Mary Francesca Compere Dowling

Class of 1915

This biography has drawn on entries from the Paper Past website, records from Births, Death and Marriages (BDM) website, St Margaret’s College Centennial History 1911-2011, and Dr Doris Gordon’s autobiography “Backblocks Baby-Doctor”.


The Early Years

Mary Francesca Compere Dowling was born to Mary (nee Bary) and Richard Egbert Dowling in 1892. She had an older sister Maude born in 1890 and a younger brother Richard born in 1894. (1)

Her mother was twenty-five years old at the time of her birth. (1)

Little is known of her parents except what is later revealed through Mary’s obituaries; at the time of her death her father had passed away, her mother had been mistress of West End School in New Plymouth for many years (2) and her paternal grandfather had been master of Fielding School. (3) Her brother became a pharmacist in Hawera, (2) and her sister who had married the Rev Fredrick Crawshaw in 1915 (1) resided in Waimate at the time of Mary’s death. (3)

Minimal information is known on Mary’s early years except what is revealed through Papers Past articles. She was an intelligent young girl. The Taranaki Herald reported in 1901 that she went to Central School in New Plymouth and during the first quarter of her Standard III year she had full attendance. (4) In 1904 during Standard VI, she again had full attendance and received a special prize for sewing (5) and had attended West End School, New Plymouth were she wrote her Junior Scholarship exam with an eighty-five per cent average. (6) By 1906 she was attending New Plymouth High School and had received the top marks (1288) in the Taranaki Education Board jurisdiction in her Senior Scholarship exams. (7) She was dux of New Plymouth High School in 1908 (8) and was successful in her matriculation exams. (9) She received a senior national scholarship at the end of 1909 with the top score (2867) for the Taranaki Board area (10) which entitled her to receive a University Scholarship. She was also the recipient of the Taranaki Scholarship which she was successful in holding for at least the next four years. (11)

Tertiary Education

Mary attended Victoria University in Wellington – probably in 1910 (2) for two years which would have given her the Medical Intermediate credentials required for her entry to medical school. She enrolled and commenced her studies at Otago Medical School in 1912. (12)

St Margaret’s College

Mary lived at St Margaret’s College during the next four years of her training – from 1912 until the end of 1915. (12) She and Dr Doris Gordon (nee Jolly) were the first female medical students to live at the College and developed a strong friendship during their university years. (12, 13)

St Margaret’s College, 1911
St Margaret’s College, 1920

In her autobiography, Dr Gordon describes her friend, known as Francie during her student days, thus: (13)

Francie had big brown eyes which she could use to look roguish, intelligent, or pathetic as the occasion warranted. Before exams she was wont to lament that she knew nothing. She would then cram like a lunatic, stagger out of the exam rooms looking a wreck, and gather much sympathy. Finally, we at St Margaret’s learned that more often than not she came top of everything.

The first fifteen women enrolled at St Margaret’s College in 1911 were housed in the vacant Presbyterian manse at 333 Leigh Street until the newly built College was completed and able to be populated by the women in March 2014. It was located just opposite the main University buildings. Although founded and managed by the Presbyterians, it had an ecumenical admission policy. With boarding the cheaper option, it is most likely that St Margaret’s first residents came from middle class and wealthy families. Apart from lectures, the young women spent most of their time in the College. (12)

Life for the young women in these early years is described in the St Margaret’s Centennial book as follows: (12)

Daily management lay with the Matron (Miss Jean Callender 1912-1919). For the first St Margaret’s students Miss Callender was the face of authority. She managed every aspect of daily life in the College and held the girls accountable to a strong work ethic and high standards of personal behaviour. She organized meals, laundry, and cleaning, enforced House rules, looked after girls who were ill or homesick and led daily Bible readings and religious devotions. In many regards Miss Callender operated as a surrogate maternal figure for young women transplanted from home-life to university.

Graduation and House Surgeon Years

Due to the need for more doctors to be sent to the front during World War 1, the final M.B. and Ch. B. examinations were held in August 2015 and the results were announced on 13 September 1915. (14) Mary graduated from Otago Medical School at the top of her class and was the first woman awarded the New Zealand Medical Travelling Scholarship. (12) This entitled the holder to free tuition for one year in England or the European Continent together with £150 in expenses. (15) Mary, her friend Doris Jolly and two male medical students were able to stay on in Dunedin for the next phase of their education – their two years as house surgeons. (13)

