Abernethy, Dr Ian Allan George Interview

Today is the 5th of March – I’m recording an interview with Dr Ian Abernethy of Havelock North and Pat, on his life in medicine in the Village, his family and his other interests. Ian would you like to now tell us something about the start. Thank you.

All right. I suppose I need to explain where I’ve come from to be here in Havelock North, and I suppose if we start on my maternal side, that’s the English side, and they came over in a sailing ship to Lyttelton and I think they had actually a … did actually have a job organised on Mt Grey which is just north of Christchurch. And this sailing ship was a disaster. Every baby under the age of 1 died and there were multiple deaths in other ways and other age groups of course – but I understand that the couple with their – I think they had four children – lived through the voyage and made it up to Mt Grey. But unfortunately he developed an illness for which we have no diagnosis, but he died within I think it was six weeks or so of having arrived there, and then his wife, unfortunately she took ill and she was actually admitted to Christchurch hospital I’m told. I haven’t had the opportunity to search for the records to obtain some sort of diagnosis, but she died too. And my thoughts go along sort of slow, incubating illnesses like a hepatitis type of illness which evidently would have fitted in with gastro-intestinal symptoms and could have been responsible for a lot of death on the way out.

So they were then accommodated at Mt Grey and now the boy who was my grandfather – I don’t know quite where he went to school or whether he went to school – but however he became a bootmaker and set up shop in Temuka, and he became quite a celebrated bootmaker, I believe – I’m told of course, because he had brought out some English moulds and he was celebrated because evidently his shoes and boots always fitted, were a kind fit to his customers and so he flourished and took a very full part in life in Temuka and he became Deputy Mayor there and eventually died – oh, round about [18]80s to [18]90s – and had … he and my grandmother they had 10 children I think – which was not unusual in those days.

And they had a very warm family life. They were very, very staunch Methodists and so there was no grog in the house and they were all brought up to do something at a family gathering. And what they did was … you might sing something, or you might play the piano, or you might tell a joke, or you might do a card trick or – well, there was no limit to what you might do, but you see in those days social life was what was made of it. And Sunday nights were particularly important when there were large family gatherings, and then usually ended up with singing hymns. My memory of it is that they did have a great collection of instruments in this place in Temuka, and I always remember the little pedal organ that they had there, and I was fascinated by the little organ, and eventually came back to try organs. However, that’s many years after that. So that was my mother’s side – she was the eldest daughter there, so she would have been pretty busy as a girl helping Mother with the rest of the family.

The eldest boy became fairly well known – he was a two war man, he went to two wars, he went to the first World War and came back with shrapnel wounds – which evidently he had shrapnel wounds for the rest of his life. And then he marched off to the second World War and he was in charge of the New Zealand contingent at Norfolk Island. Fortunately the Japs [Japanese] never reached Norfolk Island because of the Battle of the Coral Sea, and so the Americans had stopped them getting to Norfolk, but I don’t think there would have been any survivors from that exercise. However he came back, and he became headmaster of – I think his last school was in Masterton at the Agricultural College there, and he took up Rotary and he became a District Governor, which included some of the Pacific Islands at that stage. A vast Rotary District. So that was the start.

My father came from a Scottish contingent, who came from Dumfries, where they used to make umbrellas. And I think probably they were keen to make a start in New Zealand, where at that stage tuberculosis was a very prevalent disease. There was thoughts that going to New Zealand would clear up tuberculosis and it was the same thought that put a lot of clinics up the mountains in Switzerland, where people would go for their recovery from tuberculosis. However, James – he was a James Abernethy – boarded the ship with 10 children I think, but he didn’t get any further than the Bay of Biscay before he died of his tuberculosis and he was buried at sea.

So, the rest of the family arrived in Dunedin at the start of a cold, long winter in Dunedin and boy … it wouldn’t be much of a winter. So … but the mother there, she still had … she carried on to have number 11 baby in Dunedin after they arrived. I just shudder to think of the conditions. However, she carried on and – we’ve paid a visit to her grave in Dunedin – and she went through to the late ‘[18]80s I think, and the children seemed to have survived, despite the outbreaks of whooping cough and other childhood illnesses which killed a lot of children in those days.

