This biography is largely based on Nina Muir’s personal memoirs of her career and information supplied by Nina’s granddaughter Natasha Mitchell. She has also supplied the pictures. Further secondary resources are listed in the bibliography at the end.
Class of 1925
Nina Catherine Howard was born in Dunedin on 20 October 1900 to New Zealand born Georgina Matheson Lindsay and Leicestershire, UK born Ernest Henry Howard. Her father, a trained Baptist minister, left Kent, England in 1898 and immigrated to New Zealand. (1) Nina was the eldest of six daughters. (2)
Her parents were married in 1899 and by the time of Nina’s birth in 1900 her father, at the age of thirty-five years, had decided to study medicine. When he graduated in 1905 with his MB, ChB, (3) the family had increased to four daughters. Following his graduation the family moved to Murchison, where he became the town’s first resident doctor. While there, he travelled to Edinburgh, to complete his FRCS. Dr Agatha Adams (class of 1904) was locum for him while he was overseas and later he took over her practice in Taumarunui. They also named their sixth daughter after her. He opened Taumarunui’s first private hospital and maternity home in 1911 and specialised in operative surgery, x-ray work and gynaecology. Later he became medical superintendent of Avonlea Maternity Hospital (which belonged to the Hospital Board), and also worked as an anaesthetist with Taumarunui Hospital as required. In 1938, they retired to Plimmerton. (4)
Nina attended Auckland Girls’ Grammar School for her secondary schooling and boarded with a local family. She did well academically and was successful in obtaining junior, senior and university entrance scholarships. (5-7) In 1917, she obtained the sixth form prize for both Maths and Science. (4) During her last year she was joint head girl of the school with C.M. Hastie. (1) She excelled in music, played the piano well and was considering it as a potential career. (4) However, during the summer of 1918-1919 when the Spanish influenza epidemic went through New Zealand, the senior students were asked to help with the sick. The first body Nina encountered was that of a school friend. This had a significant impact on her and it was then that she decided she would have a career in medicine. (1) No doubt her father also had an influence on the career path she took; they remained very close until his death in 1954. (4)
Medical Education and House Surgeon Appointment
The university entrance scholarship she received was for tuition fees plus £30 since she was unable to live at home. This would have been welcomed by her father, who sometimes worried how he could afford to keep six daughters in hats, gloves, shoes, and clothing. (4) Nina attended Auckland University College and over the following two years she was successful in passing her Medical Intermediate science papers and gaining acceptance into the Otago Medical School programme. She lived at St Margaret’s College during her Otago university years and in 1924, was the St Margaret’s College Students Association President. (8) She graduated with her MB ChB in 1925. (9) She did well and is believed not to have had to re-sit any exams. (4)
Little is known about her university years. She never took up smoking. However in later years she enjoyed a Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wine, and a cocktail that her husband made called Green Death, which featured crème de menthe. (4)
In 1926, she was appointed House Surgeon at Wellington Hospital and was initially assigned to the Fever and Ewart Tuberculosis Hospitals. (10) In her second year, she was in charge of arrangements for the lecturing of the nurses in the hospital, and also personally conducted lectures to the first post-graduate nurses class held in New Zealand. (8) She stayed at Wellington Hospital for two years and her resignation was accepted with regret by the Hospital Board on 31 May 1928. (11)
Nina was the first woman to be appointed as a house surgeon at Wellington Hospital. (8) She was incensed that quarters for women house surgeons were unavailable and disregarding tradition, moved into the nurses’ home. (1) Her daughter Caroline, recalled Nina telling them that while at Wellington Hospital, the Matron arranged for her to have breakfast in bed every day and Nina continued this practice for most of her life.
Early Career and Marriage
In September 1928, Nina was appointed senior house surgeon at Cook Hospital, Gisborne (12) until her resignation in August 1929. (13) She gained excellent experience in both general surgery and medicine while there. (8) She was married in Christ Church, Taumarunui on 7 October 1929 to the Gisborne journalist and printer, Percy Rutherford Muir, whose family owned the Poverty Bay Herald. (1, 14) They met at a rugby football match which she attended with his sister Mavis Muir. They shared a long-term love of horse racing. (4) It’s interesting to note that in their wedding announcement she was referred to as Miss Nina Howard rather than Dr Nina Howard. (14). In her career memoirs, Nina reports that she had been successful in being appointed resident at the Children’s Hospital of San Francisco but married instead. (8) The next fifty years were spent practicing in Gisborne.
