Agatha Helen Jane Monfries (nee Adams)

This biography is largely based on entries from Papers Past. Further secondary resources are listed in the bibliography at the end. We are grateful for access to the picture of Agatha from the family of Nina Muir.

Class of 1904

Early Life

Agatha was born in 1880 to Robert Noble and Jane Ellen (nee Aitchison) Adams. (1) Her father, born in Dunedin in 1857, and her mother, born circa 1848 in Bannockburn, Scotland, were married in New Zealand in 1874. (2) For many years her father was the publisher of the Otago Daily Times and Otago Witness. (3) She had one older brother, also called Robert Noble, born in 1875, and one younger sister, Muriel Florence Elizabeth, born in 1885. (1)

Little is known about her very early life. She attended Otago Girls’ High School and did well academically. At the end of 1896 she qualified for matriculation on the junior scholarship papers. (4) She missed being head girl by only one mark. (5)

It is interesting to note in a 1921 article on “The Otago Girls’ High School – An Historical Sketch”, a Dr J. Hislop, who presided over the annual school break-up gave the following quote from the notes of Mr A. Wilson who had been rector of the school from 1884 to 1895: (6)

“Medicine is a subject in which girls might find an opening for their energy and ability. Medicine has attracted a number of ex pupils of the Girls’ High School, many of whom have made quite distinguished names for themselves. Nine very early graduates from 1896 to 1906 were mentioned; these included Dr Margaret Cruickshank who had been dux of the school in 1891, Dr Emily Seideberg, Jane Kinder, Daisy Platts, Eleanor S. Baker, Winifrede Bathgate, Agatha Adams, Emily Ridley, and Ada Paterson. There were only four other medical women from 1896 – 1906 who came from other schools.”

Tertiary Education

Agatha’s older brother Robert Noble Adams, graduated from Otago Medical School in 1902 and began practicing in Takaka that same year. (7) His influence plus the role models from Otago Girls’ High School, probably encouraged Agatha to attend University of Otago with the view of becoming a medical doctor. In 1897, she passed the medical preliminary on the junior scholarship papers. (8) In 1898, the Otago Daily Times reported the following successes in her annual class examinations: Junior Physics third class, Practical Physics second class, Chemistry Lectures first class, and Chemistry Practical second class. (9)

In going through Papers Past, it was interesting to note in the 28 November 1904 New Zealand Herald issue that the papers from the recent university examinations for degrees, honours and scholarships had been forwarded to England on the Tongariro in 57 parcels, and the cabled results were expected about 20th February 1905. (10)

During her university days Agatha took part in some social activities. A report on the university debating society indicated that prior to the debate on the topic “Should the colonies contribute to the support of the Imperial Navy”, Agatha contributed a pianoforte solo. (11)

In 1904, at the age of twenty-three, she was awarded her M.B. and Ch.B (12) along with two other female colleagues Winifrede Bathgate and Emily Ridley. Agatha also was in the same class as the first New Zealand Māori medical graduate Peter Buck.

Early Career

In March 1904, Agatha provided notice in the local Dunedin paper that she intended to apply to have her name placed in the Medical Register for the Colony of New Zealand (13) and in October of that same year, she placed the following advertisement indicating she was open for consultations: (14)

Papers Past: Evening Star, page 1, Issue 12317, 05.10.1904.

She became involved in her local community, attending meetings of The Society for Promoting the Health of Women and Children, (15) offering her services as honorary medical adviser to the orphanage of the Presbyterian Social Service Association, (16), becoming locum tenens for the Rock and Pillar Sanatorium for Consumptives, (17) and donating flower bowls and vases for ward use at the St Helen’s Hospital which had opened in 1904. (18)

Prior to her marriage she assisted her brother Dr R.N. Adams at Takaka, (5) and did locum tenens for Dr Rosa Collier at Middlemarch, Dr Fergus Paterson at Geraldine, and for Dr Emily Siedeberg in Dunedin. (19) She also did an extended locum in 1908 for Dr E.H. Howard at Murchison (father of Dr Nina Muir nee Howard, class of 1925) during his absence for post-graduate study in England and lived with his wife Georgina and his daughters. (20) In 1907 she was appointed medical superintendent to the Karitane Infants’ Home, by special recommendation of Dr Truby King, the founder of the institution. (5)

 L to R: Georgina Howard (mother of Dr Nina Muir nee Howard, class of 1925) and Agatha Adams circa 1908 during her locum at Murchison  (Photo courtesy of Nina Muir’s Family)

Marriage and Career in Taumaranui

On 20 March 1909, at the age of twenty-eight, Agatha married the Rev. James Inch Monfries, aged thirty-four, at St John’s Church, Wellington. (21)

James, the third of four children (two boys and two girls), was born 1 December 1875 at Balclutha to his Scottish immigrant parents David and Flora (nee Inch) Monfries. His father became a successful sheep farmer with an 850 acre farm at Table Hill, Otago. James was not interested in farming, which was demonstrated when he sold the farm after the death of his brother in 1895 and his father in 1898 and forthwith became an evangelical missionary, distributing Bibles to the Māori in the South Island. In 1900 he briefly studied medicine at the University of Otago before switching to Religious Studies, from which he graduated. He became ordained as a Māori missionary by the Wanganui Presbytery in 1907 and by 1909, when he married Agatha, he was running the Māori Mission Farm for Boys at Manunui, seven kilometres east of Taumaranui. James, following the death of Agatha, went on to marry a Mary Myllicent Towsey in 1913, and they had four children. He died in 1952, at the age of seventy-seven years.(22)

Rev James Inch Monfries, circa 1920s. (22)

