Davidson, Dr David Hugh Coverdale Interview

Today’s the 26th May 2016. I’m interviewing Doctor David Davidson who was a doctor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Hastings. He has since retired. He’s going to tell us something about the life and times of the Davidson family.

Thank you Frank. I’m a third or fourth generation New Zealander. All of my father’s family came from the South Island. They were born in places like the Green Island, Ahaura in Westland, Switzers which was now known as Waikaia in Southland, and my father was born in Balclutha. My grandparents then moved up from the South Island to Tolaga Bay. My grandfather, Gerard, was a Minister of the Anglican Church, and he was an interesting person ’cause he was a pioneer Vicar of Tolaga Bay and he was responsible for the building of the church there.

Then he became the pioneer Vicar of Otane before ending up his days in Woodville. He then joined his wife in the cemetery in Woodville. I know nothing really about his wife, who was universally know as Fanny, except that she was dearly loved by her five boys, who virtually worshipped her. She must have been a quite extraordinary woman. I always regard my grandfather as pleasant but slightly dour person, until I read a letter written by him in 1940, which was a really romantic letter mourning the loss of his wife who died a year before I was born. So there are two sides to people that you don’t pick up when you’re a child. I was eight years old when he died, but I have very vivid memories because he lived in a little cottage at the back of our place and my job was to take his breakfast down to him … porridge with salt, not sugar – no sugar, just salt.

He was obviously a Scotsman.

Very much so. My grandmother’s family – as I said I knew nothing about except by reputation. Frank, one of her brothers became an engineer and I traced him to Kalgoorlie, where he worked as an Engineer with Calvin Coolidge. He then went to – not necessarily in this order – but he went through England to Saudi Arabia where he was responsible for the discovery of oil in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia where he is still known as Abu-el-Naft. A woman called Eileen Keating married an Arabian and heard this Abu-el-Naft talked about … got so interested in this that she ended up doing a PhD thesis on his life. Sadly she died shortly after it was published, and I didn’t meet her. She was a Sydneysider.

Their brother Percy went to Mexico where he was a miner, and to get away from the revolutions he made a decision to go to Bolivia, which is rather bizarre. Bolivia is the revolution capital of the world. When he saw the bottom dropping out of the copper mining which he was in, he took up cochineal farming, but … bottom’s dropped out of that now because of synthetic cochineal. And I have visited them last year. So that’s the only contact I’ve had with my grandmother’s side of the family. And Michael and Gloria were very hospitable. He had a lot of his education in America, and he actually served in the American Armed forces in Germany. Although he is Bolivian by birth, and all his family are Bolivian.

I think I could say a lot more about my father’s family but they were scattered. My father himself was used to poverty. Anglican ministers with five boys were not well paid. The boys all did all the cooking ’cause their mother had severe disabilities apparently – I never found out what they were. So the boys did all the cooking. And he eventually went to Otago University where he did the CPDS – Certified Practitioner of Dental Surgery – which was a year shorter than the BDS course, but it would have required an apprenticeship. And he used to be terribly upset that he’d never seen his mother in new clothes, so his first pay cheque went to her to buy her some new clothes and he was horrified to discover that all the money had gone into the poor box. So his second cheque when to Collinson & Cunningham’s in Palmerston North with the strict instructions that it was only to be used for … was money for his mother.

Well my father, coming with that background, was a workaholic. He had a very highly developed social conscience, but he had lost most of his religion, which has gone through to the next generation. He did become Chairman of the fund-raising committee of the All Saints Children’s Home, but I can remember him coming home in a towering rage which was not very frequent, when he discovered that a whole lot of clothes that he had organised to be knitted – for free – by the staff of the Manawatu Knitting Mills, were presented to the Vestry. And the Vestry said “these are too good for the orphans, we will sell them”. He said “they will go to the orphans, or nowhere”. End of discussion. [Chuckle] So there was a bit of miserliness.

You could see that in those times, couldn’t you?

Oh, yes. But I know nothing really about his pre-married details except what I’ve told you. He met my mother in Palmerston North. She was born in Palmerston North and spent most of her life on a farm out of Opiki. Her family again was third generation, but they’re North Islanders and they came to Wellington in 1868. I think the first one to come over was a leather worker. They subsequently moved around the coast and took up residence in the western side of Western Lake, so a large part of the land between Palliser Bay and Featherston was tied up with the Matthews family, and the Akers family were in Manawatu. Obviously the gene pool was fairly small at that stage because that generation – my grandparents, my mother’s parents – were first cousins, and their siblings married each other, so we’ve got some very close second cousins. [Chuckle] As I said to you earlier Frank, I have mistaken one of my second cousins for my brother [chuckle] and it wasn’t all due to my eyesight.

We were very close as a family, and we spent virtually all our weekends off that we got away from home, at either Opiki or occasionally at Woodville where Dad’s older brother was a dairy farmer. He was interesting – he won a scholarship to Sydney University, but he decided not to do that. He became a sharemilker, and he had a socialist leaning and refused to buy the farm so he spent his life as a sharemilker.

The other boys became teachers … another one took up the mining engineers and went away for six months. And twenty-eight years later we got a letter addressed to him care of us, and three days later he knocked on the door. And that was the only warning we had he was coming. [Chuckle]

Is that right?

His son now lives in Perth, and we’ve had a lot to do with Kerry.

There was another side to the family though, because my father’s younger brother married my mother’s older sister. So we’ve got another set of very genetically close family, and they’re the only ones of my cousins that I’m close to, and they include a vet, and a farmer and an engineer. So that’s the sort of … the background to the family.

