Page 1: Biography
Doctor, hospital superintendent
This biography, written by Ray G. Prebble, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
John Ewart was born at Caldronlee near Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, on 14 May 1858, the son of Robert Ewart, a farmer, and his wife, Jane Paterson. He was educated at Annan academy and the University of Edinburgh, qualifying MB and CM in 1880 and MD with distinction in 1885. That year the Ewart family emigrated to New Zealand, but John remained behind. He held several hospital appointments in England before acting as an assistant in Aberdare, Wales. A respiratory illness caused him to seek a more temperate climate and he chose to follow his family to New Zealand.
Arriving at Port Chalmers in January 1887 on the Waimate, Ewart spent a brief period recuperating before being appointed resident surgeon of Timaru Hospital. On 4 December 1889, at Wellington, he married Grace Brandon, with whom he was to have two daughters and a son. Earlier that year Ewart had taken up the position of medical superintendent of Wellington District Hospital. Some indication of the difficulty of the job is suggested by the fact that there had been nine incumbents since the construction of the new hospital in 1878.
Ewart took up his post at a time of political tension between local and central government over the funding of hospitals. This was linked to a philosophical debate on the role of the state in health care. Health institutions, most of which were partly government-funded, increasingly undermined the monopoly of private practitioners, although the speed and extent of change varied from region to region. As the public health system evolved, social Darwinists such as Duncan MacGregor, inspector of hospitals and charitable institutions, argued that government aid ought to be reserved for the deserving poor, and not used to assist the well-to-do or the 'hopelessly lazy, the diseased, and the vicious'.
Ewart, unwittingly, contributed to the drift towards what MacGregor in 1895 called the triumph of 'collectivism' represented by the hospital system. He achieved this in a number of ways. He was an excellent administrator, to the extent that the records of the hospital during his regime were 'without spot or wrinkle'. He was also an outstanding surgeon, who performed 'Brilliant service to medicine of world recognition'; and a good employer, whose 'quiet demeanour and loveableness…made the work of the whole staff a pleasure'. His public and professional standing thus created a 'real evil in the enormous number of out-patients'. It also resulted in the appointment of an assistant, James Elliot, in 1903; previously Ewart had been the only resident doctor, with much surgery being performed by honorary visiting staff.
John Ewart was a 'small, fair gentleman' with a 'soft voice, set in a fairly high key, and [a] winning disposition that makes even sickness less irksome to hospital patients'. He enhanced the hospital's standards by his development of aseptic treatment, and by increasing the period of nursing training from one to three years. He devoted 20 years to the hospital, at considerable financial disadvantage to himself. Finally, in 1909, he resigned to take up private practice. In recognition of his services he was appointed honorary surgeon to the hospital, and later honorary consulting surgeon. He was also chief medical officer for the New Zealand Railways for a number of years from 1916.
Ewart's later years were marred by increasing blindness. He retired in 1922, and died at Wellington on 5 August 1939; his wife predeceased him. The fever hospital was renamed Ewart Hospital in his honour.