Catharine Louisa Brookfield (nee Will)

Catharine’s great-grandson, John McMillan, and her granddaughters, Judith McMillan and Linden Hart, have provided an early family history written by Catharine’s son Melville as well as the photos used in this biography. Secondary sources are recorded in the bibliography. The spelling of her first name varied in her birth, marriage, and death registrations and her medical degree diploma. The family have asked for Catharine to be used throughout the biography.

Class of 1911


Family History

Catharine Louisa Will was born on 25 April 1886 (1) at her family home ‘Melville House’ in Abbotsford, near Dunedin. She was named after her two grandmothers, Katherine Pegg and Louisa Will and from childhood was known by the pet name Rina/Rhena.

Catharine’s paternal grandparents, Rev William and Louisa Will, arrived from Scotland in 1854 in the tenth year of the Otago Colony. He was the second Presbyterian minister in the Otago region and the first minister of the East Taieri church where he served for the next forty-five years. (2)  Her father, Dr William (Bill) J Will, was born in the manse at East Taieri in 1858 and later trained as a doctor in Edinburgh. He returned to New Zealand following completion of his studies and in late 1884 set up a general medicine practice in the Green Island area (located about six kilometres from the city centre of Dunedin).

Catharine’s mother Sarah Helen ‘Nellie’ Pegg was born and raised in Derbyshire, England. In 1881, she and her brother George sailed to Geelong, Victoria, Australia to join their brother and sister who had emigrated three years earlier. It is uncertain what took her to the East Taieri manse in Otago but possibly there was a family connection from England. Bill had returned from Edinburgh in the spring of 1882 due to sickness and there met his future wife. They were engaged a year later prior to his return to Edinburgh to complete his studies. He graduated in 1884. (3)

He and Nellie were married in 1885 (4) and Catharine was born the following year. (1)


Prior to her fourth birthday, Catharine was joined by a sister Anne ‘Dorothy’ on 2 February 1888 (5) and a brother William ‘Hunter’ on 28 January 1890. (6) All three children were born in Melville House and went to the local Green Island School for their primary education. The children enjoyed the companionship of the Leary children, who lived across the road from them, and loved going to their home for ‘Nursery Tea’ because they enjoyed the ‘Taieri & Peninsular’ butter rather than the homemade butter made from the cream from their own cow. The family also had at least one horse for their father to make house calls to his patients.

At fourteen years of age, Catharine commenced her secondary schooling at Braemar House, a private girls’ school founded in 1895 and incorporated into Columba Girls College in 1915. In 1900 the school had approximately forty pupils, with four to six pupils in her class and the cost per term for day students was £3-3-0 (three terms per year). Each day she travelled from the Abbotsford station (very close to her home) to Dunedin and back by the regular train service plus a ten-minute walk to her school. The trip took less than thirty minutes.

Braemar House, under the joint principalship of two sisters, the Misses Miller, impressed upon their students a reverence for life, a sense of civic responsibility and service and the need to contribute to the good of humanity while gaining a liberal education. There was regular hospital visiting and projects such as feeding and clothing two little Indian girls at Ramabhai Mission.

Catharine took the course for Matriculation; her subjects included Mathematics (Arithmetic, Euclids, and Algebra), English, French, Latin and Natural Science which included Physiology. Religious instruction (unsectarian) was part of the curriculum as well as preparation for the Kensington art and music examinations. Catharine did well at school and her name was prominent on the Braemar Honour’s Board. Over the years, she gained many of the end of year book prizes. These included:

  • 1898: Application (H. W. Longfellow’s Poems)
  • 1899: First prize for English (‘The Royal Shakespeare’ in three volumes)
  • 1901: English (John Milton’s illustrated book ‘Paradise Lost’)
  • 1902: Euclid (W. M. Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’)
  • 1903: French and English (R. Browning’s Complete Poems in eight small volumes and A. Tennyson’s Poems in twelve small volumes)
Catharine and Dorothy, circa 1903.

University of Otago

Catharine’s father encouraged her to go into medicine. At the age of nearly eighteen she commenced her classes at Otago University in early April 1904, taking the subjects required for Medical Intermediate (Organic and Inorganic Chemistry, Physics, and Biology which included Botany). She started the university year commuting but found the workload challenging so after a few weeks switched to boarding in Dunedin. She had not done any Physics and possibly no Chemistry. She failed to pass at the end of the year. She spent 1905 at home but with strong encouragement from her father she returned in 1906 and repeated her Medical Intermediate and successfully passed at the end of the year.

Catharine commenced her medical training in April 1907. She was in a class of 14 students; there was another lady-med in the first year but on graduation Catharine was the only woman listed in the graduation list. The other lady-med, Violet Field, appears to have gone to Edinburgh at some point to successfully complete her medical training. (7).