And now my father was the eldest in that family and he went off to the first World War, but when he came back from that he helped his, one of his younger brothers to go to the medical school in Dunedin, and Dunedin were terribly proud of the fact that they’d set up the first university in New Zealand, and they’d set up the medical school in New Zealand and so that was the start of Doctors Abernethy in New Zealand Medical School.

That was one of your Uncles?

Yes, they’re the cousin … too many of us really I think. Anyway, so that was my father and he came up, and now after the War – I think he became an electrician I think, and he took an interest in – he set up a business in Wellington importing clothing, and very largely from Japan at that stage, before the war of course. And so there we were in Wellington where I grew up. I was bundled off to Wellington College – my brothers had boarded at Nelson College, but had distinguished themselves rather unusually by being … coming home for the May school holidays and arriving with a letter requesting that they did not return. So … so it wasn’t surprising that I was bundled off to Wellington College where my parents could keep an eye on me, and I think probably that wasn’t needed so much as eyes on the other older lot. But anyway it was all fun.

And so it was planned that – yes, I didn’t have a sister but I had two brothers and we were all going to set up in the business together – it was my father’s master plan and my eldest brother, who was rather a very lively fellow to put it mildly, was to be the leading light and he became the New Zealand Speedway Champion and had a large fan base and was a very lively fellow, and used to hop over to Wembley Stadium to ride for Wembley. He never came World Champion like some of the New Zealand riders did, but however …

So – and then my second brother, he was – he took to the clothing industry. He set up his own business and it had been planned that he would manage the factories and we had quite a large business of about 150 employees, which was quite large in those days. I would be the sort of … the … goat that did all the work. And so this didn’t appeal to me very much and so after Wellington College I was half way preparing to go into the family business, and then I decided I’d have a shot at getting into Med School, but they really didn’t sort of highly rate my chances of doing so. But however, I went down to stay in Dunedin, not at one of the Halls of Residence because I’d sort of got out of that actually.


And I set up shop … or … you go out boarding and with a lifelong friend, Tom Farrar, who was from the same street in Karori as us and from Wellington College. And he was an interesting character in that his mother was Jewish and they had got out of Austria, perhaps three or four years before the War started. And so off we went and he went into Med School having gone through the usual process and I started off and had to work like heck and actually I got in to Medical School. And so I worked my way through that, and met Patricia – the luckiest day of my life when I met my beautiful Patricia.

And anyway in those days – different to what they seem to be doing these days – we waited, and we waited until I finished and then we got married two days after the final exam which I really don’t recommend to anybody. However, we survived, and now Patricia was a real Hawke’s Bay girl who is rated … one of the Holden families in Hawke’s Bay – and she – they were out in the country – and she went to Correspondence School lessons, but then like a lot of country girls, were bundled up and packed off to board at Iona in Havelock North.

And so we ended up, let’s see … we came up here to a wedding for one of Pat’s girlfriends from school at Havelock North, and I felt it was really just a corker place, and met Dr Allan Ballantyne at the wedding and so on, and so later on when we were deciding quite what to do – and a lot of young fellows at that stage were moving off to Australia of our generation of doctors, and also Canada. And Canada was one of the places we sort of thought by jove yes, that was very promising too. However, at that stage a Dr John and Margaret Rea of Havelock North had made the decision … John was a returned man from the second World War. Unfortunately he had war wounds – and the general practice as it was then was really – although Margaret of course helped out – but he had a huge thriving practice in Havelock North and he was immensely popular. But he decided that he would survive better if he took up a specialty and he decided to go to England to start on training as a pathologist. So he and Margaret packed up and the practice went on the market. Well, we were – golly whiskers – this … you know – Havelock North really sounded very nice and so after long, long thinking we thought well we could start off there – as quite a few of the younger fellows did, and save up and then go over and have a go at a specialty.

