One of the questions posed in Monday’s Quiz was the name of the author of Backblocks Baby Doctor . I’d been thinking about the book because the news about swine flu reminded me of Doris Gordon’s account of working during the 1918 flu epidemic.
I thought others might be interested in reading the book because Doris had a no-nonsense approach to writing and the result is a fascinating and down to earth account of her life and times.
She was one of the first women to qualify as a doctor in New Zealand, graduating in 1913. She married in 1917 and two weeks later her husband, who was also a doctor, left to serve overseas. She lectured at the University of Otago during the war then worked as a locum in the North Island during the 1918 flu epidemic.
At 9pm I was in the home of a master painter whose only two children had both got out of bed and walked round two blocks to witness the Broadway celebrations. I verified that the elder son was dead, went into the kitchen to sign the certificate, and was startled to find the undertaker there, tape in hand; and I literally shivered when he suggested that I also sign the death certificate for the other lad who was undoubtedly just about to die.
It seemed ghoulish to sign while there was a flickering pulse but the undertaker was as hard pushed as I was.
When her husband returned to New Zealand the following year they set up in general practice together.
Doris had a particular interest in maternity services. She was instrumental in establishing the NZ Obstetrical Society and by skill and perseverance raised the money to endow a Chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Otago Medical School and for the Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in Dunedin.
Early on she learned the power women wielded:
Starting just after one triennial election has passed, various items of reform are decided on by twenty or thirty women leaders who comprise the National Council of Women. These are usually the presidents and leaders of the women’s organisations. For the next two years they indoctrinated thousands of women in hundreds of branches. In the third year – election year again – a deputation with a substantial women’s vote solidly behind it, bears the request to the appropriate minister. This represents petticoat government at its best and is a system seldom known to have failed.
Doris was the first Australasian woman to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (FRCS) and was also awarded an MBE.
While working full time, studying, fund raising and advocating on maternity services she also raised three children.
This book, and its sequel Doctor Down Under, should appeal to anyone with an interest in health, politics, the politics of health, maternity services, history and/or inspirational people.
Backblocks Baby Doctor by Doris Gordon, published by Faber & Faber, 1956. It’s out of print but a Google search located several second hand copies.