This biography is largely based on an oral interview with Pauline’s son Dr Jon (Jonathan) Simcock. The interviewers were Michaela Selway and Rennae Taylor. The photo below was taken in 1928; courtesy of Dr Jon Simcock.
Early Childhood Years
Pauline Catherine Witherow was born at home on 10 July 1902 at the small settlement of Elsthorpe, south of Hastings, in the Hawkes Bay region where her parents Walter Thomas and Mabel Theresa Witherow farmed. Pauline’s father was from a Hawke’s Bay farming background and her mother was one of the very few certificated teachers in the Hawke’s Bay region. She stopped working as a teacher after she started having her own children.
Pauline’s twin sister Mabel only lived one day. Pauline must have been very tiny as the family history recounts that she started her life in a shoebox. She was the firstborn in the family and had three sisters (Brya 1904; Gwynne 1908; and Carol 1913) and two brothers (Lisle 1903; Joseph 1906). Gywnn became a registered nurse and she and Pauline were close as adults. None of her other siblings received any tertiary education.
As it is believed she stayed in the area her whole childhood, she most likely attended the local primary school. The December 1912 issue of the Hastings Standard indicates she attended Brondesbury School, which was located on Queen Street in central Hastings, and received the Form IVa class prize in addition to prizes in Arithmetic and Music. (1) For her secondary education, she attended Napier Girls High School as a boarder, and was dux of her 1919 graduation year. She was extremely good in English Literature and her love of literature endured throughout her lifetime. However, she studied all subjects available to her and received prizes in general science and mathematics. Her son said his mother was “outstandingly bright”. The Waipawa Mail reports that she was successful in winning a Junior National Scholarship and was second highest in the whole of the New Zealand Dominion. (2)
Her son is unaware of what inspired her to go to medical school. The only remote link to medicine in the family tree was her maternal grandfather who was a chemist. He initially practiced in Dunedin before moving to Hastings and “three times was in front of the Dunedin court for dispensing more than the legal amount of laudanum (opium)”, a common drug used in the early colonial days. (3)
Her parents had financial challenges and sold their farm following her graduation from Napier High School and moved to Auckland where her father retired. The January 1920 Hastings Standard records that she passed her Matriculation, Solicitor’s General Knowledge and Medical Preliminary at Napier. (4)
Studying at the Otago Medical School
Pauline commenced her Medical Intermediate studies at the University of Otago Medical School in 1921. (5)
She stayed in the residential St Margaret’s College during university. She was very studious and worked hard.
Pauline participated for two years in the university tennis team and in the 1925 group picture, as the women’s captain, she is holding the shield.
Pauline enjoyed her time as a student and made good friends. She obtained her MB ChB NZ in 1928. (6) Her son said her education was financed by her parents as the money from the sale of their farm enabled them to provide this level of support.
In the early years it was difficult for women medical students to get a house surgeon placement as many hospitals did not provide accommodation for females; fortunately, Palmerston North had this provision. Pauline was able to do her two years as a house surgeon here, straight after graduation. She was generally well treated by the male doctors though Pauline did not particularly like a few of them, including a throat specialist, due to their treatment of her as a woman. She told her son it was quite common for the female medical student doctors to be verbally abused.
Post Graduate Studies and Early Career
Pauline successfully completed her two years as a house surgeon and soon after travelled to England with a Miss Gladys Seifert from Palmerston North. A walking tour they did in June 1931 is recorded in the Manawatu Standard. Her future husband, PW Aitken, was on this same Dartmoor tour. (7) Pauline initially acted as locum tenens for a few doctors in England and then enrolled in the October 1930 session of the Bacteriology and Immunology Diploma Course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She gained her Dip Bact (Lond) in July, 1931, the first New Zealand woman to do so.
Her son remembers her saying that living in London during the Depression was difficult and the London fog was most unpleasant. She had a gift for hospitality and at the end of the week, if she had a shilling, she would have a dinner party. She shared a flat with other New Zealand women including her travel companion Gladys. (8) She started smoking when she was in London, and on her return to New Zealand she kept up the habit using Park Drive tobacco and the “roll-your-own” technique. During the summer of 1931 she went to Germany for about three months and learned to speak German as well as write in High German (the official written language of Germany (9)).
On her return to New Zealand in December 1931, she took up a position in the Department of Bacteriology at the Otago Medical School and worked under the Head of the Department, Professor Charles Hercus, who later became the Dean of the Medical School from 1937 to 1958 and was knighted in 1947 for his services to medicine and public health.