The women had rooms on the second floor of the south end administrative block of Dunedin Hospital and the men were housed on the north end. They all met for meals in a communal dining-room about twenty paces from the front downstairs door where they would exchange a review of their day as well as the hospital gossip. They also discussed the theatre manners and diagnostic ability of their seniors. They realized their former teachers sometimes had “feet of clay.” Surgery was only beginning to move away from the “cut-and-slash get-it-over-quickly technique” which had been necessary in the pre-anaesthetic days. Their seniors worked “roughly” by later standards which caused shock to the patient, anxiety for the anaesthetist, tension for the nursing sister, frayed nerves for the surgeon and frequent rude words for the house-surgeon. Seventy percent of the anaesthetics were given by the internee staff. (13)

Arthur Kidd, a student from Christchurch, was in Mary’s same year at Medical School. Her engagement to him was announced in the Christchurch Sun newspaper in October 1915. (16) Arthur was a house surgeon at Christchurch Hospital for a year prior to serving overseas with the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces. He served in the New Zealand No. 1 Stationary Hospital in Amiens, France and then with the 1st Field Ambulance, until he was wounded in the right arm at Messines, Belgium. He returned to New Zealand after his convalescence and was appointed resident surgeon at Ashburton Hospital on 12 May 1919. It said he planned to get married in the next few months. (17) It is not known who called off their engagement but in Dr Doris Gordon’s autobiography she alludes to Mary becoming attracted to one of the house surgeons at Dunedin who she referred to as “Dr Dandy”. No doubt her behaviour as an engaged young woman was frowned upon. At the end of 2016, neither Mary or “Dr Dandy” were offered  second-year house surgeon positions at the hospital. (13)

Commencement of Career and Early Death

Due to the scarcity of doctors in New Zealand and not knowing when the war would end (18) Mary was not able to immediately use her travelling scholarship. She did a locum in early 2017 at Mangaweka where she was called upon to judge the baby show at the St Patrick Day Sports. (19) By August 1918, she had established her own practice and had commenced practising as a general practitioner in Hawera (where her brother was the pharmacist). (18)

In the local newspaper, on 20 November 1918, it was reported that Mary was in a serious condition with the influenza epidemic. (18) Two days later, at the age of twenty-six, she died. Her local paper reported that she had been building up a splendid connection in her practice when she had been stricken with the influenza a week prior and after a few days had passed, pneumonia had appeared. It surmised “Probably the strain of the hard and unceasing work she was called upon to do in the week or two preceding her illness, contributed in some degree to her contracting the epidemic and the pneumonia which followed. Her untimely death will be widely deplored.” (20)

The St. Margaret’s Centennial book ends their entry on Mary, their first Otago Medical School woman resident thus: (12)

Paying tribute to Mary’s professional promise and her Christian character, the College Council mourned her loss deeply, reflecting that her influence in the College was of the highest value.”



  1. Births, Deaths and Marriages Online Wellington: Internal Affairs, New Zealand Government; [cited 2 May 2202]. Available from:
  2. Personal. Taranaki Herald. 1918 23 November 1918. Available from:
  3. Personal. Wanganui Herald. 1918 23 November 1918. Available from:
  4. School Attendances: Central School. Taranaki Herald. 1901 2 April 1901. Available from:
  5. Full Attendance. Taranaki Herald. 1904 17 December 1904. Available from:
  6. Scholarship Examinations. Taranaki Herald. 1905 19 January 1905. Available from:
  7. Schlarship Examinations. Taranaki Herald. 1907 4 February 1907. Available from:
  8. Local Craftmanship: High School Honours Board. Taranaki Herald. 1908 17 December 1918. Available from:
  9. Successful Students Taranaki Matriculation Passess. Hawera & Normandy Star. 1909 20 January 1909. Available from:
  10. Senior National Scholarships. Taranaki Herald. 1910 18 January 1910. Available from:
  11. University Senate. Oamaru Mail. 1913 17 April 1913. Available from:
  12. Grant S. Vision for the Future- A Centennial History of St Margaret’s College, Dunedin 1911-2011. Christchurch: St Margaret’s College, Dunedin; 2010.
  13. Gordon D. Backblocks Baby-Doctor. London. England: Faber and Faber Ltd.; 1955.
  14. Medical Examination: The Successful Candidates. Evening Post. 1915 13 September 1915. Available from:
  15. Personal. Taranaki Herald. 1915 30 October 1915. Available from:
  16. The Social Round. Sun (Christchurch). 1915 13 October 1915. Available from:
  17. Hospital Doctor. Ashburton Guardian. 1919 12 May 1919. Available from:
  18. Personal Items. Hawera & Normandy Star. 1918 19 August 1918. Available from:
  19. St. Patrick’s Day Sports. Taihape Daily Times. 1917 15 March 1917. Available from:
  20. Obituary: Dr. Mary Dowling. Hawera & Normanby Star. 1918 22 November 1918. Available from:
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