She successfully passed her exams year by year and in 1911 graduated with her M.B. Ch.B. (8)

Future Class of 1911 – Medical Students in Lecture Theatre– circa 1910
(Front: Professor of Medicine Daniel Colquhoun, Violet Field, Catherine L. Will, RBP Monson. Middle: H. O’Callaghan, P. Ardagh, WP Johnston, WB Wishart, HD Robertson, RW Edgar. Back: DR Fenwick, HL Widdowson, A.O. Evans, JE Brown)

First Female House Surgeon at Dunedin Hospital

Encouraged by her father, Catharine applied for a position as junior house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital and to her surprise was appointed as one of the four house surgeons; the first woman to be appointed to this role on an annual salary of £100. There were some initial challenges with living quarters and dress code, but these were sorted.

Catharine, the first Dunedin Hospital female house surgeon, 1911

Catharine wrote the following letter in her application.

To the Chairman, Charitable Aid Board,
Dear Sir,
I have the honour to apply for a position as Junior House Surgeon at the Dunedin Hospital. My age is 24 years, and I am a graduate in Medicine of the New Zealand University. My whole course of study has been in Dunedin, so I am well known to all the medical officers. I enclose six recent testimonials.
I have the honour to be,
Yours sincerely,
C. L. Will, Abbotsford 6.2.11

Supportive testimonials included:

L.E. Barnett, Professor of Surgery:
‘Possessed in no common degree of brightness, tact and common sense’  

Sydney Allen, Acting Lecturer in Surgery:
‘Conscientious methodical worker, and is quiet and confident in her manner’

John Malcolm, Professor of Physiology and a family friend:’
‘Distinguished herself during her medical course by her ability and diligence’

Rev Wm. Hewitson, Master of Knox College:
‘She is a grand-daughter of the manse, and a daughter and grand(niece) of medical men. She has a good, wholesome, womanly nature, and has grown up under the influence of sound moral and medical traditions.’

Professor Michael Watt, O.T. Theology & Literature, and old family friend:
‘I have the highest possible opinion of the sterling worth of her character….I feel that she would have made an ideal hospital nurse, only she has elected to qualify herself to serve her fellows in a not less important, perhaps more responsible capacity.’

Catharine’s future husband, Athol William Purchas Brookfield, was in her same year of medical training. He and Catharine were engaged on 17 June 1911. Athol failed his final examinations in January 1911 but was successful in passing by July 1912 and later that year he commenced his medical practice as a General Practitioner and Surgeon at Papakura.

In the spring of 1911, Catharine was appointed Acting Medical Officer at the Tuberculosis Sanitorium, at Pleasant Valley, a few kilometres south of Palmerston and later was reappointed as Medical Officer in March 1912 at double the salary (£200) per annum. In this position she was the sole resident doctor. It is unclear why she went to the Tuberculosis Sanitorium, as she had been appointed as a junior house surgeon for twelve months. (9) She remained here until June 1912. She did not practise medicine again.

Marriage and Family

For the latter half of 1912, Catharine lived at her family’s home ‘Melville House’ in Abbotsford. Over the summer of 1912-1913, she spent a few months in Melbourne with family friends of her mother.

She and Athol were married in Auckland on 12 September 1913. (10)

In preparation for their marriage, Athol had purchased a motorcar – a Ford ‘Tin Lizzie’. They had no honeymoon and commenced married life in a rented house in Clark Road, Papakura. Miss Annie Biddulph was employed as cook, general maid and later nursemaid.

From her son’s family history, it says Catharine accompanied her husband as he visited his patients in the back-blocks of the Papakura district. It is not known if she ever used her own medical training on these visits. On their trips into Auckland for provisions they would also visit the Brookfield and Purchas relatives and in December 1915, her sister Dorothy, married Athol’s younger brother and settled in St Heliers Bay, Auckland.

Catharine and Athol welcomed son Melville on 6 July 1914, daughter Evelyn on 10 December 1915 and a second daughter Daphne on 11 July 1918. All were born at their home in Clark Road, Papakura during the World War I years. It was a sad time for the Brookfield family as two of Athol’s brothers were killed in action.

Athol and Catharine’s Children: Daphne, Melville, Evelyn (circa early 1920s)

Like the rest of New Zealand, the Papakura area quickly went from celebrating armistice to mourning the deaths from the influenza epidemic. The burden on Athol, as the sole doctor for the large Papakura area, was heavy and lasted for two months and left him with a predisposition towards asthma.

With her young family, Catharine, visited her family in Dunedin twice in those very early years of marriage. The journey involved the Coastal Steamer – leaving the port of Onehunga and calling in on the ports in Gisborne, Napier, Wellington, Lyttleton, Dunedin and Bluff as it travelled south. The return journey involved the same ports of call, in reverse. The first visit she made was in the autumn of 1917 with Melville (3 years) and Evelyn (18 months). The second visit was in the autumn of 1920 with all the three children.  During these visits she would stay two to three months with her parents who now resided at ‘The Bungalow’ (the residence of the medical superintendent of Ashburn Hall, a private mental hospital).

