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Story: Frost, Constance Helen

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Frost, Constance Helen


Doctor, bacteriologist, pathologist

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

Constance Helen Frost was born in England, probably in 1862 or 1863, one of ten children of Mary Ann Antwis and her husband, Thomas Frost. When she was about 17 years old she came to New Zealand with her parents, who settled in Onehunga. Very little is known about her life before she graduated MB, ChB in 1900 from the University of Otago Medical School.

Constance Frost and fellow graduate Jane Kinder immediately took up temporary residency positions at Adelaide Hospital, South Australia. Women medical graduates generally found hospital appointments difficult to secure, but because of severe staffing problems and the closure of Adelaide's medical school, the two women were employed temporarily. The following year they were reappointed along with four new resident medical officers: three women and one man. Kinder was forced to resign due to ill health, and died shortly after. In 1902 Frost was appointed to the newly created position of assistant bacteriologist, in which she gained considerable experience. For about 18 months she had charge of the laboratory.

In 1903 Constance Frost returned to New Zealand and took up private practice, establishing her surgery and home in Dominion Road, Mount Eden. She also became honorary bacteriologist and pathologist at Auckland Hospital, the second woman doctor to hold this position; the first had been Alice Horsley in 1902.

Frost remained on the staff at Auckland Hospital for nearly 17 years and until 1913 she was the only woman doctor. She gained acceptance because in a disorganised and makeshift laboratory the position carried certain risks and was difficult to fill. When first appointed she upgraded the poorly equipped laboratory with the support of the rest of the medical staff at the hospital. However, although her colleagues knew her to be a 'skilled bacteriologist', her hold on the position was always tenuous: it was renewed annually and the hospital repeatedly advertised for a male replacement. She was only reappointed when none could be found.

Over time, tension grew between her and some other honorary staff members. The benefits of an unpaid, honorary appointment, such as being included in all meetings of the honorary staff and involved in the training of nurses, were gradually eroded and the support she had experienced early in her career disappeared. The situation worsened in 1911 with the appointment of a senior resident medical officer, Charles Maguire, who disapproved of women doctors. The position of bacteriologist and pathologist also went through many changes. With the expansion and increased public use of hospitals in the twentieth century, Frost's workload increased and she found she had less time to devote to her private practice. Therefore, in 1913, with the help of Dr Florence Keller, the only woman member of the Auckland Hospital and Charitable Aid Board, she was awarded a hard-won but small honorarium.

Eventually, in 1918 the position became full time and Constance Frost was paid £500 per annum. However, in early 1920 she succumbed to an attack of influenza contracted through her work at the hospital, and on 29 January she died at her home. She had never married. Within two years her male successor, Walter Gilmour, was earning £1,000 per annum and the position had become the second highest paid at the hospital.

How to cite this page:

Kathleen Anderson. 'Frost, Constance Helen', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3f14/frost-constance-helen (accessed 18 April 2024)