In March 1932 Pauline married Peter Walker Aitken, who had graduated in 1926 with his MSc and was working as a chemical engineer. He had attended Otago Boys’ High School, was Dux in his graduation year, and was Otago University’s nominee for the Rhodes Scholarship. Unfortunately, the marriage lasted only five months. On the 27th July he died at the age of 28 years. (10) The family story is that he died of a bleeding peptic ulcer. Jon said his mother had limited contact (if any) with his family in subsequent years. It was a very painful time for her, and she rarely talked about it.
Pauline continued working in the Department of Bacteriology and probably in 1933 met Joseph Lindsell Simcock, a mature student in his first year of medicine. He had originally obtained his degree in Pharmacy and then thought he could better help people if he had his degree in medicine. They married in 1934; Pauline was thirty-two and Joseph twenty-seven years old. Pauline continued to do some work in the Department of Bacteriology despite having two babies (Michael in 1935 and Jonathan (Jon) in 1937), prior to her husband’s graduation in 1939. Her son recalls that something happened between his parents and Prof Sir Charles Hercus during this time; they were quite negative about him. Possibly, as Head of Department and then Dean, he disapproved of Pauline, one of his lecturers’, marrying a medical student. Later, at the time their own three boys went to Otago Medical School he was still the Dean; Jon says he was always quite aloof towards them and never enquired about their mother. Perhaps some of this could be attributed to Prof Sir Charles Hercus’s naturally reserved personality. Some found him humourless and ponderous. (11)
Later Career and Motherhood
Following Joseph’s graduation in 1939, the family of four moved to Auckland for his house surgeon years. They then moved to Kaitaia for two years where Joseph did general practice and some hospital work. Their third son, Timothy, was born here in 1940. They then moved to Hamilton and then on to Hawera where the last son, Paul, was born in New Plymouth Hospital in 1943. While practicing here as a general practitioner, he was called into the army in 1944, leaving Pauline in Hawera with their four little boys. He was a Captain with the NZ Medical Corps and served with the second NZ Expeditionary Force in Cairo, Egypt at the base hospital in the suburb of Maadi. This hospital serviced the wounded from campaigns both in the Middle East as well as Italy. (12)
On his return from World War II later in 1945, Joseph moved the family to the remote, primitive settlement of Te Araroa, near the East Cape. It only had gravel roads, many of the streams lacked bridges over them and there was no electric power. He was the sole practitioner and the cottage hospital built in 1927, became their home. It had served as the accommodation for the Home Guard prior to them moving in. Jon remembers it as being the size of a large house. Each of the boys had their own bedroom and Joseph also had his own dispensary. The nearest hospital for minor problems was at Te Puia Springs, about one hour south. It had a general practitioner who did minor surgeries and Joseph would travel down to do the anaesthetics. For more serious conditions, patients went to Gisborne Hospital a four-hour drive south on gravel roads.
Pauline had to learn to cope with a coal range, no refrigerator, kerosene lights and ironing with flat irons heated on the stove. In later years, she purchased a kerosene operated fridge and iron, which made life much easier. Her husband eventually purchased and installed a generator, but the flywheel was so heavy that Pauline’s tiny five-foot two-inch body couldn’t start it. When there were heavy rains and the roads became blocked, they would have to accommodate strangers as the pub would fill up and they were expected to take the overflow. Looking back on it, her son believes it would have been absolutely appalling for an intelligent woman like his mother to be subjected to that lonely environment with minimal intellectual stimulation arising from her interactions in the community.
Pauline had never trained to do General Practice. She had gone straight to England after her two years as a house surgeon to obtain her Diploma in Bacteriology. Following her return to New Zealand, she had only worked in this specialized area of medicine at the Otago University Medical School. She dedicated her life to her boys to make sure they lived in a stimulating environment. She developed a home library to inspire their young minds. Jon remembers reading books on the early medical pioneers such as “The Life of Pasteur” by R. Vallery-Radot and “Aequanimitas” by William Osler. When they lived at Te Araroa, she had an arrangement with the bookseller in Gisborne to send her up any good, new books.
She also became a very good homemaker which included cooking, knitting, sewing, and doing handcrafts. She knit for all her children. Her husband was very particular about his shirts – they had to have a special top pocket for his pen and patient cards so she custom sewed these for him. She loved tennis but unfortunately injured her shoulder. Instead, reading became her favourite pastime. She loved entertaining the medical specialists who, if they were passing by on their way to Gisborne, would stay for a couple of days. She was a “homebody” and did not enjoy travelling far from her home.