Following their marriage, Agatha became the first female doctor in Taumarunui. She bought Dr Cairns’s practice (5) and was appointed medical officer to the Taumaranui Hospital (23) for a year but found the district too large and the work too heavy. In February 1910, Dr E.H. Howard, whom she had acted as locum tenens in 1908, succeeded her as medical officer. (24) For the last year of her life she practiced in Manunui and the surrounding district. (19) She also held the position of Native Health Officer for the district and officiated as Māori Health doctor. (5)

The Maori Mission Farm for Boys , Manunui (25)

In addition to her medical role in the community, she carried out the responsibilities of the missionary’s wife with a warm, organizational skill. She was the church organist, Sunday school teacher, and founder of the Ladies Church Guild. She had a rich alto voice; she and her husband sang at many local functions. (5)

A Premature Death

Despite only practicing in the Taumaranui and Manunui districts for two years prior to the stillbirth of their son and three days later succumbing to peritonitis (3) on 22 February 1911, (26) Agatha was greatly respected in her community.

Papers Past: Evening Post, page 1, Volume LXXXI, Issue 45, 23.02.1911. (26)

There was a great outpouring of love and respect from the Māori community on the death of Agatha. They assembled at the manse at Manunui and brought with them an aute (a type of mat which was an emblem of love and grief for the deceased) which was draped over the coffin and a wreath which was then placed upon the coffin. Their spokesperson, Hakiaka, said that “Mrs Monfries was greatly beloved by the Māori people. Civilisation had brought two things of great value to them – Christianity and medical – and both were lights amid the gloom. He expressed his great sympathy with all the sick people who would miss the kindly ministrations of the late doctor, who had never refused to attend any of the Māoris, but now she, who had been a light to shine a brief time, had gone to the everlasting light which never wanes but illuminates providence and all our associations with it.” (27)

Papers Past: Feilding Star, page 2, Volume V, Issue 1428, 28 February 1911. (28)

Agatha was buried at the Taumarunui Old Cemetery. (29) There is no mention of her stillborn son in their cemetery records. It is probable that her son was buried with her.

Buried at Taumarunui Old Cemetery, Taumarunui, Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand.
Inscription reads: In Loving Memory of AGATHA ADAMS MONFRIES M.B. Ch.B Died Feb 22 1911 Aged 30 Faith Hope Love (29)

 

Bibliography

  1. Births, Deaths & Marriages Online: Internal Affairs New Zealand Government; [27.06.2022]. Available from: https://www.bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/
  2. My Heritage: Agatha Monfries: MyHeritage Ltd. ; 2022 [01.07.2022]. Available from: https://www.myheritage.com/names/agatha_monfries
  3. Obituary. Otago Daily Times. 1911 27.02.1911. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ODT19110227.2.93.32
  4. N.Z. University Scholarships. Evening Star. 1897 27.01.1897. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD18970127.2.63
  5. Obituary Dr Agatha Adams-Monfries. The Outlook – A Christian Weekly for the Home. 1911 07.03.1911;18(10).
  6. The Otago Girls’High School. Otago Daily Times. 1921 29.01.1921. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ODT19210129.2.16
  7. Wright-St Clair RE. Historia Nunc Vivat: Medical Practitioners in New Zealand 1840–1930 Christchurch: Cotter Medical History Trust; 2003 [01.07.2022]. Available from: https://www.library.auckland.ac.nz/external/WrightSt-Clair-HistoriaNuncVivat.pdf
  8. University Examinations. New Zealand Herald. 1898 31.01.1898. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZH18980131.2.29
  9. University of Otago. Otago Daily Times. 1898 05.11.1898. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ODT18981105.2.53
  10. University Examinations. New Zealand Herald. 1904 28.11.1904. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZH19041128.2.35
  11. University Debating Society. Otago Daily Times. 1898 10.09.1898. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ODT18980910.2.64
  12. University Examinations. Lyttelton Times. 1904 24.02.1904. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/LT19040224.2.47
  13. Advertisement Column 2. Evening Star. 1904 05.03.1904. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD19040305.2.40.2
  14. Advertisements Column 4. Evening Star. 1904 05.10.1904. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD19041005.2.4.4
  15. Infant Life Protection. Evening Star. 1907 14.09.1907. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD19070914.2.79
  16. Social Service. Evening Star. 1907 13.06.1907. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD19070613.2.78
  17. Charitable Aid Board. Otago Witness. 1908 28.10.1908. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/OW19081028.2.52
  18. St Helen’s Hospital. Otago Daily Times. 1905 23.10.1905. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ODT19051023.2.67.25
  19. Personal. Evening Star. 1911 23.02.1911. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD19110223.2.46
  20. Personal. Colonist. 1908 22.10.1908. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TC19081022.2.16
  21. Marriages. Dominion. 1909 03.04.1909. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/DOM19090403.2.7.2
  22. Towsey J. Towsey Tales 2013 [30.06.2022]. Available from: https://caliendi.com/assets/media/downloads/towsey-tales/TT%201875%20James%20Monfries.pdf
  23. Personal. Evening Star. 1909 27.04.1909. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD19090427.2.25
  24. Cooke R. Patients first : the proud tradition of Taumarunui Hospital. Taumarunui Taumarunui Hospital Reunion Committee; 2005.
  25. The Maori Mission farm for boys , Manunui: Presbyterian Research Centre: The Archive and Library for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand 1910 [04.07.2022]. Available from: https://pcanzarchives.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/109195
  26. Births, Marriages, Deaths. Evening Post. 1911 23.02.1911. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP19110223.2.2.1
  27. Auckland Notes. Otago Witness. 1911 08.03.1911. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/OW19110308.2.277
  28. Local and General. Feilding Star. 1911 28.02.1911. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/FS19110228.2.9
  29. Taumarunui Old Cemetery Memorials [30.06.2022]. Available from: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/189261988/agatha-helena_jane-monfries

 

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