Well, so we came to Havelock North and started having babies, and we had three babies under three and sort of thought well now would be about the time to go to Canada or Australia or whatever, but with three babies and all that sort of thing, it became rather obvious that the sensible thing to do was to carry on where it was such a happy situation in Havelock North. And so I had – when at Palmerston I had become quite keen an anaesthetics, and so before coming to Havelock North I had a look round at maternity services and so on and found they didn’t have epidural anaesthetics services in Hawke’s Bay. So before coming into practice here I hopped over to Sydney and went to the Crown Street Women’s Hospital there to catch up on epidural anaesthetics. And so came back and not surprisingly, not everybody was impressed with me arriving with the necessary instruments to use for pudendal blocks and epidural anaesthetics which didn’t require the dangerous process of anaesthetics given in the middle of a difficult delivery.

However, however … things progressed and I started on anaesthetics in the private hospital here, and then started up at the public hospital and a job I carried on for 20 years. And so these skills spread around.

I had – also before really becoming totally bogged down in general practice – gone up to the World meeting of the British Medical Association which New Zealand was part of, and Professor Doug … anyway, he was – the New Zealander was the first – and only now – but he was the first incoming World President of the British Medical Association. And I went up to the World meeting and at that meeting was a Professor Lord Hunt – he became Lord Hunt that’s right – from London, and he had established in England a College of General Practice. And general practice was in a terrible state in England. The Government had moved in and taken control of it and things weren’t going at all well and I think that the standard of practice was really pretty grim. And this fellow set up this College and I thought that was a wonderful idea. And so really I think, probably the fact that this College had been set up, and I set out to join it, was a thing that kept me in general practice. We did – we set up a faculty of the College in New Zealand and now we are of course our separate, own College of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners. And we’re all to do with standards of practice and so on, registrations and a whole lot of gumph that’s a bit tedious and uninteresting to practising doctors.

However, yes, so I decided to stay in general practice, and I had become keen on sort of technical things like ECGs, and of course the public hospital didn’t have an ECG monitor in those days, so I went out and bought my own ECG machine, about 1967 or ’68 it would have been. And so … there wasn’t really extensive use for it in general practice at that stage because it was pretty expensive and really not economic in general practice. However, I did take it up to the public hospital, and I’m sure it was the first, and set it up there, it was even monitored with an ECG, and that would have been round about ’68. Of course this sort of stirred up the hospital administration and of course they went ahead and got more gear.

So, things carried on and the College grew and grew. One of the big things about the College – was that, now where was I, I’d been over to a College meeting in Melbourne at which … there was an American Professor – flew out, he arrived hot off the aeroplane, sweating and labouring under a great heavy bag of notes and so on. He arrived directly from the airport to the lecture room and – Professor Weed – his name was Weed, unfortunate name. Anyway he had developed a method of recording medicine from a general practice point of view. A method that enabled you to cross reference patients’ illnesses and keep a logical sort of day-to-day record but something that allowed you to refer back. And Glaxo – you know the famous …

Yes, yes.

… the firm that started in New Zealand and is now the biggest in Europe … Glaxo thought that this was such a great idea that they started printing these medical records for free. So naturally the general practitioners in New Zealand came to think that – that oh, well – these medical records are pretty good. And so we got these all going and of course this led into computerisation, and so the thought of the stream of knowledge goes on, and what I started off with is totally out of date and irrelevant now, but it started off with these various comings and goings and so I carried on.

But of course our family grew and we had another baby, Duncan, and so there we were. And it was a bit of a blow on us, particularly on Pat, because with the pregnancies unfortunately Pat developed otosclerosis, and this is accelerated by pregnancy and so unfortunately Patricia became very deaf. And this was quite a task, because there she was – she was really the 24 hour, seven day a week receptionist, and now had to take on the telephone.

So, however … we did end up putting Lynaire into boarding school and it did lighten up the load quite a bit actually, believe it or not, especially on the telephone for those ages. So Lynaire went up to Iona, to Pat’s old school. And I discouraged her from doing medicine, which I think was a terrible mistake because at that stage I felt that was the end of a girl’s – well, womanhood or whatever, but there I was a silly old fellow. However, she took up pharmacy and this of course has been very helpful for her – she’s got married and worked and helped to bring up a family in Australia.

