Doris Jolly and her friend Francie Dowling gazed apprehensively at the ivy covered windows of the anatomy school opposite. It was the eve of what they feared would be a big ordeal – their first class in corpse dissection. The students at Otago Medical School weren't afraid of the bodies (“they can't be any worse than dog fish”), but the thought of making fools of themselves in front of the men students who would be watching closely for any signs of feminine weakness.

They managed to get a sneak preview of the dreaded room and its ‘pickled’ residents by persuading the janitor to lend them his keys. But “don't ye put on any lights” warned the janitor. In the twilight gloom the women snuck into the formaldehyde reeking room. Ten shrouded forms lay on ten leaden tables. They crept up to the first table and gently drew back the cover.

"A yellow shrivelled face with sunken eyes, chiselled nose, and nostrils ridiculously stuffed with cotton wool lay before us, but it looked so impersonal we lost our sense of awe" Doris recalled in her autobiography Back Blocks Baby Doctor.

The early years

Doris Clifton Jolly was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1890. Her father, Alfred Jolly, was a young banker and lay preacher and her mother, Lucy Clifton Crouch, the daughter of an architect who reared his daughters on a strict Victorian pattern.

In 1894 the family immigrated to New Zealand where Alfred had work as a bank manager. Four-year-old Doris and six-year-old Frank first settled with their parents in a ‘matchbox house’ in Wellington before moving, in 1905, to Tapuni, Otago, where her father managed the local branch of the National Bank of New Zealand.

After a sketchy primary school education (she was often ill) Doris initially refused to go to high school, and decided to become the paid family housekeeper. "The family, knowing by then that I succeeded only in the tasks which appealed to me, decided that music should be my accomplishment and housework my livelihood."

Doris became a proper little housekeeper. "We laundered and cleaned and cooked as only southern housewives learn to cook. We jammed and jellied in true colonial style."

Grit and determination

But at 17 the teenager changed her mind. "Bit by bit the idea came to me that I was destined to be a missionary." She set her sights on becoming a medical missionary “amongst the purdah-bound women of India”.

With the support of her parents she made up her schooling and in 15 months gained her matriculation at Tapanui District High School. She entered the University of Otago Medical School in 1911, later claiming to be "probably the most poorly educated student ever to cross the [university] threshold." But the first-year student had a personal crisis to face. She had to try and equate her religious beliefs and the theory of evolution.

"On week days I wrote and sketched and summarized biology and evolution. On Sunday's I led ‘Knox III’ as if I'd never heard of Darwin." After much soul searching she was able, without rejecting the scientific, to feel that God was a real and sustaining presence and a refuge in all trouble. Evolutionists had their place, but under God, not opposed to Him.

The “first world war balloon” as she put it, had gone up when she began her practical midwifery in 1914. After assisting at many painful and complicated births, she decided to dedicate herself to midwifery, especially to seeing that every mother had a right to real pain relief.

Driven by unwavering ambition and firm religious faith, she graduated MB, ChB in 1916, having topped the lists in both the medical and surgical examinations in 1915. She became a house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital in 1916. That year she declined the university's offer of a lectureship, saying she preferred ‘bedside’ medicine and decided to devote herself to country practice.

Dr Doris Gordon

War speeds up the pace of life. In 1917 Doris and fellow graduate William Gordon were engaged, and married within a month. Two weeks later Bill left for war service in France. Doris returned to Dunedin as a full-time university lecturer and added the diploma in public health to her qualifications.

After a rest due to suspected tuberculosis, she acted as locum in 1918 for various practices in the lower North Island, including that of T.L Paget in Stratford. Later that year she went into partnership with Dr Paget.

Bog, bush and candlelight medicine

Dr Doris as she was known locally in Stratford, later described back block practice as “bog, bush and candlelight” medicine. Early settlers farming the lush lands at the feet of Mount Taranaki greeted the first woman doctor to the area with curiosity.

"Do you think you can run this practice?”

"I see you can drive a car, but could you ride a horse along a bush track?"

"A woman doctor indeed!"

These were the people she had come to mind. "Their roads, their pastures, their mud and their milk became also my daily problems. A simple, loveable people."

Rugged roads and shonky transport

In 1918 only the main roads around Stratford were metalled and very few people owned cars.  The dairy farmers went to town in horse-drawn milk wagons, by horse and gig or bullock wagons. "It was in those milk wagons, bedded down in hay or cow covers, that my first hundred or so maternity cases were brought into the nine-bed hospital I had under my care" she recalled.

When the woman doctor was called out she would crank up the cantankerous little car ‘Lizzie’. Lizzie was reluctant to start on frosty nights, so Dr Doris would take her for an early evening run. "We would set out to warm her up by driving two miles in second gear with an old eiderdown over her bonnet. On her homeward way, blowing steam like a geyser, the locals would say that the doctor's outfit was abroad in its nightie."

