Papali’i Viopapa “Vio” Annandale-Atherton

This biography is based on an interview with Viopapa and her son James, who live in Samoa, on 27 April 2023 via Microsoft Team as well as her CV which she provided. Photos are family sourced unless otherwise referenced. Secondary sources are listed in the bibliography.

Graduate of 1964


Family History and Childhood

Viopapa (Vio for short) was born at the Moto’otua National Hospital in Apia, Samoa on 10 March 1940 to Edward (Ted) and Sina (nee Nelson) Annandale. Her childhood home was a few miles out of Apia on the family cocoa plantation. She was the eldest of five children (one brother and three sisters).

Her father, a Scottish Samoan, was initially employed as a junior staff member at Viopapa’s mother’s family business but eventually became the managing director of the trading company which had its head office in Apia and operated trading stores throughout Samoa. Her mother, described by Viopapa as an amazing and enterprising woman, ran her family’s cocoa plantation and was the only female plantation manager in the Apia area at that time.

Four Generations: Baby Vio, Grandmother Gagau, Great-grandmother Sose and Father Ted (1940)

Viopapa’s paternal great-grandfather was Professor Thomas Annandale (1838-1907), a famous Scottish surgeon, at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. He conducted the first repair of the meniscus and the first removal of an acoustic neuroma. (1) Two of his sons travelled to Samoa in the 1920s and had children with their Samoan partners. Viopapa’s paternal grandfather Bethune Annandale returned later to the UK and married an English woman but her great-uncle stayed in Samoa and the Samoan Annandale family was established. In hindsight, Viopapa recognizes the important influence her Samoan paternal grandmother’s family had on her. The village life at Poutasi (which was struck by the 2009 tsunami is on the South East coast of the Upolu Island; Apia is on the North side) was especially informative on her childhood.

Her maternal grandfather Ta’isi Olaf Frederick Nelson, who was half Swedish and half Samoan, was a major leader in the independence movement and was exiled twice by the NZ government. His biography was published in 2017, and tells the story of Samoa’s once richest man who chose to subvert the colonial order. (2). Viopapa is very proud of her family members who fought for Samoan independence. (3, 4)

Growing up in her relatively affluent Samoan family, Viopapa understood that education was important and tertiary education was encouraged by her parents, particularly her mother. At some point during her schooling, her mother applied for and was successful in gaining a New Zealand Government Scholarship for her daughter. Viopapa attended Epsom Girls Grammar School (EGGS) and at that time the NZ scholarship girls were encouraged to focus on a career in nursing or teaching. However, her mother encouraged her to set her sights higher and to study medicine and become a doctor. Viopapa obtained her accredited university entrance while at EGGS and then returned to Samoa where she attended Samoa College for one year before commencing her medical studies.

Otago University School of Medicine

Viopapa applied for and was successful in obtaining entrance to Otago Medical School. In 1959, she arrived at Otago University as a nineteen-year-old, not knowing anyone. She initially felt a bit lost but the other young women at St Margaret’s College, where she stayed for the first two years before flatting with friends in Clyde Street and Māori Hill, (3) were friendly and she quickly settled into university life. She was treated well, found her classmates collegial, and does not recall any racial or sexist discrimination. She recalls being treated “in a rather special way by her male colleagues” and being the only “sort of nonwhite student at the time”. She was very studious and did not participate in extracurricular sports and committees but did enjoy the social aspects and parties of university life and made many friends during these years.

Initially, her father was told by the scholarship committee that if she chose to do medicine (rather than the suggested choices of nursing or teaching) they would be required to pay for half her costs, but this was never actioned. Each year until she graduated in 1964, the scholarship covered her university fees as well as room and board. Because her parents were not having to fund any of her education, they were able to pay for her to go home to Samoa each summer, where some years she did ward work in the local hospital. She particularly remembers the summer recess of 1961-1962 when she was twenty-one, as Samoa gained its independence on 1 January 1962. A YouTube recording of Viopapa being interviewed at the 50th anniversary of independence can be heard on this link:

Her sixth year was spent at Auckland Hospital and in retrospect she admits she enjoyed herself a little too much and had to return to Dunedin to resit an exam which she successfully passed. Viapapa recalled her lecturers were helpful, especially Professor Tom O’Donnell, who said to her “Vio, we’ve got to get you through, you’re going to Edinburgh, you’re going to Scotland”. (3)

In 1964, she was successful in obtaining her M.B, Ch.B. (5)

Viopapa, in a 2019 interview with Amie Richardson from the University of Otago Magazine, is quoted with this advice for today’s student: (4)

“I think one of the most important lessons, especially for students, is to keep a balance between study and ‘time out’. There will be many challenges. Deal with them with patience, respect, and dignity.”