My father being – although professionally qualified – was still very obsessed with the idea of poverty and when he married a woman who actually had quite a lot of expectations, he was very careful to not be known as a kept man, and he worked his butt off – probably more than he needed to. But he socialised reasonably, and … we were talking earlier about pubs … he went to the pub most Friday night but that was the only night. And he went with a group of friends who became extremely close friends, and a lot of their socialisation was on Saturday mornings with working bees for each other. They worked together to lay drives for each other, to do buildings for each other and we got involved in this fairly high degree of a work ethic.

On the other hand, in 1945 we rented a place at Foxton Beach. It was a very, very, very simple bach and despite many plans for its improvement, it hasn’t changed much since. [Chuckle] It is now owned by one of our cousins. But we went there for six weeks every year right through until I was at university – in fact, beyond.

Did you really?

It was there I learned to love water – swimming, rowing, sailing, surf boarding, body surfing – I never got into the standing up on a surf board. And those loves stayed with me all my life. The only sport that I ever did any well at was rowing, and I rowed for the school and I rowed for the university, and got an Otago University and a New Zealand University Blue, and ended up as captain of the rowing club.

We’ve stayed at Foxton a few times – if the wind was coming from the northwest, it was a fairly rugged place to be.

Well of course we lived on the estuary which in those days was sandy …

That’s different again.

… and that’s were we did all our sailing and most of our rowing. We had a couple of dinghys anchored permanently outside the house. There was a skating rink. The sailing club had dances every Saturday night, and as teenagers we used to monitor the dances. And they had two film sessions in the hall most days.

Where’s the estuary relative to the beach? You know, Foxton town … you go down through…

Yeah, and then you go through … the main road to the ocean beach … the estuary’s off to the left. It is now no longer sandy – it is a wonderful bird sanctuary. it has become mangrove swamp now, and it’s completely changed. It started deteriorating about thirty – forty years ago.

So that’s why the estuary’s not there.

It is still there but it’s more of a mangrove swamp than anything, so it’s a wonderful wildlife habitat but not much else.

It’s probably a social commentary that teenagers were running dances in the days before alcohol, and before people had ready access to cars, so that if somebody misbehaved we all knew who it was and the parents found out, and it didn’t happen again. By the time I was in my … probably in the early twenties, people had more access to cars – they came and they drank, and it was no longer appropriate for youngsters to run it. We actually ended up with security, professional security officers. So that was the change in attitude.

We had these dances that were run by the young people. Everything went fine until people became mobile and started to drink, and that was it.

And because they were mobile, you didn’t know who they were – you had no way of monitoring them. And … you can’t live in the past.

I went to Russell Street School and Intermediate School.

So where were you born then?

Palmerston North. I was born in Palmerston North. We were all born there. And apparently I was not greeted with open arms because my mother had a very difficult time. I was two weeks late – she had a prolonged labour and she assures me that her first words to me were “take that screaming little bastard out of here”. [Laughter] It didn’t seem to affect our long-term relationship.

No, I’m sure it didn’t.

She was a prude of the first order. My father tried to get a photograph of her breast-feeding me, and it wasn’t great success. [Chuckle]

No, oh no, it was very private … life those days.

And I had a younger brother Michael, who’s now in Taupo, and then at the end of war I had a younger sister Diana. And although she’s eight years younger than me, unfortunately she’s now in care with Alzheimer’s. That’s a real hardship for her, and I try to support her … my brother-in-law as much as I can, but from this distance that’s difficult.

But we had a very, very, very happy childhood. At the age of …. at the end of Intermediate school my father, who was funny mixture of liberal, social and conservative, said to me, “where do you want to go to school?” And I said I never really thought about that”. He said “well, do you want to go to Boys’ High? Do you want to go to where I went to – Waitaki Boys’ High?” Where incidentally he shared a lot with the late Ron Giorgi – these little links come through. “Or do you want to go to Collegiate, or Nelson or King’s?” The choice was entirely mine. And although I got on very well with my father I could see we had different ideas about things, and I was never going to be the rugby playing macho man of his dreams. I was not going to be the son he – he never put on me, but I knew he wanted. So I elected to go away, and I thought, ‘well if I’m going to go away, do I go to another small town like Palmerston North, or do I go to the big smoke?’ So I elected to go to King’s. Which was probably one of the best things I did, because although the education was good and the friends I’ve made have been relatively … long term friends … relatively few, I was introduced to rowing there, which would have happened in Wanganui as well, and I just loved rowing from the first time I got in. That was the sport of my dreams, and I still avidly watch the rowing on the sports channels. And I’m not prone to hero worship, but most of the people I do hero worship are Aucklanders – Rolf Porter, who’s a very successful Auckland businessman and accountant, donated an eight to the school and he coached us. Thank God he was coxing us the day he ran us onto the rocks. [Laughter] In the boat that he’d donated.

What happened to the boat? Did it splinter a bit?

No, it was very badly scarred but it was repairable. There was long silence afterwards. [Chuckle] Oyster rocks are not kind.

We won the Heverley Shield for a few years in Dunedin and my undying memory of rowing was actually a training run on a Sunday morning in Dunedin – perfect day. We went down to Port Chalmers, and we met up with the inter-Provincial eight down there and George saw our coach and (I’ll remember the name of the other one later on) the coach of the Inter-Provincial eight winked at each other and said “we will have a training row home”. Training row be buggered – it was a …

It was a race. [Chuckle]

It was a … an eight mile race, which … [chuckle] I’ve never been so exhausted in my life. We had the advantage because they had another mile to go past our shed, so we could put in a sprint and I still don’t know who got there first, it was damn close. And I went home, and the other part of that morning was I was on my bed wondering whether I was dead or alive – there was knock at the door and some Jehovah’s Witnesses were there. So I was feeling a bit miffed by that, so I invited them in, got out my bible and spent the next hour berating them about the … [Laughter]

Well that’s one way of getting it out of your system.