Her son recalls some of the unpleasant tasks she put up with from his father. One of the most unpleasant occurrences happened during hunting season when Joseph’s patients would drop off unplucked pheasants or ducks at their back door. His father would never touch them but expected Pauline to do the plucking and dressing of them. Pauline would be very exasperated with him for a few minutes, but she was never critical of others. She thought her family of four boys were wonderful.
From around the age of nine, the boys went off to boarding schools; first to Hereworth School, Havelock North and later to New Plymouth Boy’s High School where their father Joseph has been educated. In 1953, the eldest son Michael commenced his studies at Otago, and Jon followed a year later. Pauline regularly wrote letters to each of the boys while they were at boarding school, university and when they were studying overseas. Jon remembers her handwriting was immaculate and there was never a mistake. Of the four boys, three went on to become graduates of Otago University Medical School; Michael became an Obstetrician-Gynaecologist (Class of 1959), Jon a Neurologist (class of 1960) and Paul an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist (Class of 1967). Timothy became an orchardist in the Ōpōtiki region.
Circa 1950, the family moved to Ōpōtiki, which gave Pauline the opportunity to begin using her skills and training in bacteriology once again. She ran the Ōpōtiki Hospital Pathology Laboratory for the next fifteen years; working each morning, until her retirement in 1967. The hospital was small, perhaps about thirty beds with the majority being for maternity cases. It was staffed by the local General Practitioners, with occasional visits from visiting specialists. Around 1952, prior to Jon going to Otago Medical School at age sixteen, his father went overseas to Oxford for approximately one year to receive training in anaesthetics. Pauline did not go with him but remained in Ōpōtiki, continued with her employment in the Laboratory, and looked after her boys.
Pauline retired in 1967 when she was sixty-five. Joseph continued working at Ōpōtiki Hospital and passed away in 1978 at the age of seventy-two from liver failure of uncertain cause. He had expected to live well into his eighties or nineties, as his own father lived to ninety-seven and his grandfather to one hundred. He had just been starting to develop his skills as a vigneron and was looking forward to doing this in his retirement years.
After Joseph’s death, Pauline lived with her son, Timothy and his family, the orchardist in Ōpōtiki. Her son Jon recalls that she was great with their children. They had to be very careful with alternating between his wife Susie’s family and his family for Christmases. Her family were farming down in Rangitikei and his family was in Ōpōtiki. They would alternate the Christmases but then have a week of summer holiday at the end of January, and that was always at Ōpōtiki. Then, a week in the May holidays was always down at the farm in the Rangitikei. She really spoiled her grandchildren when they were with her for the summer breaks. Sadly, she developed dementia and moved to Caughey Preston Nursing Home for three years prior to her passing on the 13 August 1983 at the age of 81.
Pauline had many challenges to face throughout her life but met them with stoicism and good humour. She left a strong legacy in her family, particularly in medicine. Each of her four sons had three children. Of these twelve grandchildren, two became plastic surgeons. Pauline and Joseph’s family tree now include twenty great-grandchildren, three of whom are already doctors.
- Brondesbury School. Hastings Standard. 1912 20.12.1912. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/HAST19121220.2.14
- Otane. Waipawa Mail. 1916 29.01.1916. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WAIPM19160129.2.17
- Phillips J. ‘Drugs’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand [02.09.2021]. Available from: https://teara.govt.nz/en/drugs/print
- New Zealand University Matriculation Examination. Hastings Standard. 1920 21.02.1920. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/HAST19200121.2.50
- New Zealand University Intermediate Examinations. New Zealand Times. 1922 30.03.1922. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZTIM19220330.2.118
- Degrees Conferred. New Zealand Herald. 1928 24.2.1928. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZH19280224.2.97
- Women’s World. Manawatu Standard. 1930 23.06.1930. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/MS19300623.2.124
- Women’s Corner. Press. 1931 14.08.1931. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CHP19310814.2.4
- Britannica TEoE. German Language: Britannica. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/German-language
- Student’s Death: Brilliant Otago Chemist. 1932. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS19320729.2.137
- Dow DA. Story: Hercus, Charles Ernest, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography 1998. Available from: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4h28/hercus-charles-ernest
- Record AMOC. Online Cenotaph Record – Joseph Lindsell Simcock. Available from: https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/record/111842