Severe Asthma, Sinus Surgery, Death

From late 1920, Athol’s asthma became more frequent and severe which forced him to sell his medical practice. The family moved back to Dunedin in February 1921 in the hopes the dry central Otago air might help him and they lived temporarily at ‘The Bungalow’ with Catharine’s parents. Athol’s asthma continued to be severe and in late August he travelled back to Auckland with his parents where he had a five day stay at Rawhiti Private Hospital. He improved enough to make the journey to the warmer climate of Russell in the Bay of Islands where he and his parents and two sisters stayed at his aunt and uncle’s holiday home.  He and Catharine kept in regular contact by letters, and she arranged studio pictures of the children for him, and he wrote humorous poems and sketches to the children. In mid-December he travelled back to Auckland and was admitted to Cairnhill Hospital for assessment and management of his severe asthma. He had a chronic nasal infection and the doctors considered surgical removal of several nasal polypi and drainage of his infected ethmoid sinus might help in the recovery from his disabling asthma.

He and Catharine decided it was best if she continued to stay with the children in Dunedin.

Before the operation he wrote to his wife: (11)

I am writing to no one else like this.
Thank you for your life and all you have given me.
May you soon find comfort, and ability to meet your needs.
Your faith in God will guide you in these and all things.
I miss you all.
Complete family love to you and our children.
God be with you & Evelyn & Daphne & Melville and bless you all.
Good bye and best love my dear wife. From your loving husband, Athol.

Surgery was performed on the morning of Tuesday, 31 January 1922. Severe bronchospasm occurred early in the surgery, and he died a few hours later at the age of thirty-six. Catharine received this devastating news via urgent telegram in the late afternoon. The next day she was on the express train to Lyttleton then the night ferry to Wellington then the train to Auckland arriving Friday morning in time for his funeral.


Catharine was back in Dunedin by the second weekend in February after attending to the estate details. She and her faithful maid Annie stayed in ‘The Bungalow’ for the next five years while her parents took up permanent residence across the road in the administrative quarters of Ashburn Hall. Her parents, some of the nurses, and not-so-sick patients were very good to the children.

In 1927 Catharine’s father retired as medical superintendent of Ashburn Hall and purchased a large home (six bedrooms) with half an acre of grounds in the Dunedin suburb of Roslyn. It was close to public transport which Evelyn and Daphne used as day students at Columba College. Melville went to John McGlashan College as a boarder for both his primary and secondary schooling. In grandfather Brookfield’s will, money was set aside for Melville’s tertiary education.

Melville went to medical school and later married and eventually settled in Timaru. In addition to his medical practice, he was part-time physician at the hospital in later years.

Evelyn successfully completed her B.Sc. She later married and lived in Hastings and later Auckland. Daphne trained as a Karitane nurse and then went on to train as a nurse at Dunedin Hospital. She also married and lived in the Auckland area.

Catharine’s father died in 1930 and her mother in 1936. The large family home was sold in 1938 and Catharine moved to a large flat in the suburb of Roslyn.

Catharine’s early medical career was never her focus following her marriage. She was very attentive to her family and for many years during the 1950s and 1960s would spend two months in Auckland visiting her sister and daughters’ families. Each year she would spend April in Timaru with Melville and his family. In Dunedin she had many old school friends and made new ones through her fellow Presbyterian worshippers at First Church. She was a regular attender at the Otago Classical Association and at Greek play readings and was a member of the Victoria League (connecting people from Commonwealth countries).

From 1959 onwards she suffered from failing health but with some support was able to stay in her flat. She died on 16 January 1967, forty-five years after the passing of her husband.



  1. Births, Marriages and Deaths. Otago Daily Times. 1886 21.05.1886. Available from:
  2. Register of New Zealand Presbyterian Church Ministers, Deaconesses & Missionaries from 1840: Welch to Will Dunedin: Presbyterian Organization; [15.05.2023]. Available from:
  3. Our Home Letter. Otago Daily Times. 1884 26.09.1884. Available from:
  4. Marriage. Otago Daily Times. 1885 28.05.1885. Available from:
  5. Births, Deaths and Marriages. Otago Daily Times. 1888 22.02.1888. Available from:
  6. Births. Otago Daily Times. 1890 06.02.1890. Available from:
  7. Personal. Marlborough Express. 1912 25.03.1912. Available from:
  8. University Degress Further Awards Otago Daily Times. 1911 28.01.1911. Available from:
  9. Shipwreck Relief. Otago Daily Times. 1911 10.02.1911. Available from:
  10. Marriage. Otago Daily Times. 1913 07.11.1913. Available from:
  11. McMillan J. Dr Athol Brookfield 1885 – 1922. Doctor during the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918/19 Auckland: Facebook: Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland History & Memories; 2020 [18.05.2023]. Available from:
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