But then, young Malcolm, he went to Havelock North Primary School where Frank Bacon was a wonderful headmaster there, so for I think 16 successive years we had a child at the Havelock North Primary School, and that was great fun. And then he went off to Hastings Boys’ High School. And of course, he used to watch Jacques Cousteau on TV. Now, at that stage New Zealand had precisely three biological marine officers employed and there was a large number of young fellows who wanted to be marine biologists like Jacques Cousteau. Anyways, off to Dunedin he went and he was meant to be in medical intermediate, but no, no he sort of thought of a science degree.

Anyway, he didn’t get in to Medical School first pop, I think he was thinking more of underwater swimming and so on – and girls of course, so he did a science degree which has been very useful. He did a biology degree up to research level and has used that which – he did a year of research on medical. After he’d done his degree he finished up – went up to Auckland and did some work there, but then he became very interested in the acute admissions. He really enjoyed the acute admissions to the Coronary Care Unit.

So he went over to the States and trained up in this angioplasty new science for cardiac patients. And so he came back to New Zealand and – you wouldn’t believe it, but at that stage Wellington did not … the head of Medical Services at Wellington Hospital was not really totally convinced about the merits of angioplasty – you can’t believe it now – so Wellington did not have an angioplasty service and so Malcolm was sort of headhunted and set up in private down there because they didn’t seem to believe it in the hospital, and he was the only source of angioplasty. At that stage it was just ballooning, but now of course it is all stenting and stuff. But he was the only one in Wellington who could do it. So, he’s had a tremendous practice down there. He does now work in public and so on, but however … so that was Malcolm.

Then we had a boy who looked as though he wanted to be a farmer and of course Patricia was a farmer’s daughter and so this seemed a reasonable thing and when Pat’s father died there were no – Pat only had one sister, there were no males in the family – so I was the sort of the trustee, or the farming sort of backstop. And so I became terribly interested in getting my own farm and boy that was – wow that was a monstrous episode …

Ha ha!

I … I bought a huge place up near Lake Waikaremoana, at Tuai – Tapui Station it was called, nearly 3000 acres, wonderful bit of dirt, good hay paddocks. It had a golf course on it and an airstrip. But the area was unfavourable for social reasons really, and ultimately to make sure that I could get this young farming lad started I sold it and started him up on a farm in Central Hawke’s Bay. So that was Ian.

And then Duncan went off and did the probably the wise thing and did commerce, and then he became a chartered accountant and he went into KPMG, that’s right, and then he went over to the States, and then he went to London and worked at Stanley’s and then came back and went to Todd’s and – but he now wants to set up his own show and I believe he has sort of started on that.

So – so that’s about where we are now, and we are sort of – got all the 10 grandchildren now so we try to establish in a good manner. And just recently we have sold the house which we so enjoyed building in Waikonini Place, Havelock North, with a beautiful view of Ruapehu and over the Plains and in the morning the sunlight shines on the snow on Mt Ruapehu like a diamond and then when the sun sets, we get sunsets that are golden affairs. So we moved down to Mary Doyle now, and life’s very different and we have to constrict ourselves to a limited area. That pretty well brings it up to date, doesn’t it?

Well, how many years did you practise in the Village?

Was it 50? No, I did 20 years in maternity and I thought well look the girls don’t want an old bloke like me, so I – well no, you know, so …

I know what you’re saying.

So I … but actually GPs were leaving, very sadly I think, leaving maternity. Yes, so I stopped there. And then I finished up in anaesthetics after 30 years there and it was just over 40 years in private practice.

Well over that time Ian, you must have seen some wonderful changes, and you were at the forefront of a lot of those changes, weren’t you?

Yes, yes, very much so.

And on the other side, your community, you have been a member of the Havelock North Rotary Club for some time too.

Yes, yes indeed, yes, yes. Oh well Frank, yes, you’re now the youngest member there now.

I’m the oldest member.

Yes the oldest member – the longest too, yeah – not oldest – longest too.

Longest yes.

