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Story: Nedwill, Courtney

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Nedwill, Courtney


Doctor, public health officer

This biography, written by Geoffrey W. Rice, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Courtney Nedwill was born at Ballyronan, County Londonderry, Ireland, probably on 14 August 1837, the second son of John Nedwill, a farmer; his mother's name is unknown. He was educated in Belfast, and entered Queen's College, Belfast, in 1856, winning several prizes in addition to becoming senior scholar in 1859. He gained his MRCS in 1860. Nedwill is said to have been assistant house surgeon to William MacCormac at Belfast General Hospital, and he won the top prize for medical students, the Malcolm Exhibition. In 1860 he was placed fourth out of 60 candidates for the post of army assistant surgeon, and started the induction course at the army medical school at Chatham, but he was never commissioned. A bout of pleuro-pneumonia (probably tuberculosis) brought a premature end to his army career, and in 1862 he joined the ship Chariot of Fame as surgeon. On arrival in New Zealand in 1863 the passengers presented Nedwill with an address of thanks for dealing with an epidemic en route.

Nedwill decided to stay in New Zealand, setting up in general practice at Rangiora. He soon found the life of a country doctor far more arduous than he had expected. One of his first calls was to St Helens station near Hanmer. He crossed the Waiau River at night with the help of a shepherd, but finding his way home alone the next day he had to swim his horse across the flooded river in a nor'westerly gale.

In 1864 Nedwill moved to Christchurch, and advertised that he could be consulted at J. C. Brook's chemist shop. His first home was Harrington Cottage in Montreal Street, but for most of the next 30 years he lived in Avon House, Oxford Terrace. He married Ada Mary Nicholls at Christchurch on 20 May 1868; they were to have three daughters and one son.

Nedwill soon became prominent in Christchurch. He was gazetted staff surgeon to the Canterbury Rifle Volunteers in 1864, and took up shooting as a sport. He was an excellent shot, winning the premier trophy at a Volunteers camp at Sumner and engaging in duck shooting and competitive pigeon shooting. He was elected to the Christchurch Club in 1866 and may have been a member of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury. By 1869 he was surgeon to the Addington gaol.

Nedwill was long remembered in Christchurch for his outstanding work from 1879 to 1885 as medical officer to the Christchurch Drainage Board, acting in its capacity as a Local Board of Health. He was a determined and at times pugnacious advocate of public health reform, despite the entrenched opposition he met from commercial interests and other doctors. His predecessor, Llewellyn Powell, had campaigned to abolish cesspits in the inner city: these were the prime cause of the contaminated water supplies and typhoid fever which had made Christchurch in the 1870s notorious as New Zealand's unhealthiest city. Powell and Nedwill had both urged the Christchurch Drainage Board to build a proper system of underground sewers; construction had begun in 1878, but pumping did not commence until 1882. Nedwill's ally in this work was the drainage board's progressive engineer, Edwin Cuthbert; they presented a joint paper on Christchurch's drainage and sewerage system to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1891.

Nedwill was an exceptionally active public health officer, investigating suspected typhoid deaths, inspecting dairies and abbatoirs, checking leaky pan-closets, and threatening negligent property owners with fines for pollution. His detailed reports to the Local Board of Health show him to have been a man of great energy and ability and a public health crusader ahead of his time. One of his early reports was reprinted, with editorial commendation, in the Lancet.

Unfortunately, having built the sewers the Christchurch Drainage Board ran out of money. In 1885 it yielded responsibility for the Board of Health to the city council, which terminated Nedwill's salary and allowed the board to lapse into inactivity. Nedwill continued to submit reports for a year or so, but finally gave up in disgust at the lack of co-operation he received from a hostile faction of local doctors who refused to notify deaths from infectious diseases. Even so, he had had the satisfaction of seeing Christchurch's death rate from 'fevers' halved in the decade 1876–87.

Nedwill was appointed to the honorary surgical staff of the small and struggling Christchurch Hospital in 1874, and in 1876 was named as lecturer in surgery for the proposed medical school (which never eventuated). His connection with the hospital was to last almost 30 years, but it was often a stormy relationship with Nedwill an outspoken critic of an inept hospital board and poorly qualified staff. He was twice instrumental in obtaining public inquiries which revealed serious shortcomings.

The first, in 1880, concerned the resident house surgeon's refusal to notify deaths from typhoid fever to the Board of Health. He preferred to enter them as non-notifiable gastroenteritis, thus avoiding compulsory inspection of hospital wards or the victims' houses. F. W. A. Skae, the newly appointed inspector of hospitals and charitable institutions, upheld Nedwill's complaint, but the episode bitterly divided Christchurch's doctors and made Nedwill several implacable enemies.

The second inquiry, in 1885, followed the death of a patient after surgery for a strangulated hernia. McBean Stewart had never performed this operation before, and had ignored the hospital's rule whereby all the surgical staff had to be consulted before any major operation. Nedwill's advice during the operation had also been ignored. He demanded an inquiry, at which he found himself cast in the role of prosecutor rather than witness. His questioning of Stewart was conducted with some asperity, and at one point Nedwill exclaimed, 'This man makes himself out to be an expert and myself to be a fool, yet has never performed this operation before. I never heard a greater piece of bounce.' Yet the board merely reprimanded Stewart, and reappointed him.

Unable to persuade the government or any Christchurch newspaper to pursue the matter further, Nedwill told his version of the episode to the Wellington Evening Press, which published an article on 21 May 1885 headlined, 'Extraordinary hospital scandal. Revolting disclosures, manslaughter or worse. The government trying to hush it up.' Stewart promptly brought a libel action against the newspaper's proprietors and Nedwill finally got his public hearing in court. 'The Medical Libel Case' of March 1886 excited considerable public interest, as each side competed with expert witnesses. Stewart had sought £2,000 in damages, but the newspaper proprietors were defended by the attorney general, Sir Robert Stout. Although the jury found in Stewart's favour they set damages at just 1s. Nedwill had been exonerated, but Stewart and his supporters never forgave him. In 1891 Nedwill visited England on a surgical refresher leave and assisted at a large number of operations at major London hospitals. He had intended visiting the famed bacteriologist Robert Koch in Berlin, but was dissuaded by leading London doctors whose trials of Koch's tuberculosis inoculation method had failed.

Nedwill remained one of Christchurch's most prominent medical men for half a century. He led a full and active life, comprising his hospital surgery, private practice, sporting pursuits and a growing family. He took up tennis at the age of 50, and was for some years president of both the Canterbury Lawn Tennis Association and the West Christchurch Cricket Club. At 60 he took up hill walking, and was one of those who lobbied for better public access to the Port Hills. He retired from general practice about 1900 and from his position as honorary surgeon at the hospital in 1906. Aged 70, he took up gardening as a hobby with his customary zeal.

Ada Nedwill died suddenly at Christchurch on 29 August 1893; Nedwill's eldest daughter later kept house for him, until his own death at Christchurch on 10 April 1920. Dr Walter Fox later remembered Nedwill as 'the outstanding character' of Christchurch's hospital staff: 'He was a peppery Irishman who, for the times, read a lot, kept up-to-date, tried all new treatments, and was generally active. His knowledge and skill were not to be despised.' His obituary noted that Nedwill retained 'the vigour of youth, and the clear mental outlook of a man in the prime of life, nearly to the end'.

How to cite this page:

Geoffrey W. Rice. 'Nedwill, Courtney', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2n4/nedwill-courtney (accessed 26 June 2024)