Percy was supportive of Nina continuing in her career including overseas travel to do further studies and would often drive her to night-time call-outs. They employed a cook, housekeeping and gardening staff and when their two daughters were born they also employed a nurse/nanny when the girls were young. (4)
After marriage Nina set up her own private practice in Gisborne in the Gregory Chambers, upstairs on the corner of Gladstone Rd and Derby St. She spent most of her career practicing from these rooms and as the years went by her practice became more centred on Obstetrics and Gynaecology. By 1948, she said her bookings for the year ending in December 1946 numbered three hundred and sixteen cases. (8) Her practice included rural work on the East Coast in some quite remote locations. She travelled many miles alone by car and horse-back over rough roads and unbridged streams to deliver babies in all types of weather and under trying conditions. For seven months in 1934, she was acting Medical Superintendent of the twenty bed Te Puia Hospital (100km north of Gisborne). This involved looking after both the hospital and a large private practice. Over the years she continued to do locum work here for the resident doctor Dr Norman MacKay. (4)
When Nina first set up her practice in Gisborne, Cook Hospital was a ‘closed’ hospital, meaning general practitioners could not practice there. She was one of the first doctors to break through this barrier and gained privileges to work in the maternity unit.
Neither Nina nor Percy were required to be involved in wartime work. She was considered an essential service and Percy had a measure of lameness due to childhood polio. (4)
In 1939, she spent a short period of time taking a post-graduate refresher course in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. In 1949, she went to the United Kingdom and was accepted and successfully completed a diploma course in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin. (4, 9) She also spent time observing at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London. In a reference letter to the Rotunda, written by Dr R.J.B. Hall, the medical superintendent at Cook Hospital, he said: (4)
“Dr Nina Muir was senior house surgeon at this hospital from August 1928 to September 1929, during which time she showed great interest in her work. It has been her intention to go abroad for further post-graduate work. However, owing to marrying soon after leaving this Hospital her plans had to be delayed.
“Dr Muir launched into private practice, being chiefly interested in women’s and children’s complaints.
Regarding obstetric cases in this part of New Zealand, the total number of births amounts to between 650 and 700 per annum. Of these, Dr Muir conducts a very big number – I believe nearly half the total number and at the present time there are some 14 medical practitioners in active practice here.
Up till 1941, the maternity services in this district had been rendered by one obstetrician at the Cook Hospital Maternity Annex and some ten medical practitioners at private nursing homes. However, in 1941, my Board, acting on instructions from the Department of Health (so that the Obstetric Maternity Benefits of the Social Security Act could be fully implemented) opened its Maternity Ward to the local private practitioners, so that they could attend their own patients. The total number of confinements at the Cook Maternity Annex in 1941 was 132 and in 1947 was 385. Of these, Dr Muir confined 4 in 1941 and 121 in 1947, the total number of practitioners during the latter year being 14.
In 1945, my Board had to take over another private maternity hospital known as “Lister” and of the 659 cases delivered there between 1st July 1945 and 31st March of this year (1948), Dr Muir confined 195. The next medical practitioner on the list to her confined 75.
I am not aware of the actual number of maternity cases she confines in the one private hospital here, but I have no doubt the proportion would be equally high.
From these figures, it is apparent that Dr Muir is looked upon as the Obstetrician of choice by the general public in this district. Dr Muir, in conjunction with her maternity practice, conducts her own ante-natal clinic at her consulting rooms.
In December 1947, on the retirement of Dr J.W. Williams, who lectured our maternity trainees, Dr Muir was appointed lecturer in obstetrics to the maternity trainees.”
Her daughter Caroline wrote that during the war years, Nina was often out several times a night attending maternity cases. (4)
“She would often be at one house for a very long time, because other families had heard she was going to be there and would come along to see her there rather than have to go in to her rooms. This was particularly the case with Māori families. Mind you, she could also have been talking about the stars, as in horoscopes, or later studying the racing form of some horse.”
