|Longevity and the Dawsons|
|Thursday, 02 September 2010|
Pictured: Three generations of Dawsons, all with good military credentials: Frederick William Edmund (1840-1900); Frederick Walter Whitney (1876-1977); Richard Henry (1915-1967)
In colonial New Zealand medical groups,indeed organisations in general, tended to be local rather than national, at least until the 1880s, when communications had improved to the extent that settlers could plan to a wider vision. In 1873, a medical society had been formed in unedin, with Dr TM Hocken as its president: a medical graduate, bibliophile, polymath, collector – all of these being attributes he shared with a number of his fellows – he was influential in the development of medical teaching in Dunedin and, although the local society had lapsed after a couple of years, he was well placed to respond to a proposal from Dr JHR Bond in Auckland for the establishment of a New Zealand Medical Association. Bond was an Edinburgh graduate, a bustling young man who had been appointed senior medical officer to Auckland Hospital in 1883.
“Dawson attempted regularly to retire from practice, but each time his loyal patients forced him to carry on”
In April 1886, delegates from Wellington and Canterbury met the local group in Dunedin, considered a draft constitution already circulated by Bond, voted to form the association, and elected Hocken its first president. The 1887 meeting was in Wellington, and at the third meeting, in Auckland in 1888, Dr Frederick William Edmund Dawson (1840-1900) became president. He had come to New Zealand as a boy of 14, had served an apprenticeship with a local practitioner, gone to Penrith in New South Wales for four years, then to the Westminster, qualifying in 1869 and returning to Auckland the following year, where he practised in Wellesley Street West, half a block back from the main street. He was acutely aware of the public duties of the profession, and was the local founder of the St John ambulance.
His eldest son, Frederick Walter Whitney, was born in 1876, and grew up in Auckland, in a town of unsealed streets and horse-drawn trams. He helped his father in an informal apprenticeship; then, after leaving St John’s College in Tamaki, he attended Auckland University College and gained some experience in the local hospital before following his father to the Westminster on a scholarship. He qualified LSA in 1900, was registered on 1 January 1901 (he could thus lay claim to being the first doctor of the twentieth century); then hurried off to serve in the South African War, returning to obtain the London MB in 1903. Rejoining the Royal Army Medical Corps, he served at various times in Sierra Leone, South Africa, Ulster, India and Burma.
In 1908, in Capetown, he married Nora Oberlin Brown, daughter of an Auckland organist, and she thereafter accompanied him on his various postings. They had a daughter and three sons. He took the DPH in 1922, and after retiring in the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he returned to New Zealand. He was medical officer of health in Christchurch, Hamilton and New Plymouth, and during the Second World War he was senior medical officer at the RNZAF base at Hobsonville, out of Auckland. Afterwards, and at the age of 66, he became a GP in Whangarei, 170kms north of Auckland, an area of idyllic scenery and, especially in those days, poor communications. Meanwhile, his youngest son, Richard Henry, born in India when his father was serving there in 1915, had grown up in New Zealand, attending Christ’s College in Christchurch before entering the Otago Medical School in Dunedin. He graduated in 1939, spent a year as a houseman in New Plymouth, then enlisted in the New Zealand Medical Corps and served throughout the North African and Italy campaigns.
He was a prisoner briefly during the confused fighting round Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed in the 1941 Libyan campaign, helping a German guard gather up wounded; he was moved as far as Benghazi where he received an early Christmas present, being freed by advancing elements of the 8th Army on 24 December. He was mentioned in despatches for his care of the wounded during this period. In Italy, now a major, he ran a busy advanced dressing station of 5 Field Ambulance during the attack on Faenza, with the skill he would later display in civilian practice. Following a short time back home after the war, he made the pilgrimage to Britain, became FRCSEd and acquired the MCh(Orth) in Liverpool, where he was RSO at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. Here he devised a simple radiographic method of assessing leg length. Returning to New Zealand in 1949, he was in time to be one of the founders of the New Zealand Orthopaedic Association.
For a start, he was based, like his father, in Whangarei, establishing an orthopaedic service for the scattered communities of the Northland region. His colleague, Peter Grayson (another Edinburgh Fellow) would write of this period that ‘the tedium, of this [travel] was lightened by the occasional shot that he could obtain at unwary game birds near the roadside.’ In 1952, Dick Dawson moved to Palmerston North where he rapidly built up a flourishing unit: in 1954 he arranged to have a registrar ‘of his own’ rather than sharing the general surgical registrar, and one of my happy memories is of being the first occupant of this post. He combined technical flair with a blend of good sense and originality, designing (and often making) instruments to facilitate his work. His opinion was widely sought. He was a generous host and a keen sportsman. In 1966, he became the Orthopaedic Association’s youngest president, and set about preparing for the second combined Australia-New Zealand meeting, to be held this time in Adelaide. At the opening of the duck-shooting season in May 1967, he shot his duck, then told his companions he was feeling unwell and would wait for them in the car; he did not make the climb up to the road.
He was 51, a decade younger than his grandfather had been. It is interesting to ponder what he might have achieved even in that decade. And Dick’s father? He attempted regularly to retire from practice, but each time his loyal patients forced him to carry on. At the age of 98 he was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal, the first indigenous New Zealand order; and he received his award at his home during a visit by the governorgeneral, Sir Denis Blundell. On his 100th birthday the leaders of the New Zealand Medical Association visited him to present him with the first-ever Fellowship of the Association, under the name it enjoyed when his own father became its third president, and had lately regained. (In the intervening period it had been successively the NZ Medical Association, the NZ Branch of the BMA, the Medical Association of NZ, and finally the NZMA once more.) He died on 23 July 1977, just three months short of his 101st birthday. He did not smoke, he did not drink, and he was a lay reader in the Church of England: the combination had proved ideal for him.