Yes well in 1963 Ernest Velvin, who I used to give anaesthetics for, he was District Governor I think, anyway he was a distinguished Rotarian from Hastings, decided to see if he could start up a Rotary Club in Havelock North. He approached quite a number of us and in the end there were 28 of us I think. And yes we set up this Rotary Club and I was always delighted to be part of Rotary and support the ideas of the Rotary and – especially when it came round to polio, because you know I’d seen the damage that polio does to the world at different levels, like, at our level, and then in the backward areas of the world – it’s a diabolical disease. So Rotary has done wonders in crossing international boundaries and setting up this protective system whereby the vaccine can be delivered in the world at the correct temperature, and by skilled operators. And it’s been a remarkable achievement which I’ve always endorsed and I hope it may lead into other programmes which may enjoy political, you know, freedom. But at the moment the international political situation is anything but encouraging, but however all these things grow from things like Rotary does.

And – Rotary has done a powerful lot of local projects of course, but they have been very active in the international field as well and we have hosted international visiting Rotarians – we greatly enjoyed them coming to stay with us and we’ve taken part in Rotary Conferences and, I suppose like the Medical Conferences, and had students. Now the students that came and stayed with us were six … fact I think Sue from America, I think she stayed nine months.

But we’ve had visiting teenagers, and we’ve come to welcome them into the family and we’ve immensely enjoyed the contact with the – particularly with the Swedes. We have – the Swedish parents are rather highly placed in Sweden. He was aide-de-camp with the King over there and arranged the wedding of their – to the Queen, and has access to palaces and so on. And they’ve been out here twice to visit us and we’ve been over to Sweden twice to visit them, and when we’ve been there we’ve usually been put up in a palace somewhere of all places, but … and then we’ve had a very enjoyable association with the American parents too and so on. So it’s all been an enriching experience with Rotary.

And one of the reasons for packing up my practice was I was starting to notice deafness and I felt that losing that fine edge of being able to tune into somebody which I always liked. And so that was one of the reasons I decided to retire and really it was the final straw in deciding to retire from Rotary because I’d become so deaf I just couldn’t hear what was being said and it became terribly frustrating to have to sit and try and laugh when everybody laughed and so on.

Yes, so – one of the other things you did while you were in Rotary, you initiated our Charitable Trust.

That’s right, yes.

With not only the idea, but with some funds to kick it off.

Yes, yes.

And this as a result is able to contribute to Rotary Foundation and … yes.

Yes, well at that stage our donations were … tended to be on a smaller scale. Students – now students were still having to pay university fees then – no, that’s not quite correct – however, study for students has become much cheaper. And our contributions were beginning to look pretty irrelevant to contributions. So I thought that we should start an accumulating Trust that could make a significant contribution to people, and so I – and John Baker signed it all up and away it went.

Yes, that was a really – a great move.

Yes, that’s still going in the Rotary Club.

And then there were the Rotary Conferences that we all attended in the early … especially with the other …

Oh yes.

… with the other district, and Tauranga and Rotorua and …

Palmerston North.

But they were fun days. Well, you remember you and I got locked out of the little car I had and we went to try and get some food about two in the morning.

Yes, yes, there were things that happened that, you know …

I had to crawl in the back of it. Oh dear.

Yes, lots of fun.

Yes. And then the other balance – you’ve always had an interest in sailing and boats and of course Taupo.

Taupo, oh Taupo, yes, yes.

All these things maketh the man, and the family.

Yes, yes that’s right. We have been keen – our family from Wellington have been going to Taupo – and they took a bach up there and so Pat and I sort of went there and we thought oh, it would be nice to have our own little possie – and at that stage there were some very low priced lakefront sections going for sale down at Five Mile Bay. And so I went down, added to my mortgages and I bought a section there – cash, and then went into a ballot to – made a really crazy offer on a – the trustee had set up some … developed some sections and set them up for sale and they didn’t seem to be selling, so I put in a very, very modest offer on an acre on the lakefront and it was accepted. So I had to end up buying this block of stuff as well as a section. So we ended up with this and of course it hasn’t been a great disadvantage with selling them, but we still just have the one site there that – but I’ve sold my boat and we gave up sailing because it was pretty hard work for Pat to be sort of raising the mast on our trailer sailer and yes and so it took us quite a while to get going. People would hop out of their speedboats and be back by the time we’d even got it in the water.