Nina and Percy had two daughters; Anna born in 1930 and Caroline in 1932.
Madame Cato, a nurse, looked after the girls following their births. However Caroline wrote that Nina breast fed both of them for twelve months and was very proud of ‘giving them a good start in life’. Otherwise, she did very little baby care for them. Nina told them that she had never given either of them a bath when they were babies and she took minimal time off after their births. Caroline said that Nina loved babies and would have liked to have had more children but Percy didn’t want to. (4)
During their primary school years, Nina used to be home by four o’clock each day and she and her daughters would have afternoon tea together until their father arrived home. Then they were sent out of the room. However, the girls probably would have liked to have more time with their mother. They were known to sometimes hide in the back seat of her car so they could go on house calls with her and later when Caroline was learning to drive she would often chauffeur Nina on her home visits. (4)
The girls attended Gisborne Central Primary and Gisborne Intermediate Schools before being sent to Woodford House Boarding School for Girls at Havelock North for their high school years. (4)
Anna went to England in 1948 and Caroline and Nina followed in 1949. Anna and Nina, upon completion of her Diploma in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, returned home in 1950. Caroline returned the following year. Both Anna and Caroline attended Winkfield Place, which was a ‘finishing school’ established by Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume in Berkshire, teaching floral arrangement, Cordon Bleu cooking, dress-making, secretarial skills and social etiquette. Anna also travelled to Switzerland. Anna married an Englishman and returned to live in England until the mid-1980s. During her lifetime, Caroline lived in the three major cities of New Zealand but following Nina’s death in 1981 returned to Gisborne to help look after Percy until his passing in 1986. Both daughters passed away in 2020. Anna had four children and Caroline three children. Although none of Nina’s offspring or grandchildren became medical doctors, one granddaughter became a theatre nurse. (4)
Nina remained close to her five sisters and her parents throughout her life despite living in different cities and towns. Phone calls and letters were mostly used but once the parents retired to Plimmerton they would all come together for regular family gatherings there. (4)
Nina and her family attended Holy Trinity Church in Gisborne, but did not greatly participate in church activities. She spent several years involved in St Johns Ambulance work as district superintendent, often giving lectures to the health professionals. (8) Nina was interested in fashion (she subscribed to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and was known for her love of hats), antiques, flower arranging, gourmet food, horse racing, astrology, palmistry and the occult. She read broadly. She enjoyed hosting dinner parties and planning the menus for these, though the food was made by her home help. She swam at the beach every day in summer. Her father-in-law had a beach cottage at Wainui Beach which was about eight kilometres from Gisborne and the family visited often. She enjoyed walking. The family home up until the 1950s had a tennis court, so she may have played tennis sometimes. She was known to always travel with her own China tea, and particularly liked the smokey-flavoured variety Lapsang Souchong. (4)
After she returned from studying in the United Kingdom, Nina had some health problems that affected her walking and mobility. Her daughter Caroline was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in later life and there were questions about whether this may have been what Nina had as well, due to its inherited component. Another theory was that she picked up a virus in Panama during her trip home from England. No-one knows for sure what caused her problems. (4)
Although she probably reduced her working hours in later years, her final Annual Practising Certificate was issued 1 April 1981 and she only officially closed her doctor’s rooms at the Gregory Chambers in Gisborne on 31 May 1981 – she died days later. By this stage of life, she was getting quite deaf, and walked with walking sticks. (4)
Nina died on 9 June 1981 at Cook Hospital, Gisborne, after a short time in hospital. Her death certificate lists the causes of death as long term immobility and general debility due to vascular disease which probably led to sacral gangrene and septicaemia. Reading the letters Percy received on Nina’s death, many speak of what a wonderful, and sometimes eccentric, person she was. She was always very interested in everyone and very generous. (4)
Community Recollections of Dr Nina in 2020
The following sign at the front of Dr Nina Muir’s doctor’s rooms at the corner of Gladstone and Derby Roads, Gisborne was posted to the Old Gisborne (NZ) & Surrounding Districts Facebook Group by her granddaughter Natasha Mitchell. (4) Some of the responding comments from her community which she served for over fifty years follow:
- Dr Nina Muir helped Maori women with childbirth and aftercare, my grandmother H.F. assisted her. H was a trained nurse, and hygiene was uppermost in Dr Nina’s mantra too. Hence the reason why she used Maori nurses such as my grandmother to spread the need for hygiene etc. The tohunga was never alienated otherwise it would divide the hapu and whanau.