Yeah. But yes, I enjoyed being at King’s but I wasn’t a wonderful success – I was a reasonably good scholar, and I became a house prefect. I was very grateful for what it did for me. And it was very interesting – many years later they were launching an eight which they were naming after Rolf Porter, and out of respect for Rolf I went up to the school and I took the family with me. And that was a mistake. So we launched the boat and we looked around the school and I met the Housemaster, who later became the Headmaster of Christ’s. Again, his name escapes me. But my ten-year-old son said, “Dad, this is a neat place, I want to go to school here”. [Chuckle] So I could see the dollars being whittled away, so I thought ‘well my father gave me the choice, I can’t do less’. So that happened – so he went to King’s. And about a year later I had a stand-up row with our oldest son, Gareth, and after that he said, “Dad, I think I should go to boarding school”, and I said “no – not because we’ve had a row. You only go there if that’s what you really want to do, so we’ll talk about this in three months’ time”. [Chuckle] And he didn’t change his mind and they both went through and did very much better than I did in the sporting field. Gareth was in the First XV, he was Deputy Head Boy, they were both Head of House, so they put me in the shade.

You did mention though, you got a Blue at rowing, and you were also a national …

Oh yeah. It was at university I did … So that was my schooling. Then when I left King’s – oh – while I was at King’s I got confirmed. I was then asked … the Housemaster was John Wheland – the name of the Chaplin will come to me later on. I asked him cause I was a bit worried about Infinity, and his answer to me was “just have faith”. I thought ‘hang on, I’ve asked you a question, and I’ve been taught to question things here. I’ve been taught to ask questions – I’ve taught to think, and I’ve just been told not to think but to have faith”. And from that moment onwards my faith diminished. [Chuckle]

So when I left King’s I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My early ideas as a twelve-year-old of being a missionary had faded fast – up to the confirmation I was going to become a medical mission, then the missionary dropped out and I ended up with medicine. I’ve often wondered whether medicine or engineering would have been my natural forte, but that’s all right. The joy of medicine is it’s got so many paths once you get through, once you get through, that a person of any personality or interest can find a niche in medicine.

I left King’s, went down to Dunedin was fortunate enough to get into Knox College, another Presbyterian – from an Anglican to a Presbyterian – and so I was still exposed to religious thought and that was fine. I could backtrack and talk about my exposure to Catholicism – our neighbour was a Catholic. But the man that my father befriended in the Army later became Catholic Bishop of Christchurch. And he visited us one Friday night and Dad said to him “would you like to stay for a meal?” “I’d love that”. “Oh bother, it’s Friday, we haven’t got any fish.” “You have asked me to a meal as your guest – I accept what you are offering me. If you had asked me as Bishop of Christchurch, I would have expected you to provide fish, but you didn’t, you asked me as your friend, and I’m going to have what you’re having.”

Isn’t that a nice answer?

And he was a nice guy, but he wasn’t allowed to be my godfather. And another guy who wasn’t allowed to be my godfather because he was a Catholic, was responsible for one of my father’s most massive outbursts I’ve ever seen. I won’t name him but he was not going to go to his daughter’s wedding because his daughter was marrying an Anglican, again one of my school mates. And Dad said “this is not reasonable”. He said “if he’s not going to be married in the Catholic Church, they’re not properly married”. So Dad just turned to him and said, “David, are you saying that Joyce and I are living in sin? And all our kids are little bastards? If you do believe that, get out and never come back.” And he went out and never did come back. They’d been friends for years and years and years, but Dad just thought that this was just too much.

It’s happened before in families. I think it was an era thing too. Today I think people would mend their fences.

I think also, when I grew up Catholicism and Irish were synonymous. And the Irish tend to be a fairly rigid in their views one way or the other. And I think this was probably a lot of the problem in New Zealand because when I went to England I found a very different relationship with the Catholics – very different. And it started to change here.

So I enjoyed my time in Dunedin – too much in my second year, which I had to repeat. I found that medicine was much more difficult than I expected it to be because my skills were in problem solving rather than actual memory, and there’s a heck of a lot of just straight, repetitive memory in medicine. And this was highlighted to me in one of my latter years when one of my flatmates came to me and said, “David, what the hell does this mean?” I said “I don’t know, I’ve never seen it before”. “Yes you have, you explained it to us six months ago”. “Oh”. So I sat down and worked it out and explained it to them. Few weeks later we had a test and they got better marks than I did, because they’d remembered what I’d told them. [Chuckle] I’d forgotten it. So it’s a very different way of thinking.

I then when up to Auckland for sixth year, ’cause it was a familiar area, and probably that was the worst year of my life. I just felt like a fish out of water.

In the big city?

No, I think – there were a whole lot of reasons, and some of them I still haven’t worked out, but I felt quite unwell for a while and I had chronic sinus problems. And one of the most interesting sessions of my life was being the patient in front of my classmates while the ENT surgeon did bilateral antral washouts, which is a very unpleasant, very mucky procedure. But afterwards everybody else was looking pretty faint, and I think I was the healthiest in class. [Chuckle] The relief was astonishing. [Chuckle]

Then I went back to Palmerston North as a house surgeon, and in those days of course we were lucky, we’d get jobs of our choice. And I’d spent – from the time probably before I left school, I was spending a lot of my summer holidays working in the hospital. I worked as grocery boy for a couple of years, an orderly for a couple of years, a theatre orderly for a couple of years, and then I actually became locum male nurse for a couple of years. The money wasn’t that good so I went to the freezing works for a few years. So I must have started when I was about sort of fifteen, doing the hospital jobs. But it meant that when I came in as a house surgeon I knew my way around the place, and I still think it was one of the luckiest breaks of my life, because Palmerston North was almost the perfect size. There were enough staff to be able to be well supervised, but not enough to be overwhelmed. And we were taken aside – at no stage I felt did I feel over-exposed and I got a really good general experience with sufficient academic background to sort of cement things in place.

