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Story: Gordon, Doris Clifton

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Gordon, Doris Clifton


Doctor, university lecturer, obstetrician, women's health reformer

This biography, written by Linda Bryder, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Doris Clifton Jolly was born in Melbourne, Australia, on 10 July 1890, the daughter of Lucy Clifton Crouch and her husband, Alfred Jolly, a clergyman. Her family emigrated to New Zealand in 1894, settling first in Wellington and then, in 1905, at Tapanui, Otago, where her father managed the local branch of the National Bank of New Zealand. Doris initially refused to go to high school, becoming instead the paid family housekeeper. However, at 17 she decided to become a medical missionary 'amongst the purdah-bound women of India'. With the support of her parents she made up for her hitherto patchy schooling, and in 15 months gained her matriculation at Tapanui District High School.

She entered the University of Otago Medical School in 1911, later claiming to be 'probably the most poorly educated student ever to cross her threshold'. Driven by unwavering ambition and firm religious faith, she graduated MB, ChB in 1916, having topped the lists in both the medical and surgical examinations in 1915. She became a house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital in 1916. That year she declined the university's offer of a lectureship, explaining her preference for bedside medicine, but agreed to work temporarily as assistant to the professor of bacteriology and public health.

On 6 April 1917, in Palmerston North, Doris married a fellow medical graduate, William Patteson Pollock Gordon, two weeks before he left on overseas war service. Doris returned to Dunedin as a full-time university lecturer and added the diploma in public health to her qualifications. After a rest, due to suspected tuberculosis, she acted as locum in 1918 for various practices in the lower North Island, including that of T. L. Paget in Stratford. She became Paget's partner in the same year.

When Bill Gordon returned from the war in 1919, Doris and he set up in joint general practice, purchasing Paget's Stratford practice and its small private hospital, Marire. This was their base for the rest of their working lives, and Doris was probably accurate in her assessment that the two of them became as much a part of the Stratford landscape as Mt Egmont. Dr Doris, as she was known locally, later described 'back-block' practice as 'bog, bush and candle-light' medicine. In her relationship and partnership with Bill, by her own admission Doris came to 'wear the trousers'. This reflected her domineering and headstrong character, in contrast to Bill's more cautious and conservative nature.

The direction of Doris's career was set while she was still a medical student. She decided to devote herself to midwifery, and specifically to searching for 'a safe, universally applicable method of pain relief' in childbirth. She pioneered the use in New Zealand of 'twilight sleep' (scopolamine and morphine) in childbirth, and readily used this and other forms of anaesthesia as well as medical interventions such as Caesarean section.

Doris Gordon vehemently opposed state control of medicine. From about 1922 the Department of Health launched its 'safe maternity campaign', which included improving the qualifications of midwives and maternity nurses and a closer supervision of private hospitals and doctors. Gordon among others believed that doctors had to defend their interests against an interfering state. She was responsible for founding the New Zealand Obstetrical Society in 1927, which was 'conceived…to refute allegations that obstetricians were a forcep-interfering pest-bearing coterie'. As honorary secretary of the society, she organised a successful public campaign to raise money to establish a chair in obstetrics at Otago Medical School in 1931, and for the new Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in Dunedin, opened in 1938, at which students could gain practical experience. However, she applauded the Labour government's midwifery service. Introduced in 1938, this included free hospital deliveries for all women, attended by their own general practitioners but with specialist obstetricians available and 14 days' rest in hospital after the birth.

In 1939, during a visit to Britain, she discussed the idea of a postgraduate school for obstetrics and gynaecology in New Zealand with the distinguished gynaecologists Sir William Fletcher Shaw and John Stallworthy. Back home, Gordon accepted the post of director of maternal and child welfare in the Health Department from 1946 to 1948 primarily to work towards this goal. The postgraduate school of obstetrics and gynaecology was established at Auckland University College in 1947, and its hospital base, National Women's Hospital, was opened in 1964. Gordon's vision of a central institution for 'investigating feminine disorders and treating unusual cases', with smaller suburban maternity homes for normal births (based on her belief that maternity services were becoming 'colder, more impersonal, more mercenary'), was not, however, to be realised.

Throughout her career Doris Gordon had the welfare of mothers and children at heart. She believed her male colleagues in the Health Department did not know what they were talking about when they promoted natural childbirth and claimed that even stitches after a birth 'do not hurt much'. She wanted the same facilities available for all women, and was convinced that the best services were doctor-controlled. She also felt that childbirth was an ultimate experience for women: 'Chase all the careers you like…but you'll die a disappointed woman unless you marry and go down this awful, painful, glorious road of suffering that new life may come from you'. She considered motherhood a woman's duty and claimed that 'in the womb of British womanhood lies the Empire's progress and her strength'. In 1937, with Francis Bennett, she wrote Gentlemen of the jury, a book opposing indiscriminate contraception.

In 1925 Doris Gordon became the first woman in Australasia to gain a fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (FRCSE). She was made an MBE in 1935 and was elected to the British (later Royal) College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1936, becoming an honorary fellow of the college in 1954. At the time this honour had only been bestowed on 20 leading obstetricians in the world. She was the only woman outside royalty to be so honoured, and the only recipient in the southern hemisphere.

Doris Gordon died at Marire hospital on 9 July 1956, survived by her husband, three sons and a daughter. Two of her sons qualified in medicine and practised in Stratford, the other became a member of Parliament and a cabinet minister, and her daughter trained as a nurse. The second volume of Doris Gordon's lively autobiography, Doctor down under, was published posthumously in 1957. The first volume, Backblocks baby-doctor, had been published in 1955.

How to cite this page:

Linda Bryder. 'Gordon, Doris Clifton', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4g14/gordon-doris-clifton (accessed 24 April 2024)