So, so … however …

‘Cause we all remember Little Bonnie.

Yes, yes, yes we had some remarkable fishing expeditions with Rotary.

That was – well I always remember. We nearly got shipwrecked on …

Yes, boy oh boy, yes.

… on the breakwater because Ian couldn’t get the sail up, and I couldn’t get the Seagull motor to start and Harold Bush, the President, was in the back and yes – it was interesting. And a few years later some of us went out with Russell Chambers …

That’s right.

… and he had this little double ended – like a little fishing trawler – and we were all sitting in the back and we had to go out before daylight, and we were out there in this thing chugging away – it had one of these little chugging motors in it, and he, we’d been going for an hour or so and we thought better have a look and see what he’s doing because it was too hot in the cabin for us ’cause the motor was in the cabin. So I think it might have been Athol Curtis and I went out the back and went into the cabin and old Russell is fast asleep. It’s a wonder we weren’t ship … in fact there were more laughs created by Rotary and boats, or fishing and boats – but that was the levity side of our life wasn’t it?

Yes, it was.

And I always said it doesn’t matter, you know, if you’re making mistakes with boats … if you’re not making mistakes you’re not doing anything, ’cause the worst thing I ever did was sunk the boat on the Two Mile Bay ramp.

Ramp – oh yes.

At half past six in the morning at a fishing competition – not only stopped us from getting out but nobody else could launch their boats either. So you know – none of us are alone that we don’t always admit … But you know looking at our little – over the years you’ve been in the Village, the Village has actually – while its developed it’s still has a village feel about it doesn’t it?

Yes, it does.

I think we’ve been lucky that it is good and it’s certainly been a lovely place to live.

Today is the 10th of the 3rd 2015. This is part two of an earlier interview by Dr Ian Abernethy of Havelock North.

Well, I don’t want to make a great long tale about a rather a small segment. One aspect that Frank expressed an interest in was my involvement in maternity. I think I was helpful in obtaining the entry for fathers to delivery of babies in Hawke’s Bay. When we came here the theatres were closed, except the Salvation Army were in favour of fathers being present, and I myself felt very much of the same way, and although for some men they’d rather be 100 miles away, it’s such an important time in the lives of three people, mother, father and baby, that I think it’s hugely important that the father is there as well.

This does present some logistical problems to the midwives of course and they didn’t want those as well as all their other problems, and one of the surprising problems is the problems of space in the delivery theatres, and as you can imagine there has to be room for the participants and the gear and so on, and there’s usually not much space for anything else. And so just having one extra person is about as much as they’d want to go to and after it became more or less accepted, a problem did arise with the parties wishing to be in on the event were too big and took up too much space, and if you wanted to move around and something was happening then it was awkward.

So, yes, I did go up to Napier to deliver some babies there – to the Salvation Army, who were involved very much in unmarried mothers and of course the question there was usually a parent not a father. However, it slowly opened up – very glad it did – and nowadays its usual and unquestioned to have these facilities available – well spacious enough and geared up to the stage where they can it fit in a father as well.

And I think once you’ve heard a baby’s first cry you would understand, because these little babies that have swivelled their way into this world arrive, and usually the first thing that happens is that they give a little cry, and it’s always just wonderful to hear that little cry and the louder it is the better. And it makes up for getting out of bed in the middle of the night and driving down through the frost and getting changed and going in and spending an hour or two or whatever – and then being welcomed with this little cry. And I’ve always enjoyed the sound of that little cry and to me it really is a wonder. And it’s a pity that all involved don’t get the chance to hear it. So I’m pleased to remember that aspect and add it to the … I hope a very modest sort of a … contribution.

Original digital file


Non-commercial use

Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ)

This work is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ).


Commercial Use

Please contact us for information about using this material commercially.

Can you help?

The Hawke's Bay Knowledge Bank relies on donations to make this material available. Please consider making a donation towards preserving our local history.

Visit our donations page for more information.

Format of the original

Audio recording

Additional information

Interviewer:  Frank Cooper

Accession number


Do you know something about this record?

Please note we cannot verify the accuracy of any information posted by the community.

Supporters and sponsors

We sincerely thank the following businesses and organisations for their support.