The one thing that was a bit lacking – it wasn’t lacking in all hospitals – was obstetric experience, so I thought I’d better fill in on that because I wanted to do a bit. But I did a locum for Peter Gordon Fielding and I did three deliveries. One just was taking forever and I got really worried and I rang up a specialist to help me, and then I worked out what to do myself and that was before he arrived. The next one was Keith Holyoake’s grandchild that I was delivering. I thought ‘well dropping the ex-Prime Minister and the Governor-General’s baby on it’s head is not a good look …


… so I’d better do this one properly”. And the third one was a breech, undiagnosed until the last minute, so … but a good midwife talked me through that one. So I thought ‘no, I’m not going to do this again until I know more about it’. So I applied for a job at National Women’s and was turned down because I didn’t have enough experience, so I thought ‘oh well, bother you, I’ll go to England’.

At this stage I was unmarried. I had a ball in England, and I did several jobs in smaller hospitals, and discovered the variability in standard in England. I went to Nelson Hospital in Lewisham, which was just dreadful. This was the hospital in Wimbledon, which was dreadful. And I worked in Bangor, North Wales and when there I met Beth, who became my wife. Her proper name is Bethan Lloyd-Williams. She was born in Machynlleth, spent all of her youth in Bala and then lived in Liverpool for her secondary schooling. But she was a primary Welsh speaker, and spoke Welsh at home entirely. And when we went back to England eighteen months ago she just lapsed into Welsh as if she’d never been away …

Is that right?

… with her brother and her nieces and her nephews. So it was lovely. And we ended up by getting married in the Welsh chapel in Liverpool which is one you’ve heard of – it’s the chapel on the corner by the roundabout in Penny Lane. It’s gone now, it’s been destroyed because it was unsafe, and the congregation shrunk to the size … they have their services in the old vestry.

So I saw a lot of North Wales, and it was very reminiscent of Kapiti Coast. North Wales is very, very beautiful – I loved it. And the job meant going out to clinics, so we went everywhere from Holyhead to Caernarfon – the clinic was actually in the walls of Caernarfon Castle – to Blaenau Ffestiniog, which was a mining village, Llandudno which was a seaside resort – so they had this whole spectrum of places. And Bangor itself is on Menai Strait which is a very beautiful stretch of water.

And it was after that I applied for a job in … I couldn’t find a job first, but I got a job as a [?] doctor … oh, so I went to Lewisham then. Lewisham was worth mentioning because it was the only time I ever worked for somebody who I saw was a complete bully. Absolute bully. One or two others had got close to it, but she – and it was a woman – was the most dreadful bully I’ve come across – not to me, ’cause she didn’t know … but to the nursing staff and even to the patients. And that put me off women in medicine completely for a few years. [Chuckle]

Then I went to the Nelson Hospital in Wimbledon and I realised that I was doing a lot of work because everyone else was going to interviews. So I thought ‘I’d better apply for a job and go for an interview as well’, and I found a job in Cambridge. I thought ‘well I won’t get the job, but I’ll go up there. And when I sitting down by these guys all more highly qualified than I was, I was totally relaxed for the interview and was completely honest, to the point they said “why do you want to do surgery?” “I don’t”, which was a strange thing to say when you were applying for a surgical job. “I want to do obstetrics but I think urology and general surgery are a really important prerequisite”. I ended up with the job, much to the astonishment of all the other people on the short list. I think also the fact … there’s a loyalty in England, and if they’d accepted one of those people for the job they were then committed to looking after them forever, whereas I was going to disappear.

So I spent six months doing that job and that was wonderful – as an experience I learnt a huge amount of stuff, but it also brought home to me how good Palmerston North was. My senior was … gold medallist – very bright, very competent – and I had to teach him how to operate. Although he was my senior he had no practical experience at all. Things I’d been doing myself in Palmerston North he had only seen from the third row back. Completely different way of looking at the world.

I went from there to the Mill Road Maternity Hospital which was an old workhouse, and was a pretty primitive set up but again, good experience. Two bosses, and Janet Bottomley was the second woman obstetrician I’d worked with. And she had been a Major in the British Army and was one of the very first people to go into Auschwitz at the end of the war. I think she was a lovely person and a very good doctor. You could see the sort of … I think she’d been scarred by that.

And I saw a lot of Cambridgeshire, did a few GP locums and wandered around, and ended up back at Portsmouth. By this stage Beth and I were engaged, so from Cambridge … Beth came and worked in Cambridge for a little while then she went back to Liverpool. I went to Portsmouth and while in Portsmouth I used to commute to Liverpool and back again. I had a little MGB by this stage, and I worked out that if I went up to Liverpool for the weekend it was pointless leaving much before midnight. So I’d leave about twelve, and I kept up an average of seventy-five miles an hour, and cruising most of the time at eighty-five, but the average was seventy-five on dual carriageways with no traffic, to get to Portsmouth, because that was I think two hundred – three hundred k. [Kilometres]

So anyway, we got married and then we had a little flat in Portsmouth. And my first association with computers was there. At the end of my sort of fixed tenure, the boss came to me and said “look, we’ve got this computer programme and we’re not getting the results from it we want – I want you to analyse it for me”. So I sat down and found there was something like a seventy per cent error rate in data entry. And then I went over my own figures and found fifty per cent in my corrected figures. So I just had to go and say “look, this programme is rubbish. It’s too complicated, it’s never going to work. It has to be simplified”. So he paid me three months wages for telling him the [??]

