Zealand, looked after their baby. When this friend was not available, their neighbour babysat.
Shortly after completing her diploma, Viola fell pregnant with their second child Rodger. (Rodger ended up following in his mother’s footsteps and is now a successful psychiatrist in England.) Because of this, they decided to return to New Zealand. This trip was taken by plane, which was their first time flying.
The Palmer family settled in Auckland, where Phil took up a microbiology position at Auckland Public Hospital. Viola worked part-time at Auckland Hospital doing anaesthesia. She only completed a few sessions each week so that she could look after the family. This was the last position in anaesthesia Viola held.
The family only remained in Auckland for a short while, as Phil was offered a position in Christchurch. They remained there for two years before moving to Tauranga where he became a partner in a private laboratory. He held this position for the rest of his working life. In Tauranga, Viola retrained as a part-time General Practitioner (GP), which she did for ten years. Viola liked working as a GP – “after having done anaesthesia, I really wanted to be working with people who are awake”. She also had a lot of good colleagues, so it was a happy time in her life.
During their time at Auckland, Christchurch, and Tauranga, Viola and Phil had four more children – Harry, Joyce, Sue, and Mark.
Working Through Retirement
Viola worked as a GP for ten years before retiring at 70 years of age. They decided to retire to Waikanae, however, she found retirement too quiet after a long career in medicine. So, she found other ways to fill her time. She reached out to various GP clinics on the Kapiti Coast saying that she was available for locums. She completed quite a few, which helped her to get to know the area. Eventually, she settled on two GP clinics that she liked the best. Along with day consultations, she also did some after-hours calls.
Viola said that her main achievement was “retraining in general practice … it was quite difficult.” She retrained through the college of GPs. “The first thing I had to learn to use was the computer. It was totally new to me”.
Viola also wanted to “encourage any women who wanted to” pursue a career in medicine. “But I think it’s tremendously competitive and difficult to get in now, much more so” than when she was at university.
Viola and Phil also became well-known in the Kapiti Region for reasons other than medicine. They helped to plant out Greendale Reserve along the Waikanae River up to the Tararuas.