Leslie Cecil Lloyd Averill was born in the vicarage of St Michael and All Angels, Christchurch, on 25 March 1897, the son of Alfred Walter Averill and his wife, Mary Weir. His father, the vicar, was later archbishop and primate of the Anglican church in New Zealand. Leslie began his education at William Wilson’s private school for boys in Cranmer Square in 1904, before entering Christ’s College as a day boy in 1908. When his father was appointed bishop of Waiapu in 1910, he and his elder brother Walter became boarders at Christ’s College. Leslie captained the second rugby XV and was selected for the first cricket XI. He was made house prefect and then school prefect in 1915. He studied languages and Classics, and a good mark in Greek in the matriculation exam qualified him for the medical preliminary. His ambition to become a doctor was possibly fired by the scene of an amputation in a cyclorama of the battle of Gettysburg which he saw at the 1906–7 New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch.
Averill began his medical intermediate at Auckland University College in 1916, where he played in the first XV. When his friend Paul Clark volunteered for the First World War in 1916, so did Averill, despite parental qualms. After training at Trentham Military Camp, both succeeded in gaining commissions. An article in New Zealand Truth alleged that Averill had been given a commission because he was the son of a bishop, but in fact he had been placed in the top 7 of about 120 in an open examination. He left New Zealand on 8 February 1918 with the 34th Reinforcements and was posted as second lieutenant in the New Zealand Rifle Brigade at Brocton camp. After 12 days in hospital with measles, he joined the brigade in France in May.
Averill was awarded the Military Cross for exceptional gallantry and fine leadership during the assault on Bapaume in August 1918, where Clark was killed. However, the exploit for which he is best remembered is the capture of Le Quesnoy on 4 November. The Allies could not shell the old walled town because thousands of French civilians were sheltering within it. The New Zealanders found a lightly defended section of the 60-foot wall, and Averill was the first to enter the town from a scaling ladder. As the New Zealanders poured in the Germans surrendered, and Averill helped round up over 700 prisoners.
The war ended the following week and he went on leave to England. There he advised the official war artist, G. E. Butler, who was painting the entry to Le Quesnoy for the New Zealand government’s war collection. In 1923 Averill returned to Le Quesnoy with Marshal Joffre and Sir James Allen for the unveiling of the New Zealand war memorial, designed by the Christchurch architect Samuel Hurst Seager.
After serving briefly in the army of occupation in Germany, Averill won a New Zealand Expeditionary Force scholarship in October 1919 to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. There he was president of the athletics club and captain of the first XV (1922–23), and rowed for the university in 1921, gaining the rare distinction of a double blue. He qualified MB, CM in 1922, MD in 1924, and was elected FRCSE in 1925. By then he was engaged to a fellow medical student, Isabella Mary Wilkie Roberton, daughter of an Auckland doctor. She qualified MB, ChB in 1922, and Leslie returned to New Zealand to marry her in Auckland on 25 November 1925. They were to have three daughters and two sons. Isabel had been a house surgeon and locum but did not practise after their marriage, except for a few temporary positions. Instead she devoted her life to her family and her husband’s career. She was actively involved in the National Council of Women of New Zealand, the Girl Guides and Te Wai Pounamu Māori Girls’ College.
Leslie Averill had entered general practice in Christchurch by early 1926, with a particular interest in obstetrics and gynaecology. Horrified by the low standards and high death rates of the city’s many small nursing homes, he was instrumental in seeking Department of Health inspections, which resulted in several closures. In 1926 he was appointed to the first executive of St George’s Hospital, the new Anglican private hospital in Papanui, which opened in 1928. He held this position for the next 42 years, becoming chairman and licensee in 1941. Largely thanks to his energy and foresight, St George’s grew to become one of the South Island’s leading surgical hospitals. In 1929 he was appointed medical superintendent of St Helens Hospital, a post he filled with conspicuous success until 1962. That year the hospital moved to new buildings in Colombo Street. It was renamed Christchurch Women’s Hospital in 1968. Averill’s name appears on the foundation stone beside the main entrance.
In 1934 he spent a year in postgraduate study in the United States and Canada, partly at the Mayo Clinic, returning with many new ideas about surgery and patient care. His wider community service is indicated by his membership of the Rotary Club of Christchurch in 1939, and his appointment as a lay canon of Christchurch cathedral in 1943. (The latter position he held until shortly before his death.) In 1944 he became a member of the North Canterbury Hospital Board, and served as chairman from 1956 to 1974. This was a period of significant growth in Christchurch’s medical services, with the completion of Princess Margaret Hospital and the opening of the Christchurch Clinical School.
Elected a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1942, Averill became a chairman of its New Zealand council in 1951. He was president of the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association the same year. He took a close interest in Christ’s College, as president of the old boys’ association (1944 and 1957) and a fellow (1955–67). He was also a member of the board of governors of Christchurch College (formerly College House) from 1957 to 1975. In 1956 he became president of the Christchurch Blood Transfusion Service and vice president of the Hospital Boards’ Association of New Zealand, and held both offices for nearly 20 years.
Averill was appointed a CMG in 1961 for outstanding services to medicine and the community, and in 1968 the town of Le Quesnoy appointed him Citoyen d’honneur. In 1960 he was founding president of the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation, and from 1965 to 1974 he was a member of the Hospitals Advisory Council. He retired from general practice at the age of 70, and later began writing the history of St George’s Hospital. In 1973 the government of France appointed him a chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, and on a visit to Le Quesnoy in 1977 a new school and a street were named after him. In addition to two years as chairman of the Christchurch Clinical School council, he was involved in the Outward Bound Trust of New Zealand and was a member of the Lepers’ Trust Board. He died in Christchurch on 4 June 1981, survived by his wife and four children.
Averill’s obituaries paid tribute to him as a devout churchman and a dedicated physician, but failed to mention that he had a lifelong struggle to overcome an intense natural shyness. Always an optimist, he sought to bring out the best in those with whom he worked, even, at times, his opponents on the hospital board. He was a man of undoubted ability, quick decision and absolute integrity, respected by his colleagues and loved by his family. Once committed to a policy or decision, he could be single-minded in its pursuit, yet staff always found him a genial and supportive leader. For over 40 years he was a key figure in Christchurch’s hospital services and one of the city’s best-known medical men.