Story: Baker McLaglan, Eleanor Southey

Page 1: Biography

Baker McLaglan, Eleanor Southey

1879–1969

Doctor

This biography, written by Margaret Tennant, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Eleanor Southey Baker was born at French Farm, Akaroa, New Zealand, on 13 September 1879. She was the eldest of four daughters of Thomas Southey Baker, a stock owner, and his wife, Josephine Harriet Anne Dicken. Her Oxford-educated father also ran his own boys' boarding school at French Farm. From 1890 to about 1892 the family lived in Hobart, Tasmania. On returning to New Zealand they lived at Goodwood, Otago, where Thomas Baker ran another school. Eleanor shared in lessons with the boys in her father's classes and spent two years at Otago Girls' High School, where she passed the matriculation examination.

Eleanor's parents decided that she should train as a doctor, and despite her initial lack of enthusiasm for a medical career she graduated from the University of Otago Medical School in 1903. She then gained her licentiate in midwifery at the Coombe Lying-in Hospital, Dublin, returning to New Zealand in 1904. From then until 1914 Eleanor Baker took a variety of temporary appointments: at Seacliff and Ashburn Hall mental hospitals; the Northern Wairoa Hospital at Te Kopuru, Northland; and locum positions with other doctors in various parts of the country. Her attempts to set up in general practice were thwarted by lack of finance and by prejudice against women practitioners. She was not, one little boy informed her, a 'proper "dokker" '. More isolated areas could not afford to be so choosy about their medical care, and Baker eventually returned to Te Kopuru, this time in general practice.

The three years Baker spent in Te Kopuru, although physically and financially hard, were in many ways the highlight of her medical career. Her inexhaustible energy sustained her through perilous operations, night-time call-outs, long journeys on horseback, and the many other demands of a country practice. Her advice was even sought on the treatment of sick animals. During the 1913 smallpox epidemic she acted as agent for the Department of Public Health, vaccinating Maori in settlements around Dargaville.

By this time Baker had decided that she needed further training and experience, and she gained a position as house surgeon at Auckland Hospital. Struggling against the 'organised ill-will' of male colleagues, Baker was eventually engineered into tendering her resignation. After a period of 'black, black despair', she accepted a position in the school medical service, even though she sadly thought it was the end of 'real' medicine for her. But if bureaucracy seemed tedious, state employment at least provided security and a steady if unspectacular income. She was appointed to the Canterbury–Westland area by the Department of Education in February 1914.

Although she desperately missed her Northland patients, her horses and the outdoor life she had enjoyed, Baker none the less discovered that school medicine had its rewards, and that diagnosis of even mild physical problems could transform a child's life. Severely myopic children described in magical terms their new vision once fitted with spectacles, deaf children who had been labelled stupid or disobedient were helped, and the general health of children with rotten teeth and infected gums was greatly improved after treatment. Despite occasional obstruction from parents and teachers and continued suspicion of a woman doctor, Baker's vitality and good-humoured pragmatism stood her in good stead. She initiated special classes for children with defective speech, in the 1920s published in the New Zealand Medical Journal (with Dr Charles Hercus) path-breaking research into the incidence of goitre in New Zealand, and in the 1930s became heavily involved in the children's health camps movement. In 1923 she hosted the first annual meeting of the New Zealand Medical Women's Association, becoming one of its first three vice presidents.

While little is known of Baker's private life during this time, she travelled to Britain in August 1923, and on 29 December that year in London married Sydney Leopold Temple McLaglan, a widower, seven years her junior and a captain in the Middlesex Regiment. The couple returned to New Zealand and lived together until at least 1926, but the marriage was apparently short-lived. There is no mention of it in Eleanor's autobiography, nor in obituaries; her death certificate describes her as a widow. There were no children of the marriage.

Eleanor Baker McLaglan, as she continued to style herself, retired from school medicine in 1940, but the Second World War opened up new opportunities for her. At 60 she became a house surgeon, first in Melbourne, then in Timaru and Wanganui, and was later a junior registrar in Wellington. The respect and liking with which she was treated by younger male doctors finally exorcised the unpleasant experiences of her early career. Eleanor Baker McLaglan ended her working life as second in command of the geriatric hospital at Silverstream, near Wellington. She retired at the age of 73. During her retirement she lived in Auckland and wrote her autobiography, Stethoscope and saddlebags, which was published in 1965. She died at Selwyn Village, Auckland, on 20 September 1969.

How to cite this page:

Margaret Tennant. 'Baker McLaglan, Eleanor Southey', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3b5/baker-mclaglan-eleanor-southey (accessed 21 November 2018)