René (Renee) Mary Shadbolt was born on 26 April 1903 at Duvauchelle, Akaroa Harbour, the daughter of Ernest Francis Shadbolt, a sheepfarmer, and his wife, Ada Mary Shaw. Her early years were spent in small rural communities in the King Country and Waikato where her father, one of New Zealand's most colourful and compulsive litigants, farmed with no lasting success. His eldest daughter inherited his gift for robust dissent and debate.
Shadbolt began nursing training at St Helens maternity hospital in Auckland in 1927. She later undertook general nursing training, graduating in 1932, and completed her midwifery training in 1935. Subscribing to no particular political programme, and never to a political party, she had a healthy and sometimes waspish suspicion of her fellow human beings. (So far as she was anything, she was a theosophist.) She was, nevertheless, nudged leftward by the urban misery of the depression years. What dismayed her most was the reluctance of doctors and fellow nurses to treat those left bruised and bleeding by police batons after street marches and riots.
In 1936 René Shadbolt was head sister of the casualty ward at Auckland Hospital. She gave active expression to her humanitarian commitments after civil war erupted in Spain. The military insurgents were supported by Germany and Italy; the republican government by the Soviet Union and the volunteer International Brigades. A New Zealand Spanish Medical Aid Committee raised money to send three trained nurses. Shadbolt was among the first to volunteer, and was appointed leader of the team. With Isobel Dodds and Millicent Sharples, she left in May 1937, but only after being questioned by police. René was accused of being the secretary of a communist cell: 'I've never been even a secretary of a tennis club,' she told her inquisitors. They eventually sailed on schedule for Spain, leaving political controversy behind.
Arriving in Spain in July 1937, Shadbolt and her companions were soon nursing wounded and dying soldiers and civilians in Huete, near the front line. They were never far from bombardment, and Sharples was hit by shrapnel while driving an ambulance. A commandeered monastery served as a hospital. The wounded came in by the truckload; ambulances were few and drugs short. Amputations were carried out around the clock until limbs requiring removal exceeded the supply of sterile instruments and clean bandages. The morning medical round consisted mainly of selecting who was to live and who to die.
It was impossible to remain neutral, as they were supposed to, in such circumstances. The New Zealand nurses discovered themselves bound by military discipline: they were enrolled in the army of the Spanish Republic and given officers' rank. Shadbolt appears to have decided that it was no time for quibbles; Spain's anguish came first.
In early 1938, during the Jarama offensive, with German dive-bombers darkening the skies, the three were hurriedly evacuated, and made a dramatic escape to Barcelona. There, and later in Mataró, they continued tending the wounded, especially the men of the International Brigades. This brought them in touch with a war within a war, as anarchists, socialists and Trotskyists were imprisoned and executed by communists acting on the orders of Joseph Stalin. The New Zealand nurses found themselves under suspicion. Their mail was rigorously censored or destroyed, and they had no means of getting a message out to New Zealand to warn their well-wishers that they were now possibly in peril. Shadbolt worked to establish their anti-fascist bona fides by involving herself in propaganda work, travelling to Madrid to join in radio broadcasts calling for humanitarian help from the international community. It never came.
Her commitment intensified after her marriage in Mataró, on 23 September 1938, to a young anti-Nazi German named Willi Remmel, an officer in the Ernst Thälmann battalion of XI International Brigade. New Zealand backers of the nursing team were never to learn of her marriage; even her family were to know only the little she occasionally confided.
In late 1938 the International Brigades were disbanded. The republic, hoping (without success) to secure British and French intervention, wished to be seen battling alone against fascism. Dodds and Shadbolt arrived back in New Zealand in January 1939, Sharples having returned earlier. In Auckland there was a rousing mayoral reception. Attempts to belittle them as communist dupes failed. After a lecture tour, Shadbolt concentrated on winning permission for her husband to join her in New Zealand as a war refugee. Politicians, with the notable exception of John A. Lee, heartlessly looked the other way. Willi, after the collapse of the republic, crossed the Pyrenees only to find himself behind barbed wire in a French internment camp. His eventual fate is unclear. After General Franco's victory in the civil war, all civil marriages contracted in the republican period were annulled. René and Willi were no longer husband and wife.
For a time Shadbolt was shunned in her profession as dangerously political. Nevertheless, she found work at a private hospital in Martinborough. During the Second World War experienced nurses were needed regardless of their views. Besides, Shadbolt could now be seen as a premature anti-fascist. She worked at an Auckland convalescent home for returned soldiers, and at Auckland Hospital.
She married a mild-mannered bank official, George Galbraith MacLennan, at Gisborne on 2 March 1944; this unlikely liaison lasted less than a month and they divorced in 1955. In 1949 she became matron of Hokianga Hospital, at Rawene. The rather anarchic atmosphere evidently suited her. She remained matron until 1967. After impassioned representations from the people of Hokianga, she was made an MBE in 1969. In 1982 the Renee Mary MacLennan nursing scholarship was established to provide an annual grant to a nurse from the Hokianga area. She remained a formidable figure – in anti-nuclear demonstrations, for example – until the end of her days. Following her death on 16 August 1977 at Henderson, she was widely mourned as a brave and remarkable woman.