Early United Kingdom Years

Viopapa spent her first year as a house surgeon in professorial surgical and medical wards at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. She found it a most interesting experience to work in the hospital where her great-grandfather’s portrait was looking back at her as she worked: (6)

“Here I am a Polynesian girl going all the way to Scotland and there is a man’s picture on the wall who is my great-grandfather”.

While working in Edinburgh she met her future English husband, Dr John Atherton, who had also just graduated as a Doctor and was doing his internship. They married in 1965. Sadly, John died on 2 June 2014 at the age of seventy-six. He served the community of Samoa for thirty years; first as a surgeon and from 1993 as a General Practitioner. He was an avid reader and was a regular contributor to the Samoa Observer newspaper and enjoyed travelling with Viopapa. (7)

Viopapa and John on their wedding day, 1965

After her first year as a house surgeon in Edinburgh, she and John moved to England and Viopapa did various other jobs. Their first son, Malvern, was born in 1966 and he later worked with Rolls Royce in both the United Kingdom and the USA. He died in 2016 at the age of 49. James, their second son, was born in 1967 and now lives in Samoa about 100 meters from his mother. He works as an environmental consultant and is currently the President of the Samoa Conservation Society, which is a NGO committed to advancing the conservation of Samoa’s biodiversity and natural heritage. (8)

The Years of Travel Between the UK and Samoa

The family spent several years travelling back and forth between the United Kingdom and Samoa depending on the contracts her husband had with the Samoan government and the educational needs of their boys.

Being a wife and mother was important to Viopapa. In a 2019 Samoan Observer article she is quoted with her thoughts on motherhood: (6)

It was hard being a mother and working at the same time, when we lived in the United Kingdom, I had to do part time medical work for about four years, I did not want anyone else to be involved with raising my sons, it put me back a bit with my career in medicine but eventually coming back home was different. You have your families and friends to help look after your kids which enabled me to do full time work.

I think what made my journey as a mother less stressful is having a partner that is very supportive and shares in all the responsibilities and I certainly had that from my husband, we both shared the upbringing of the children especially because my second son was born 11 months after my first born.

I think it is important for mothers to have a supportive family. If you live oversees it is more like a nuclear family whereas living in Samoa you have the support of your extended family members.

From 1971 to 1974 they lived in Samoa and both she and John were employed at the Moto’otua National Hospital in Apia. They returned to the UK and Viopapa worked in the area of family planning in Sutton (a town in South London) as well as studying at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where she was successful in obtaining her postgraduate Diploma of Tropical Public Health (Distinction) in 1976. She went down this pathway as she was not overly drawn to clinical medicine and particularly liked the social aspect of maternal-child health and family planning. The family then returned to Apia until 1982. John again became a surgeon at the National Hospital (7) and Viopapa worked with the Ministry of Health. For a time, she was Acting Director of Health. In 1979, she became a member of the Pan Pacific & South East Asia Women’s Association (PPSEAWA). During these years some of the contributions she made included: (4)

  • 1971 until 1982, on the request of the Samoan government, Viopapa was trained and then set-up and headed a WHO clinic in Samoa for Maternal and Child Health and Family Planning. This clinic trained and employed nurses and then units were set up in some of Samoa’s district hospitals. Some nurses were also trained in the insertion of intrauterine devices, but the oral contraceptive pill and the less popular condoms were the main forms of family planning. Access to family planning supplies was good due to the co-operative relationship between the WHO and the governments of NZ and Samoa.
  • Protested against the dumping of nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean in the 1970s and joined the movement against testing of nuclear weapons in French Polynesia.
  • 1979 was a founding member of Aoga Fiamalamalama (School of Special Needs Children)
  • Member of Soroptimist International of Samoa (an organization that empowers women and girls by supporting education) and was president for a time
Malvern, John, James, Viopapa, circa 1984

John’s years as chief surgeon in Samoa were not recognized by the licensing body in the UK so he made the decision to switch his career pathway to general practice. The family spent several years back in the UK where John retrained and then worked in a Norwich general practice until their permanent return to Samoa in 1993. While living in the UK, Viopapa headed the Family Planning and Well Women’s Service for the district of Norfolk.