Early one August morning Dr Doris was called to an emergency in Whangamomona - 65 kilometres from Stratford, a mere hour-long journey today, but one that was greeted with trepidation in 1918. No-one attempted the Strathmore Saddle in winter except by horse or bullock wagon. Dr Doris and her driver Billy Paton were attempting it in a motorcar. The steep and winding little road was covered in thick yellow mud and the little car slid around like butter in a hot frying pan.

"Two men, one carthorse, a towrope and a sledge piled high with manuka scrub to strew in the mud in front of us and make a temporary corduroy road, awaited us at Pohokura's slough of despond. A mud spattered gig with a much muddier horse awaited us at the eastern end of the village to take us through knee deep mud the three mile trip to the little hut." The journey took half a day. Despite the doctor's best efforts, the two-year-old child died.


Stratford did not escape the deadly grasp of the ‘flu’ pandemic that rocked the world in late 1918. Initially it was only a few who went down with the mysterious illness. But it was soon to lay its death grip on hundreds, showing no discretion between young or old, frail or healthy. The joy bells of peace rang out – the war was over. People gathered to celebrate and danced in the town hall – the disease spread and within 24 hours nearly a third of the revellers were dying.

As one of only two doctors in the town, Dr Doris was rushed off her feet checking on the sick and issuing death certificates. Doris didn't escape the illness and was kept in bed for days. Terrified relatives of the sick camped in her driveway ready to pounce the second she returned home from her visits, imploring her to go to their homes next.

Dr Paget commandeered an empty shop and stripped local shops of all stocks of bedding, dismantled hotel beds and had emergency hospitals functioning in the school and an empty boarding house. Volunteers rallied around to look after the sick and their families. The bellowing unmilked cows had their roster as kind hearted ‘cockies’ motored around to milk them once a day.

Years later Doris recalled visiting the home of a painter whose only two children had taken part in the peace celebrations. She verified the elder son was dead and went to the kitchen to sign the death certificate. "I was startled to find the undertaker there, tape in hand; and I literally shivered when he suggested that I also sign the death certificate for the other lad who was undoubtedly just about to die."

As suddenly as it came the influenza disappeared.

A new beginning

When Bill Gordon returned from the war in 1919, Doris and he set up in joint medical practice, purchasing Dr Paget's Stratford practice and its small private hospital. The couple called the hospital 'Marire' meaning ‘peace and happiness’ in Māori. "That symbolised our own ideal. If people had to be sick, let their surroundings be cushioned with peace and happiness" Doris wrote in her autobiography.

At Marire Dr Paget had built an up-to-date operating theatre with walls of fine corrugated iron and floors of concrete. "But when Mount Egmont frosted, this theatre was colder than charity, so Dr Paget donated it one kerosene burner… when I took over this practice I soon found that the one kerosene burner had a joyous trick of bursting spurts of evil smelling smoke whenever we were nicely started, so it usually added a quota of soot to our surgery.”

Needless to say, the electricians were soon brought in add electric heat to the little theatre. But electricity supply in the early 20th Century was temperamental. "There was the never-to-be forgotten night in 1921 when Bill and I were groping with a bloody ectopic pregnancy and the lights went out and our one probationer had to lean over the operating table shedding candle grease and illumination into the abdominal incision..."

The peaceful Marire was the base for the rest of their working lives, and Dr Doris was accurate in her assessment that the two of them became as much a part of Stratford's landscape as Mount Egmont, her beloved mountain.

In her relationship and partnership with Bill, by her own admission, Dr Doris came to “wear the trousers”. This reflected her domineering and headstrong character, in contrast to Bill's more cautious and conservative nature. "...colloquially speaking I never wanted to wear the trousers. Fate thrust them upon me, as it did many other women, during the war years." Dr Bill was delighted to be known as Dr Doris's husband.

A calling to midwifery

The direction of Dr Doris's career was set while she was still a medical student. She decided to devote herself to midwifery, and specifically to searching for a “safe, universally applicable method of pain relief” in childbirth.

Queen Victoria had used chloroform for pain relief during childbirth which sanctioned and made it fashionable for the rest of the Empire. But chloroform didn't give completely painless childbirth.

Dr Doris had read about 'twilight sleep,' being used in Europe. It involved the use of morphia and scopoline to relax a mother and put her in a ‘half’ sleep during birth. With a little trial and error she introduced it to her little labour room at Marire in Stratford. As a pioneer of twilight sleep in childbirth in New Zealand she even trialled the drug on herself when she subsequently had her four children, Peter, Ross, Graham and Alison.

Dr Doris readily used this and other forms of anaesthesia as well as medical interventions such as caesarean section. Thousands of children entered into the world with the help of twilight sleep. Today many people call themselves Dr Doris babies.

