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Story: Roberts, Mary Louise

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Roberts, Mary Louise


Masseuse, physiotherapist, mountaineer

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

Mary Louise Roberts was born at Roslyn, Dunedin, on 17 February 1886, the daughter of Elizabeth Fletcher and her husband, Edward Roberts, a distinguished mechanical engineer. She attended Kaikorai School and entered St Hilda's Collegiate School in 1900, but her schooling was cut short by family obligations. Edward Roberts's prosperous career provided a comfortable life for his energetic, innovative children. Louie, as she was known, spent her spare time playing golf, gardening, swimming, horse-riding (despite an asthmatic allergy to horses), reading prolifically and discussing literature. She visited relatives in Melbourne and was an active member of the entertainment committee of St Hilda's Club. The Roberts family motto, ' Dum spiro dum spero' (Where there is life there is hope), was her guiding rule.

During the First World War there was an increasing demand for masseurs to help treat war wounded. Training courses, begun at the University of Otago in 1913, were based at Dunedin Hospital from 1915. In 1918 Louie Roberts undertook massage training at the hospital, and with support from her elder brother Edward gained her parents' permission to follow a career. She qualified as a physiotherapist the following year and was registered under the Masseurs Registration Act 1920. After working for three years in private practice with J. Renfrew White, a noted orthopaedic surgeon, in May 1922 Roberts was appointed masseuse and second instructor in the Dunedin Hospital Training School of Massage and Physiotherapy, with an annual salary of £300.

Roberts travelled to England in 1923 to further her training at St Thomas's Hospital, but returned home when her father died in 1925. In May that year she was appointed principal of the Dunedin Hospital school of massage, a position she was to hold until 1946. The only training facility of its kind in New Zealand, the school lacked adequate facilities and staff, largely due to the apathy of medical colleagues; economic depression and the difficulties caused by the Second World War added to Roberts's concerns. In the early 1940s she played a major role in planning a new building to house the school; it was completed in 1946. From 1940 she also acted as inspector of physiotherapy in the Department of Health, exerting a strong influence on the development of physiotherapy in hospitals throughout the country. To keep herself physically fit she walked to and from work, and until her retirement she also took part in her students' daily physical training sessions.

In middle age Louie Roberts took up mountaineering, finding the physical exertion, scenic grandeur and peacefulness a respite from her duties at work and home. Guided by Alec Graham and others, and accompanied by Annie Stevenson, Dora de Beer and Marion Scott, she climbed Mt La Perouse in 1932 and made the first ascents of Mounts Sybil (1931), Copland (1932) and Eros (1935), and Price Peak (1934). A founding member of the New Zealand Alpine Club's Otago section, she contributed several illustrated lectures and written reports of her climbs, and helped to pioneer the use of air transport to reach back-country valleys. An operation in 1935 and subsequent ill health appears to have curtailed her high climbing; in retirement her thirst for exploration was satisfied by several trips overseas.

Roberts retired in May 1946, having devoted 28 years to her profession; the following month she was made an OBE for her services to physiotherapy. From 1947 to 1953 she was a member of the Otago Hospital Board. She never married, and died at the Central Mission Home, Company Bay, Dunedin, on 27 May 1968.

Patient, persistent and dedicated, Louie Roberts excelled in both work and recreation. Besides her interest in theatre, fashion, literature, art, woodwork and car maintenance, she was a capable mountaineer with a penchant for rugged West Coast terrain. Her warmth, energy and knowledge assisted many students to attain international standards of practice in physiotherapy and helped to firmly establish the profession in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Pip Lynch. 'Roberts, Mary Louise', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4r21/roberts-mary-louise (accessed 23 July 2024)