- Nina was one of the first doctors in Gisborne to give single girls the pill in the 1960s.
- She would do home visits. Remember the day she arrived at our home on a lovely sunny day wearing high heeled strappy bling shoes and the glare from them nearly blinded us. She had one of her ankles strapped up too. She was a ray of sunshine.
- Your grandmother was my mother’s doctor and she spoke very highly of her – she delivered all four of her children.
- My mother N.L. was housekeeper for them around 1949. She could not speak highly enough of her.
- She was lovely and helped so many. She loved giving the pill to anyone who asked. No judgement, all unconditional.
- My mother H.S. worked for Dr Muir. She taught mum how to set a table, dress a table and how to serve guests. Mum talked about Dr Nina Muir for years. She had wonderful memories of working for her. She always talked about her beautiful table ware, linen and cutlery. Mum started working there around 1939 when she was 18. My dad had to get Dr Muir’s permission to court my mum.
- Dr Nina delivered me in 1941. Apparently granny said “What an ugly baby!” and Nina was supposed to have replied “Oooohh she is beautiful!”
- Dr Nina was a client of mine. I worked in the Elizabeth Arden salon. She was an incredible lady. Always reminded me of Golda Meir. She would only have an appointment if the moon was on the water. She also gave me a book to read called ‘The Winged Pharoah’. Having her full attention for over an hour, we talked on a lot of subjects. Nina told me about working in the slums of either Dublin or London and how people had ripped up every second step of the stairway for kindling. I suffered with endometriosis and she would arrive armed with an injection which she stabbed into my bottom. Her remark was “What do men know?” Nina also said “If God made the universe and man in his own image, who do people think aliens look any different from us?” She also said “Gisborne’s Venereal Diseases were as bad as Cairo’s” and “Why do young men come to me – is it because I am old?” Even though your grandfather owned the local newspaper, she wouldn’t read it as it was full of bad news.
- I was her secretary. Her husband drove her in the middle of the night when she got a call.
- I knew both Nina and Percy very well. My aunt was Nina’s daily house help. Every morning she got her breakfast and took it upstairs to her in bed. She always had fresh orange juice and two bits of toast and tea with silver cutlery. I was their lawn mower lad for many years and every Saturday after doing the those bloody big lawns with a crappy lawn mower chomping through all the chestnuts I would always go up to her and talk race horses. She loved a bet.
- Dowding S. ‘Muir, Nina Catherine’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand 2000 [09.06.2022]. Available from: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5m60/muir-nina-catherine
- Births, Deaths & Marriages Online Wellington: New Zealand Government Internal Affairs; [09.06.2022]. Available from: https://www.bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/
- Page D. Anatomy of a Medical School, A History of Medicine at the University of Otago 1875-2000. Dunedin: Otago University Press; 2008.
- Mitchell N. Information on My Grandmother, Dr Nina Muir 2022.
- Examination Results Waikato Successes. Waikato Times. 1914 22.01.1914. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WT19140122.2.45
- National Scholarships Successful Candidates. Auckland Star. 1916 15.01.1916. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS19160115.2.58
- Examinations – Results Announced. Lyttelton Times. 1919 08.03.1919. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/LT19190308.2.70
- Muir N. Summary of My Career – personal memoirs Forthcoming 1948.
- Wright-St Clair RE. “Historia Nunc Vivat” Medical Practitioners in New Zealand 1840 to 1930. Christchurch: Cotter Medical History Trust; 2003.
- Updates Medical Staff Wellington. New Zealand Times 1926 01.05.1926. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZTIM19260501.2.89.4
- Personal Items. Wairarapa Daily Times. 1928 01.06.1928. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WDT19280601.2.17
- Personals. Gisborne Times. 1928 20.09.1928. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/GIST19280920.2.24
- Personals. Gisborne Times. 1929 16.08.1929. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/GIST19290816.2.28
- Muir-Howard. Auckland Star. 1929 15.10.1929. Available from: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS19291015.2.136.11