And just before I left, I then did a locum on the Isle of Wight. And Diana Edwards was a New Zealander and her husband was an Englishman … whose name escapes me again, but they ended up in Blenheim. But anyway, he had devised a computer programme which was I think, a model of simplicity. And it was done by self-carboning, so all the information you had to put anyway was automatically replicated on the piece of paper that went to the computer centre, because of course this was all about data entry. And it was a fabulous programme. Bill and Diana Edwards – she had been a Montgomery – both obstetricians.

And in the January of 1970 I sat my exam with trepidation because although I felt good practically, I knew that I was a bit short on some of the academic stuff. And I’d already booked my passage home. And I went into the exam, and the first name in the ‘Ds’ of the list was – I think Devon, or Duncan, or something. I thought ‘oh, bugger, bugger, bugger’. And Beth started giggling. I thought, ‘nothing to giggle about – I’m not in the ‘Ds’. She said “no, because you’ve got so many Christian names you’re up with the last of the ‘Cs”. So it was Cornish Davidson, David – so I sneaked through, but that was probably one of the most horrible moments of my life. And we came back on a cargo ship.

So how’d the exam go?

We got through. It was the alphabetical order of those that had passed. If you weren’t on the list you had …

We had booked our passage back to New Zealand on ‘Puna’, a Danish East Asiatic ship – cargo ship – with twelve passengers. This was a bit unusual, but it was the third time I had been on board a ship and it was quite unusual for me not to be ship’s doctor. The first time I was on a ship was the trip out to England on the ‘Adelaide Star’, and at that stage that was the biggest single cargo voyage to leave New Zealand. Unfortunately the First Officer had killed himself falling into the hold, and it was a very junior Second Officer who supervised the loading, and it wasn’t ’til he was half-way across the Pacific that he discovered his calculations were a bit amiss and we might roll at any time. But they revised it a third time and decided it wasn’t going to happen.

But that was a wonderful trip and I met some real characters on board. My first day on board was when I’d been told that having rushed to get there on time, our sailing was delayed by two days, when a voice … “I say old boy, are you the bloody doc?” “Yes I am”. “Bloody awful show old boy – sorry, don’t know how it happened. Absolutely unforgivable. Name’s Sprow – Major Sprow. Opened bloody mail by mistake, didn’t I? Sorry. Absolutely un-bloody-forgivable.” Major Sprow almost could be drawn by Giles. He was a sandy, slightly smallish Colonel Blimp of a figure – not big like Colonel Blimp, but otherwise … And he had discovered he’d left the Army with a title of a Major and no money, and he had met this rather coarse woman with lots of money [chuckle] but no title, so it was a marriage of convenience, and to their mutual astonishment they discovered they liked each other. And it was a fabulous … they were a wonderful pair. Despite the unpromising start we had a wonderful time together.

And the other memorable thing on board – we had nine trotting horses, with Dicky Lee as their coach and driver and minder. They were trying to establish trotting in Rill because although Britain is a horse-mad country, trotting and pacing are not part of the scene. There’s virtually no harness racing at all. I saw them a couple of times over there and I saw him on television after we got back when he was back in Australia, still riding.

The other ship I was on, the ‘Uruguay Star’, and on this occasion I just did it as a break between jobs, and I was paid. The last time I had to pay. The first time I was paid a shilling a month. The middle job I actually got paid a proper salary, being the ship’s doctor.

A shilling a month, that’s incredible.

Well – just to fill Board of Trade requirements – to be under orders you have to be paid. And I never saw the shilling. Apparently it went to Barnado’s – that was just a way of doing … But you don’t have to have a ship’s doctor under twelve, but it’s good public relations. But you have to have one if you’ve got more than twelve passengers.

And the ‘Uruguay Star’ did a run to South America – Buenos Aires – and back again, and that was very, very different. Wonderful food, and I put on an enormous amount of weight. I think I put on three stone in five weeks, and that was after banning myself from the dining room [chuckle] for the return trip. And I love life at sea. If anybody had offered me a job as a ship’s doctor forever, I probably would have taken it and died of a coronary a few years later.

But anyway, I came back to a position in Palmerston North as a locum. Very little real experience, but I did a locum specialist job and then they changed the rules anyway, which they should have done a year earlier. Had I stayed on at that job I could have stayed forever, but I then went to National Woman’s hospital to reinforce my training and they changed the rules – I actually had to do another year to get re-registered as a specialist. It’s quite interesting – the timing of some of these things is critical.

Having hated my sixth medical student year in Auckland, I loved the time on the Resident staff at National Women’s Hospital. Professor Bonham, who had a fairly fiery reputation, didn’t know quite how to deal with somebody who already had their ticket. I was fully qualified specialist, I hadn’t fully registered. So I got on all right with him. I found Professor Green a little bit more difficult but I still think the Cartwright report dealt with him shamefully. He made mistakes, but the Cartwright report I think was a black hole in New Zealand judicial history. And I was looking for the report this morning – I had it next door to the Erebus Disaster Report but Justice Peter Mahon. And Peter Mahon’s report was scholarly, really heavily researched, challenged all the assumptions – he came up with a very, very good report. Cartwright followed an idealogical path and was led by the nose. Then I think her celebrating the report with one side of the protagonists a year later, showed her bias. And it led on to some quite sad changes in New Zealand medicine that I’ll refer to later.

