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Story: Cowie, Helen Stephen

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Cowie, Helen Stephen



This biography, written by Elizabeth M. Waddington, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Helen Stephen Baird was born on 29 September 1875 at Hampden, Otago, New Zealand, the daughter of Elizabeth Stephen and her husband, James Baird, a Presbyterian minister, who had emigrated to New Zealand from Scotland in 1870. Helen was the third in a family of remarkably talented children, of whom five pursued a career in medicine. They were undoubtedly influenced by the social concerns of their parents. James Baird had worked in the slums of Glasgow, where the misery caused by alcohol led him to become a staunch prohibitionist. His views were shared by his wife, who joined the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union. She played an important part in parish affairs, first at Hampden and after 1879 at Winton in Southland, and is popularly believed to have written some of her husband's sermons. She was involved in Presbyterian charity groups and organised a home for single pregnant women in Invercargill.

Helen Baird received her primary school education at Winton School, winning a scholarship to Southland Girls' High School where she was dux in 1891. She then took a BA degree at the University of Otago. She and her younger sister, Agnes, an Otago undergraduate, decided to study medicine at the University of Glasgow, although it was then unusual for women to follow a medical career, and those who did usually trained in New Zealand. In 1898 the two sisters departed from Bluff. They were spirited and confident, and made the most of the long sea voyage after overcoming their sea-sickness. In a change of plan they disembarked at Marseilles so that they could see something of Europe before arriving at their destination.

In Glasgow they were met by their mother's sister, Jessie Stephen, and stayed with her before beginning the gruelling medical course. They entered Queen Margaret College, the women's medical school of Glasgow University, and both graduated MB, ChB, Helen in 1903 and Agnes in 1905. As part of her training Helen worked as a midwife in the Glasgow slums, and after completing her degree she gained experience at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

Around 1905 the sisters returned to New Zealand. Agnes practised for a time at Pembroke (Wānaka), but her career was cut short by tuberculosis; she was to die prematurely in 1920. Helen Baird began general practice in Invercargill, and is thought to have been the first woman doctor in Southland. On 10 January 1908 at Invercargill she married a fellow doctor, James Alexander Cowie. They were students together at Otago University, where James Cowie had taken his BA and BSc. When Helen decided to study medicine at Glasgow, he followed her there, qualifying MB, ChB and MRCS.

After marriage Helen Cowie shifted to Masterton, where she joined her husband in his medical practice as an equal partner. Dr Helen, as she was known, specialised in obstetrics and anaesthetics, while James Cowie (Dr Jim) undertook general and gynaecological surgery.

The Cowies had to pay regular visits to Masterton Hospital and several small private hospitals, as well as make house calls around the Masterton district. In the early days they travelled on bicycles, until James Cowie bought an Abingdon King Dick motorcycle. Thereafter, when they were visiting the same patient, he would ride the motorcycle, towing Helen on her bicycle. Soon this rather dangerous procedure was abandoned. A Pick car, and then a Model T Ford, provided more comfortable and safer transport.

Although she had two children (Elizabeth, born in 1909 and Graham, born in 1911), Helen Cowie continued to work full time. Combining family and career was made possible with the help of a housekeeper, Etty Eagle, who attended to the house and the welfare of the children.

During the First World War Helen and James Cowie went to England, where Helen was employed in various civilian hospitals while James worked with the Royal Army Medical Corps. When they returned to New Zealand the influenza epidemic was at its height. At one stage Helen Cowie was the only doctor in Masterton well enough to work. Inevitably the Cowie family became infected, but all recovered.

Further trips to London were made in 1924 and 1934, and in 1938 Helen and James took their son, Graham, into partnership. In 1940 Helen Cowie, at nearly 65 years of age, was eager to retire after a long and demanding career. However, the outbreak of war thwarted her plans. James Cowie died in 1941 and Graham was posted overseas with the New Zealand Medical Corps, leaving her in sole charge of the family practice. On his return in 1945 she promptly retired.

Helen Cowie was interested in books, history and antique furniture. She was an enthusiastic gardener, and had a great knowledge of native trees and shrubs. In her youth she wrote poetry but later was too busy to pursue this interest. She attended Knox Presbyterian Church regularly. A small, neat woman, always formally attired, she was particular about manners. While she was respected as a highly skilled doctor, her other attractive qualities were recognised and appreciated. In her last two years Helen Cowie was incapacitated by progressive muscular atrophy, a condition she bore without complaint. She died at Masterton on 8 July 1956.

How to cite this page:

Elizabeth M. Waddington. 'Cowie, Helen Stephen', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3c38/cowie-helen-stephen (accessed 21 June 2024)