Dr Doris felt that childbirth was an ultimate experience for women. "Chase all the careers you like... but you'll die a disappointed woman unless you marry and go down this awful painful, glorious road of suffering that new life may come from you." She considered motherhood a woman's duty and claimed that "in the womb of British womanhood lay the Empires progress and her strength."

She wanted the same facilities available to all women, and was convinced the best services were doctor controlled. This set her up on a path to logger heads with many of her male colleagues in the Health Department, men whom she believed did not know what they were talking about when they promoted natural childbirth and claimed that even stitches after a birth 'do not hurt much'.

Dr Doris opposed abortion - especially the back streets practices that often left women dying on her doorstep. In 1937 she and friend Francis Bennet wrote Gentlemen of the Jury, a book opposing indiscriminate abortion.

To Edinburgh

Dr Doris had decided that she must qualify as a surgeon, so in 1925 she and Bill travelled by ship to Edinburgh to sit the Fellowship Examinations of the Royal College of Surgeons. They both passed, and she subsequently became the first woman in Australasia to gain a fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (FRCSE)

Dr Doris vehemently opposed the state control of medicine. From about 1922 the Department of Health launched its 'safe maternity' campaign, which included improving the qualifications of midwives and maternity nurses and a closer supervision of private hospitals and doctors. Dr Doris, among others, believed that doctors had to defend their interests against an interfering state.

In 1927 she founded the New Zealand Obstetrical society, which was "conceived... to refute allegations that obstetricians were a forcep interfering pest-bearing coterie."

Leaving Bill to manage the practice and family she set out to raise money to establish a chair in Obstetrics at Otago medical school in 1931. Newspapers of the time called her the ‘human dynamo’ as she travelled the country selling better midwifery to the great ‘Pooh Bahs’ (politicians) and those who could help her. The Taranaki woman was a formidable force and easily raised the money required.

She also raised money for the new Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in Dunedin, opened in 1938, at which students could gain much-needed practical experience.

Dr Doris did agree with the Labour government on something - its midwifery service. Introduced in 1938, this included free hospital deliveries for women, attended by their own general practitioners but with specialist obstetricians available and 14 days rest in hospital after the birth.

The depression

The years of the Great Depression brought interesting times for the little Marire hospital. Financial belt tightening was happening around the country, as the country slipped into an economic slump and jobs were lost. "Bill and I budgeted how to maintain our costly double-barrelled medical home and the hospital with its sixteen mouths to feed."

Many locals couldn't afford to pay for treatment in pounds and pence, so the kindly doctors took chickens and pigs and potatoes as payment instead. "In Taranaki, there will always be warmth and food for little effort. Indeed our biggest risk in the slump was that with the unsaleable surplus of beef, mutton, pork, milk, butter, cheese, not to mention wild pork, game and fish, we will have developed ninety thousand gall bladders diseased by gluttony!"

A new idea

On a roll, and still passionate about her desire to see equal rights of midwifery care to all women, Dr Doris bandied the idea of a postgraduate school for obstetrics and gynaecology in New Zealand.

In 1946 she accepted the post of director of maternal and child welfare in the Health Department primarily to work toward this goal.

She later wrote this of her time at the top: "I suddenly felt I had acquired hundreds of thousands of new children - all the children in New Zealand... I used to find myself watching every home, every front garden, every back yard, and mentally picturing what kind of mother reigned in each. I used to watch the women I saw in buses, on the streets, in shops and factories - whites and Maoris alike - and try and get inside their minds. I had been especially commissioned by the Minister to aid home life... their personal problems and woes all collected on my desk and I sometimes used to feel that their dependence on someone in high office, presumably me, was a pathetic symptom and a great responsibility."

The postgraduate school of obstetrics and gynaecology was established at Auckland University College in 1947, and its hospital base, National Women's Hospital was opened in 1964. Dr Doris's vision of a central institution for “investigating feminine disorders and treating unusual cases”, with smaller suburban maternity homes for normal births (based on her belief that maternity services were becoming “colder, more impersonal, more mercenary”) was not to be realised. She was on her way to an interview in Hamilton with her husband when she had a heart attack. She died at Marire hospital on 9 July 1956, aged 65.

Throughout her career Doris Gordon had the welfare of mothers and children at heart. She was made an MBE in 1935 and a year later was elected to the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, becoming an honorary fellow of the college in 1954. At the time this honour had only been bestowed on 20 leading obstetricians in the world. She was the only woman outside royalty to be so honoured.

Her first autobiography, Back Blocks Baby Doctor, was published in 1955. The second, Doctor Down Under was published in 1957.


Gordon, D. C. and Bennett, F. (1937). Gentlemen of the Jury. New Plymouth: Thomas Avery & Sons.

Gordon, D. C. (1957). Doctor Down Under. London: Faber Whitcombe & Tombs.

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