But after my time there, which was really highlighted by working with probably two of the great names in Obstetrics internationally – Bill Liley I knew quite well before. And he did some pioneer rhesus research which was internationally accepted and resulted in a wonderful management programme which saves the lives of many, many babies, but was subsequently rendered irrelevant by the development of prophylaxis.

The other one was Mont Liggins, correctly titled Professor Sir Graham Liggins, but he always preferred Mont. And his work on ripening the lungs of premature babies before they were born has been an absolutely world beater. And he saved the lives of thousands and thousands of babies internationally. And he was such a nice guy – very calm – I went down to talk to him one day when he was in the middle of research. He seemed to be ignoring me so I said to his assistant, “can he hear me?” She said “I don’t know. I’ve been working for him for five years, and when he gets like this I don’t know whether he’s alive or dead”. And we chatted about him behind his back and I still don’t know whether he heard a word we said. But his wife, Celia, was also a wonderful woman, and when she died I wrote to Mont relating a story of her description of Mont which was far from favourable, and he laughed and laughed and laughed. [Chuckle] But I think an example of his calmness was related by Celia. When they were going to England for him to get his post graduate qualifications, they were anchored at Panama. And Celia looked down and shouted “Mont, the baby’s crawling towards the scuppers!” “Better that he fall in while we’re at anchor than when we’re at sea. He’ll learn fast that way”. And Mont went on with … [Chuckle] It didn’t result in a divorce, but she said it was the closest they ever came. [Chuckle] But he was right, the baby looked over the edge, didn’t like the look of it and never went near the edge again. They’re two people that I had enormous respect for. To others – they also did.

And then – well it became time to look for a permanent job – I was senior enough. And the choice was going back to Palmerston North which had a lot of attraction, but I didn’t really want to be number three among three. And here was Hawke’s Bay – same size as Manawatu – nobody. There was one doctor in Napier with the required ticket but he’d never practised as a specialist. He had practised as a GP with obstetric interest. So I thought ‘well hey, I can carve my own niche here’, and I came to Hawke’s Bay and really … I worked damned hard to make myself popular and to get on top of things. And my sanity by saved by six-weekly trips to Palmerston North where my old bosses held my hand and told me how to deal with any problems that arrived. And even when my two subsequent colleagues, Peter Jennings in Napier and later John Wakeman in Hastings, came back to Hastings five years later, we carried on with those sessions for another ten years – they were invaluable.

The work was really one of education, and education of colleagues. Most of the GPs were keen to … they knew what they’d missed. One or two were a little bit difficult but most of them were very good and I got along very well with them ninety per cent of the time.

Another part of it was getting the public to know that I was there, because I had noticed, when a GP from … well one in particular was a locum in Taradale, sent me a patient. It happened to be in Coverdale Street, which is my name. And I noticed that over the next few weeks I got a couple more patients from Coverdale Street, then a couple more from the streets on either side. I thought ‘no, this is the ripple effect, so I’ve got to actually throw more stones into the pond to get more ripples’. And I spoke to a Rotary Club about what I had to offer, and then through one of the Rotarian wives I spoke to another Women’s Group. And for the next couple of years I spent … almost once a week I’d go out to a Country Women’s Institute Club, or a … all those women’s groups that you could think of … and just had small informal fireside chats. And I knew that a lot of what I was doing was a little bit personal, so I encouraged people to give me little written questions, not identifying. And if they were pretty boring I’d make up one, and I could see them looking at each other – “who asked that?” [Chuckle] But that was great, because advertising in those days was seriously frowned on, but being a guest at somebody’s home was quite legit.

Well you had a captive audience didn’t you? The other sort of advertising you had no idea what was working.

Yeah. And that went very, very well for a few years. When the others came we just carried on, and the need for those sort of meetings sort of died off. But that was a lot of fun, and a very, very good way to introduce yourself to the community.

During this period you and Beth had your children?

Well our first child was born in Auckland. Our daughter Nerys … she subsequently went overseas and did her teacher’s training but didn’t really take it up. Had two children in Fremantle, and then the partnership fell apart and she’s back in Hastings with her two daughters, who give us a great deal of pleasure. She … I think in retrospect … is rather like my father – she’s got an enormous social conscience and I think it’s got her into trouble from time to time. But she’s now a teacher in a special needs unit at Havelock High School. She was offered a private schooling and she just turned it down, and I think she’s always regretted it. As I mentioned earlier the two boys ended up in King’s and did well. They both did gap year … they all did gap years actually, but the two boys ended up by marrying English girls and one is now living in Southport in England and the other out of Barden in Switzerland. So we’ve got two Swiss-born granddaughters, two Western Australia-born granddaughters, one grandson born in Hastings, and one granddaughter born in England. But it’s ironic, you know, that being a fourth generation New Zealander, to suddenly have the whole thing blow apart.

So a lot of the rest of my time was working and encouraging other people to come. When I arrived, Hawke’s Bay had about the worst perinatal statistics in New Zealand. The chance of taking home a dead baby or a … was higher here than anywhere else in New Zealand. And we came up within a relativity short time, to among the best. And then unfortunately under the influence of Karen Gilliland, Helen Clark introduced the sloppiest bit of legislation in New Zealand’s history, The Nurses’ Amendment Act. And as a direct result of that, dozens of New Zealand’s babies died a year that didn’t need to. Because of the way the statistics were done it’s impossible to get an accurate picture, ’cause it’s all anecdotal. But personal experience shows what happens. And I was devastated by this, ’cause actually I was quite interested in midwifery-led obstetrics, and had gone to England and Holland to investigate it further, because John Stolworthy, a professor at Oxford who was a New Zealander, and Professor [?Krusteman?], had published quite a lot about how to make midwifery safe. And Helen Clark in her wisdom ignored all the international experience and brought in legislation with no checks and balances at all. And it just destroyed maternity. And for a whole variety of reasons it probably got to me more than it got some of my colleagues, which lead to a premature retirement really.

