Page 1: Biography
Grant, Alexander McGregor
Surgeon, horse-racing administrator, racehorse owner and breeder
This biography, written by Bruce Ralston, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Alexander McGregor Grant was born on 29 July 1888 at Casterton, western Victoria, Australia, the eldest of four children of hotel-keeper George Grant and his second wife, Louisa Jeffreys. His mother died when he was seven. As a child he developed an interest in horses, which stayed with him throughout his life, and at 13 he mounted up for his first amateur race.
After completing a medical degree at the University of Melbourne in 1910, Grant moved to New Zealand the following year to take up a position as house surgeon at Auckland Hospital; in 1915 he became acting medical superintendent. During the First World War he served in France as a captain with the field ambulance attached to the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, then returned to set up a general practice in central Auckland. He was appointed honorary general surgeon at Auckland Hospital in 1920, serving until 1948, when he was made honorary consultant for life. In 1931 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. As a general surgeon his work was wide-ranging, although he is remembered particularly for the skill of his appendectomies and for the care he took to minimise both trauma and scarring.
Grant was also the doctor for King’s Preparatory School, near his home in Remuera, where he settled after his marriage to Edith Ellen Gill on 16 July 1918 at St Aidan’s Church. Strategically located between the two great passions of his life, the hospital and the Ellerslie Racecourse, Remuera was to remain his home for the rest of his life, and he became well known as a genial host.
Soon after his arrival in Auckland Grant had joined the Pakuranga Hunt, where he continued with some success as an amateur rider, and served as its deputy master from 1920 until 1965. He trained his first New Zealand horse, Pendoon, secretly in the hospital grounds, and rode it to victory at a hunt meeting at Ellerslie in 1914. However, few of his medical colleagues shared his love of horses: he later recalled that ‘The so-called social set were pretty snobbish and racing was looked down upon as a thing for villains’.
Grant’s long association with the Auckland Racing Club began in 1919 and he was elected to its committee in 1921. As a rider, he had a first-hand knowledge of the deficiencies in the Ellerslie track and was able to assist in the club’s programme of improvements. Grant became vice president in 1933 and was elected president in 1945. During his time the club introduced the photo finish, filming of races, and routine swabbing of horses, as well as building a new members’ stand. His retirement as president in 1968 was honoured by a special race meeting.
A member of the executive committee of the New Zealand Racing Conference for over 30 years, Grant was also an original member of the Totalisator Agency Board, on which he helped establish off-course betting, and served the New Zealand Hunts’ Association as president for 37 years. He owned over 100 horses in his time, many of them successful racers, although three attempts at the Melbourne Cup were unsuccessful.
Grant’s sporting interests ranged much wider than horse-racing. Before his arrival in New Zealand he had received a blue in Australian rules football, and won cups for running. He was also patron of the Auckland Cricket Association from 1952, and a long-serving member of the Eden Park Trust Board. His service to both horse-racing and medicine was recognised by his appointment as a CBE in June 1963.
Grant was a man of impeccable manners but also good humour, and he enjoyed telling ribald stories. He mixed widely in professional circles as well as at all levels of the horse-racing industry, happily putting his ‘backside on a bucket’ and yarning with the stable-boys. His character was summed up by the governor general, Sir Arthur Porritt, at the dinner held for Grant’s retirement from the Auckland Racing Club: ‘a fearless sportsman and a superbly skilful surgeon who never lost the ability to be human’.
Known widely and affectionately as ‘The Doctor’, ‘Joe’ or ‘Grantie’, he died at his Remuera home on 25 June 1973 and was cremated at Purewa cemetery; his wife had died in 1956. Their son, Jack, succeeded his father on the committee of the Auckland Racing Club and continued the family involvement in horse breeding and owning.