Family picture in Norwich, 1988 (L to R: Viopapa, John, Sina, James, Malvern, Edward, in front Vio’s sister Calmar)

Settling in Samoa

Malvern, Viopapa, John circa 2012

In 1993, they settled in Samoa permanently. Viopapa and John, believing primary care was important for a community, set up the Soifua Manuia General Practice Matautu in Apia which they were both involved in until it was sold in 2007; Viopapa retired from her clinical work at this time but John continued to work in other general practices until 2014. (4, 7)

In addition, Viopapa’s work in advocacy for women, children and her country continued, both at the local and international level. Some of her contributions included: (4)

  • 1994 founding member of Mapusaga o Aiga (focusing on domestic violence, children and human rights).
  • Represented the PPSEAWA on the taskforce of the Samoa Umbrella of Non-Government Organisations for many years.
  • Member of the PPSEAWA International Council since 1997.
  • PPSEAWA International President from 2004-2010.
  • Advisor to a WHO special committee on long-acting injectable contraceptives which allowed her to travel to developing countries to assist and advise on their family planning programmes.
  • Making maternal and child health and family planning services more readily available to all the district hospitals on Upolu and Savaii Islands; this work also included vaccinations for all children by trained nurses.
  • Steering Committee member of the Civil Society Support Programme (CSSP) and the UN Global Environment Facility/Small Grants Programme (GEF/SGP) representing civil societies and PPSEAWA Samoa. The main responsibility of both steering committees is to call for project proposals for funding for projects and research and to evaluate and approve funds for projects that contribute to making a significant impact on livelihoods and the environment.


Under Viopapa’s leadership PPSEAWA Samoa has received funds to implement the following projects:

  • USAid for a project to Empower women’s groups in tsunami affected villages by facilitating income-generating activities – 2010-2011.
  • EU funds for activities to end violence against women and girls during the UN 16 Days of Activism; 25 November 2011 – 10 December 2012.
  • CCSP approved funds to produce a film/documentary showcasing the role of women in the development of Samoa since Independence in 1962.
John, Viopapa and her brother Joe, Christmas 2011


Viopapa now lives on the former pineapple plantation her mother managed during the 1970’s and 80’s. The land has since been subdivided amongst various family members and she and James are surrounded by their cousins, aunties and uncles. She continues some of her advocacy work with the Pan Pacific and Southeast Asia Women’s Association.

Malvern, Viopapa, James 2014

In 2019, as one of four outstanding alumni, she travelled to Otago University for its 150th anniversary, and was awarded an honorary doctorate on Queen’s Birthday weekend.

Dr Viopapa Annandale-Atherton and Sir Bill English, both Honorary Doctors of Law, 2019 (9)

On this occasion, when asked what the future held for Papali’i Dr Viopapa Annandale-Atherton and her beloved Samoa, she brought to focus the challenges facing Samoa and other Pacific nations by the consequences of the climate crisis and said: (4)

“I am very proud of what our tiny nation and others in the Pacific are trying to do about reducing our carbon footprint, even though we contribute a miniscule compared to that of other nations. We must continue to speak out and defend and protect our blue Pacific.”

Breaking barriers and creating opportunities for women and girls has been Viopapa’s driving force throughout her life. At the end of our interview, she spoke of the enjoyment she had experienced during her medical career, especially her advocacy work which she found interesting and satisfying. She enjoyed meeting many wonderful people who were interested in the same goals she had. She and her son also thanked us for the work of the Early Medical Women’s project and were grateful that the anecdotal stories, recollections, memories, and even important messages for the next generation were being recorded on the Early Medical Women of New Zealand website.

She holds the chiefly title Papali’i from the village of Sapapalii in Savaii, conferred by the late head of State, HH Malietoa Tanumafili ll. She has served her country, especially the women and children of Samoa, well in this role.


  1. Thomas Annandale: Wikepedia Foundation, Inc.; [updated 23.01.202302.05.2023]. Available from:
  2. O’Brien P. The Life of Ta’isi O. F. Nelson, Wellington: RNZ Pacific Waves; 2017 [09.05.2023]. Available from:
  3. Rising to the challenge – first Pacific graduate paves the way Dunedin: Otago Bulletin Board Uni News; 2019 [04.05.2023]. Available from:
  4. Richardson A. Profiles: A woman of the Pacific. University of Otago Magazine. 201950(02.05.2023).
  5. Medical Final Results. Press. 1964 18.05.1964. Available from:
  6. Fruean A. Papalii Dr. Viopapa Atherton Apia: Samoa Observer; 2019 [04.05.2023]. Available from:
  7. Lythgoe D. A Study of Annandale Families – Dr John Atherton 2021 [04.05.2023]. Available from:
  8. About Us: Samoa Conservation Society Apia, Samoa: Samoa Conservation Society; 2021 [09.05.2023]; December, 2021. Available from:
  9. Dr Viopapa Annandale-Atherton and Sir Bill English, both Honorary Doctors of Law Wellington: New Zealand Government House; 2019 [08.05.2023]. Available from: Dr Viopapa Annandale-Atherton and Sir Bill English, both Honorary Doctors of Law | The Governor-General of New Zealand (


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