But I loved O&G [Obstetrics & Gynaecology] – I thought I was very, very lucky to do it. I seemed to have a personality that seemed to work well for female patients, and I’m still delighted in the supermarket – as today – being met by old patients, “Hello …”, you know. And I recognise the faces of most of them but I don’t recognise their names.

Well it’s interesting you talking about the old times – my cousin used to have Sister Cooper’s Maternity Annex in St Aubyn Street, and that was the only sort of birthing place there was in Hastings, ’cause they had no people of your learning.

People just don’t know how risky an unattended child birth is. You get away with it ninety per cent of the time but the other ten per cent’s pretty horrendous. And Helen Clark just … it always worries me that a woman as intelligent as that could do something so stupid, just based on ideology. The training programme set up for these midwives made it very difficult for a registered nurse to get in ’cause they wanted to de-medicalise it. It’s a bit like making sure your bus drivers don’t have a driver’s license because they don’t want to be contaminated by understanding how cars work. It was just nuts … it was just nuts.

And fortunately what has happened, of course unofficially, a lot of midwives have recognised the problems. I mean right from the word go the existing midwives were horrified by what was going on, and they would quite often give us a whisper … give us warning of what was happening. But under the legislation we couldn’t interfere unless we were asked to. From the stage of nice civilised early referrals, discussion of alternatives, we’d just wake up in the middle of the night for a panic situation, which I thought we’d got rid of. Lots of things happened in obstetrics during my time, and what we could do. I loved the surgery, I loved the people, and I was lucky with good colleagues, so it was great.

During that time I had lots of fun. I had a couple of trailer yachts, one of which you know all about. And then I took up gliding, and that was probably the sport of all that I miss more than anything else. Quite an astonishing sport.

It has a slight association with yachting though doesn’t it? Because it’s the wind.

Yeah, it’s vertical air, rather than horizontal. First I liken it to three-dimensional yachting, but it is really very different. You are trying to get to an area where you’re doing as little as possible on just getting the lift.

I can understand you having a love for it.

Well when I was a kid I had a PE class, then a Zeddie. When I went as a student I gave up sailing, and a training yacht is not the right way to introduce kids to sail. It was quite nice to go away on holiday together, I’d throw a small P class or something similar on top.

During this period in Hastings did you play golf?

No. I gave up golf in Taupo when I beat my oldest son one day, and I thought ‘well, that was the biggest fluke in the world, so I’m going to retire … resign as the undisputed champion. But no, I’ve never been much good at ball games. I’ve always had a bit of a divergent squint, and focussing on balls and judging distance … I used to love playing tennis, but I was hopeless. But ball sports – by and large I’m not good at.

And you’ve had a long association with Rotary?

Yeah. And I’m a little bit concerned at the moment cause I’m the oldest surviving member of the Hastings Rotary Club which is approaching it’s Centenary, and don’t know whether it will reach it. Bit sad – I think Rotary has done so much for the world, and Rotary’s done a lot for me, but people are changing. Service clubs are becoming less and less fashionable. I tried to get a breakfast club going in Hastings, and I still think there’s a future for it but it needs to be … ground up. I did something wrong on the ground up – I didn’t get the right people. I think once you get the right hard core you’re away. I think this is illustrated by the Gliding Club – we were really struggling for membership. And one of our members somehow got to talking to a few youngsters, and we sent a thirteen year old solo last year. We’ve got another fourteen year old ready to go solo, and we’ve got this vibrant group of teenagers in the club and it’s given the club a huge boost. And we’ve just to get that … you know, you see a different side of teenagers when you see these kids. They’re just wonderful.

Yes. And has Beth ever been up in the glider with you?

No – no. She just doesn’t like the idea at all. I’ve taken all the other family out.

Yes – does she play golf?

She used to play golf, but because she had her first stroke in 1992 she … so it’s twenty-four years ago. She hasn’t really played since then. She used to love tennis, that was her sport.

So when you retired, you retired completely or did you become just a consultant?

No. No, I did it in stages. I still retired prematurely, but then I … finally it was not very satisfactory just being part-time in private, and I ended up by working back part-time in the hospice. Complete change in gear, and that was very, very good and I would have liked to have gone on a bit longer but my eyesight packed up. There’s an empathy there that the people who go to the hospice by and large have reached a stage where they are not in denial any more, and then you can deal a lot with them. I think the difficult side for most of these is the stage before you get very sick. And a lot of people don’t think ahead, so one of my big things at the moment is trying to promote Advanced Care Planning. It amazes me that people are quite happy to plan for their funeral – advertisements on the television every night – but they’re not prepared to plan for the weeks before their funeral. It’s … human nature’s strange. But a lot of people actually have unnecessary intervention because they haven’t discussed it with their family, and if they’re not in a position to really talk or think for themselves, the hospital staff is bound to throw the book at them. And unless they have some documentation that – hey, maybe this is not the right thing to do – it has to be done. And there has been a good study done on people that are introduced to palliative care at their first cancer treatment appointment. And to cut a long story short, the people who had a palliative care physician at the first appointment ended up with fewer treatments and longer life. So I think it’s very important that we become a little less wool blind by the thought of the fact that life is temporary, so therefore let’s go out with as much dignity as possible.

