Eily Elaine Gurr was born in Thorndon, Wellington, on 8 November 1896. She was the only child of Norman Leslie Gurr, an insurance agent, who was later a manager with the New Zealand Insurance Company, and his wife, Eily Maude Ringwood, a former teacher of physical culture. Elaine spent her early childhood at Oriental Bay and Roseneath in Wellington but by 1905 her family was living in Dannevirke. She was educated at Woodford House as a boarder, and later at Wellington Girls’ College. Horrified by accidents at sawmills in the bush settlements of Hawke’s Bay, she decided to pursue a career in medicine. In 1916 she enrolled at the University of Otago, graduating MB, ChB in 1923 along with 10 other women.
After spending 1923 as a house surgeon at Timaru Hospital, Gurr did postgraduate work at the Coombe and Rotunda hospitals in Dublin, qualifying as a licentiate in midwifery. Later appointments at the Royal Free Hospital and Chelsea Hospital, London, provided instruction in the new field of antenatal care.
On returning to New Zealand Gurr was asked by the minister of health, Maui Pomare, and the director general of health, T. H. A. Valintine (a relative), to set up the country’s first antenatal clinics at the St Helens hospitals and other maternity hospitals. She was duly appointed in October 1924 as officer in charge of antenatal clinics in the Department of Health at Wellington. By March 1927 she had established 20 public antenatal clinics, all but two in the four main centres. Assisted by Winifred Wise, a nursing sister, she trained midwives and Plunket nurses in antenatal work, as part of the 1920s campaign for safe maternity. An exponent of the latest eugenic ideas, she believed that women, as the present and future mothers of the race, had the responsibility for rearing children who were physically and mentally sound.
After a brief transfer to the Division of School Hygiene, Gurr spent 18 months from 1929 in country practice on the East Cape, where she was also responsible for surgical, medical and maternity care at Te Araroa Hospital. Her ability to ride a horse proved useful when making calls because of the lack of roads in the area. She performed operations on the floor of a shearing shed, and stayed overnight in pa on the East Cape, where she ministered to Maori suffering from asthma and tuberculosis.
However, feeling isolated from professional developments in medicine, she moved to Auckland, and in 1932–33 set up practice in Symonds Street. There she built a surgery and home and practised for 30 years, specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology. Services for women and children were much in demand from a woman doctor, including antenatal care and baby clinics. She continued her association with the Plunket Society, whose rooms were close by and whose nurses were often her patients.
Gurr also served as anaesthetist for Auckland surgeons. During the Second World War women doctors had to take on extra duties and she found night calls ‘a frightful business’ because of the blackout. She worked for the St John Ambulance Association as a lecturer and examiner in first aid and home nursing, becoming a life member in 1952 and an officer in 1954. After the war, in Denmark and Sweden, she undertook more postgraduate work in the new speciality of endocrinology.
General practice was Gurr’s life. She believed that home and family were the foundations of New Zealand and that the general practitioner had a crucial role to play as family guardian. Home visits allowed the doctor to meet both husband and wife, and to encourage preventive measures such as children being vaccinated. An advocate of holistic medicine, she abhorred specialisation for its tendency to lead to the loss of such contact. In 1983 she was made an honorary fellow of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners.
Gurr lived modestly. She never married, and invested her income in shares, becoming a major benefactor in her retirement. She endowed in perpetuity chairs of general practice at Otago (1983) and Auckland (1988) schools of medicine. An animal lover, she became a life member of the Auckland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and through her trustees provided the salary of a veterinarian for a new animal hospital in Auckland in the 1980s. She also donated life-saving gear to St John Ambulance, while the Salvation Army received an endowment for a ward at their rest home in Browns Bay so that the destitute elderly would not have to leave the home for the unfamiliar environment of a hospital.
In her retirement Elaine Gurr lived at Torbay on Auckland’s north-east coast. Known for her proper but kindly and forthright manner, she died at home, aged 100, on 12 December 1996. Her patients were her family to the end.