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Story: Horsley, Alice Woodward

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Horsley, Alice Woodward



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

Alice Woodward was born on 3 February 1871 near Auckland. She was the eldest of four children of Laura Young, a schoolteacher, and her husband, William Woodward, a farmer who was also for a time a schoolteacher. After leaving school around the age of 13 Alice was taught at home. With extra tuition from family friends in chemistry and Latin she matriculated in 1894 and entered the University of Otago to study medicine. In 1900 she graduated with three other women: Constance Frost and Jane Kinder (who took up residents' positions at Adelaide Hospital), and Daisy Platts (who registered and set up practice in Wellington). Only two other women had obtained degrees in medicine in New Zealand before this time: Emily Siedeberg and Margaret Cruickshank.

It was unusual for women to study medicine in the nineteenth century, and most who did came from upper-middle-class families who were able to support them through their training and provide continued financial assistance after graduation. Such help could make the difference between success and hardship, or perhaps even failure in medical practice at a time when women doctors were often regarded with circumspection. Alice Woodward came from a well-off family and was not financially dependent on the earnings from her work. It seems probable that this is why she so confidently embarked on her career.

Upon graduation Alice Woodward moved back to Auckland and became the first woman doctor to register there. She set up practice above a chemist's shop in Queen Street and in 1902 was appointed honorary bacteriologist and pathologist to Auckland Hospital. She was the first woman doctor to be employed by the hospital and held the position for one year.

While working from her Queen Street premises Alice Woodward met Arthur John Horsley, an apprentice pharmacist at the chemist's shop downstairs. They were married at St James' Anglican Church, Māngere, on 9 December 1903. In about 1917 they moved to Symonds Street, a popular locality among doctors, where Dr Alice Woodward Horsley (as she became known) practised for around 40 years.

Although she was a general practitioner, Alice Horsley had particular interests in obstetrics and anaesthetics. In 1915 she was appointed honorary anaesthetist to the Auckland Hospital, a position she held until well into her 60s. From 1936 to 1946 she was on the anaesthetics staff of the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, and throughout her long career she took private anaesthetic cases for many of the well-known male surgeons in Auckland, including Sir Carrick Robertson and James Hardie Neil.

Alice Horsley combined her professional work with running a household and raising four children. Domestic help and a surgery attached to the family home helped make this possible, though it was evidently not easy. One doctor commented that 'when she was giving anaesthetics…she would ring home, halfway through, to tell someone to turn the jam off'. Her children later recalled that often they would do their homework in the car while she attended a patient.

Alice Horsley's humanitarian values influenced the course of her medical career. She often treated people free of charge and on some occasions gave money to needy patients. She also helped unmarried mothers through difficult times and in extreme cases would take them on as domestic help. If she could not accommodate them she would send them to a daughter's residence. During the plague scare in 1900 she and two nurses had volunteered for hospital duty; in 1918 during the influenza epidemic she paid daily visits to affected patients; and after the Hawke's Bay earthquake in 1931 she was a member of the medical relief party.

As a consequence of the economic depression of the 1930s many people could not afford to pay for medical attention and in response to this problem the non-denominational Dock Street Mission medical clinic opened in 1930. In 1932 Alice Horsley answered a call from the mission to see a patient after another physician had refused to come, and thereafter became its regular doctor. The mission's Thursday evening clinic was open for around two or three hours, and in that time the doctor would see as many as 50 patients. One co-worker recalls Alice Horsley falling asleep while writing prescriptions. Her dedication to the clinic and her popularity within Auckland's medical circle led her to persuade noted specialists like Carrick Robertson to see the clinic's patients free of charge. For her dedication to the work of the mission she was appointed an OBE in 1939.

Alice Horsley has been described by other women doctors as an inspiration. A memorable personality on the Auckland medical scene, she was often observed walking along Grafton Bridge with her medical bag. After a long and successful career she died at Papatoetoe on 7 November 1957, survived by three daughters and a son. Arthur Horsley had died in 1950.

How to cite this page:

Kathleen Anderson. 'Horsley, Alice Woodward', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3h36/horsley-alice-woodward (accessed 22 May 2024)