There’s a will we can’t explain. Some people give up and some people don’t want to give up. You were saying about the palliative care, the people that went earlier and understood it better …

Yeah, they actually lived longer.

… went longer. Now is that a reflection on whatever it is that drives us?

Well I think there is a real risk with any … cancer treatment is pretty damned invasive. And if you … you get to the stage where the law of diminishing returns kicks in. And instead of spending time with your grandchildren having fun, you spend it in hospital having very unpleasant treatments. And the more treatment you have the more marginal it becomes, and the more likely you are to succumb to the side effects. So that’s part of it, but it’s much more complicated than that.

Going back to the beginning, as I said I really knew two of my grandparents very well. I’ve spoken about my father’s father that I knew very well and I looked it up and discovered I was only eight when he died, but I remember him very well. And my mother’s mother who lived well into her nineties, and I spent a lot of time with her. She moved from the farm at Opiki into town and we stayed there, and we went and visited her regularly ’cause she lived quite close to the Intermediate school … played cards with her. She hated being beaten at canasta, but she was a lot of fun.

I think that a lot of the problems with growing old is that the joy of your own family is fine, but because you get busy with your own family you lose contact with other friends, particularly those out of town. I’ve only been to the funeral of one of my old flatmates, and I keep in touch with his widow from time to time, but I’d love to see more of the others.

Most of the people I grew up with are gone, and I try and keep up with their widows or the husbands. We all feel good about it, not just me.

So is there is anything else David, that you can think of that were highlights? One of the highlights of course for Hawke’s Bay was the fact you chose to come here – been good for all of us.

Yeah. I think I was lucky, although as I said, engineering may have been a better job for me than medicine, I think I chose the branch of medicine that I was most suited to, and it was a branch of medicine that was needed in Hawke’s Bay. I was needed here, and I managed to make it work. Because I did have predecessors – two people came here – one was basically … although he was a New Zealander, the locals thought he was an arrogant Englishman and they basically ran him out. And he went back and made a very successful practice in England as a specialist in Cambridgeshire actually – yes. And the other one actually just took to the booze and killed himself on the Paraparas, near Wanganui. So there was a certain antipathy towards me when I came, and I had to work very hard to overcome that.

The timing and your personality and everything clicked obviously. Now your grandchildren, what age are they?

The two oldest I can tell you, because they were born five days apart – one on Halloween and one on Guy Fawkes, so they’re easy to remember. [Chuckle] And they are both thirteen, they’ll turn fourteen this year, and one of those is in Hastings and one in England. The next generation then … Molly in Hastings has got a younger sister, Ruby, three years younger at Frimley School. And Phoebe in England has got a younger brother, Finlay, and they’re both at the same school near Southport. Then our youngest son in Switzerland has got two young girls quite a lot younger – eight coming on nine, and six. A little bit complicated because in Switzerland they don’t start school until they’re seven, but they do have compulsory kindergarten. And one of my dreams is to go back and see them, because I’ve got a very soft spot for them.

Yes it’s difficult. I don’t know about you – when you were busy and the children were young, a lot of your time from the children was taken up by the call of work.

Yeah, well particularly when I was on my own – if I was in town I was on duty, so what we did, we made a huge effort to have good holidays, because I wasn’t much use to them otherwise. And we also made sure Beth’s that family came out so that … Beth’s mother came and lived with us for a year one year, and then another year later on. And her sister and her brother both came out. Her younger brother sadly hasn’t been out but we saw him last year.

Any of them emigrated to New Zealand?

Beth’s older sister is in Masterton. She’s a widow now and she’s got family there and Sally and our daughter get on very well together.

 Well that’s pretty well gone the full circle hasn’t it? And you know, going back to the lovely holidays in Foxton, and as you said your father was very careful.  

Yes, well we got married as I said in Penny Lane Chapel, and our best man was from Foxton days. Unfortunately he subsequently died prematurely. And my parents didn’t get across because unfortunately my sister got pregnant just at the wrong time, and my father wouldn’t let his future granddaughter go on one of those ‘flying fish’. [Chuckle]


So I had no family at my wedding. But that didn’t matter too much.

  All right, well if you think that’s probably … 

It’ll be interesting to see what’s in and what’s not.

  Yes, and if you think of something else – something that had some importance or something funny or, you know – we can always put that in.  

Yeah – I’ve got to be a bit careful about funny things ’cause they usually involve people and you don’t want to be …

[Interference] What I haven’t mentioned is that in retirement where you can’t see very well is … I only drive under very correct conditions. I ride an electric bike, but because I can’t fly, so I can’t do some of the things I used to do, I’ve taken up bridge.

And are you good?

No, I’m adequate. I’m intermediate … slightly above average intermediate … but I’m certainly not in the top flight.

Do you exercise patience with your partners?


It can become very serious, can’t it?

Yeah. It shows how small world it is though, because currently we’re playing in the series Championships – I’m playing with Wendy Giorgi. As I mentioned before, my father was at Waitaki Boys’ High School with Wendy’s father-in-law. Ninety years later, their children will be playing bridge together. It’s bizarre. Because of course Ron originally came from Palmerston North – sorry, Millar and Giorgi were from Palmerston North.

That’s right.

Arthur was in Rotary with me.

Is Arthur still ..?

Yeah, he’s not in Hastings though. I didn’t know where he was for a while. He’s moved a bit further … I have been told, but I’ve forgotten.

All right, well that sounds really good. Well thank you David for sharing the family with us, and I’ll sign off now and we’ll process this and complete it.

NB:  Reference to Abu-el-Naft can be found at


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Interviewer:  Frank Cooper

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