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Newman, James Lister


Geriatrician, medical superintendent

This biography, written by Ronald Barker, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was updated in February, 2013.

James Lister Newman was born in London, England, on 23 April 1903, the son of Kate Beck and her husband, Charles Arnold Newman, a solicitor. He was educated at Shrewsbury school (where he was an excellent classical scholar), and Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. He gained second-class honours in natural sciences before completing the clinical studies component of a medical degree at King’s College Hospital, London; he graduated MB, ChB from Cambridge University in 1929. Four years later he received his MD for a thesis on the relationship between thyroid function and mental disease. On 27 January 1932, at London, he married Margaret Cannon, a physiotherapist; they were to have two daughters and one son.

From 1931 Newman served as a medical officer of health at Southampton, London and Chichester. He continued his interest in clinical medicine, however, and in 1936 achieved his MRCP. During the Second World War he worked in the emergency services in Warwickshire and later assisted with preparatory work for an anticipated reorganisation of the health services. In 1947, seeing no immediate prospect of advancement, he emigrated with his family to New Zealand, where he became medical officer of health for Northland, based in Whangarei.

The work was not to his liking, and in 1950 he took a junior medical position at Green Lane Hospital to refresh his knowledge of clinical medicine. While there, he developed an interest in the care of the elderly, and in 1952 he became physician and medical superintendent at Cornwall geriatric hospital. He brought to this post a fertile mind and a new approach. He argued that the elderly frequently suffered from multiple illnesses, affecting the mind as well as the body, and that the social aspects of disease were often as important as the medical. In treating patients Newman employed a multidisciplinary team which considered all these factors.

His novel views, which required major attitudinal changes from health professionals, were not always met with approval by his colleagues and administrators. Yet his methods would enable more elderly to regain their independence and return to their own homes, ultimately reducing the number of long-term hospital residents. Although a mild-mannered man, criticism elicited occasional outbursts of moral outrage from Newman.

An outstanding clinical teacher, Newman turned Cornwall Hospital, previously an avoided area, into one of the most popular training posts for junior doctors. In 1953 he had become a member of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and in 1959 he was elected a fellow. That year he returned to Green Lane Hospital as medical superintendent and continued his work with the aged.

Away from the hospital he was an advocate for the elderly: he was a founding member and inaugural president of the Society for the Study of Ageing (later called the New Zealand Association of Gerontology) and an active member of the Auckland Old People’s Welfare Council (later renamed Age Concern Auckland). His medical interests extended beyond the aged, however. He contributed a weekly article to the New Zealand Herald , writing with clarity on various medical topics, and edited the New Zealand Family Doctor .

After his retirement from Green Lane Hospital in 1968 he remained active, assisting the New Zealand Blood Transfusion Services and the Disabled Servicemen’s Re-establishment League. He was fascinated by history and drew many of his lessons from the past. On a visit to the United Kingdom he examined many old almshouses, which he found supported his view that the elderly should be provided with independent accommodation close to amenities so that they could maintain normal activities and remain a part of the community. In 1968 he was founding vice president of the Civic Trust Auckland, which sought to preserve historic buildings, and was a founding member of the Auckland Medical History Society. He collected old apothecaries’ jars, which attracted so much interest that he donated the collection to the Ernest and Marion Davis Memorial Library at Auckland Hospital. In 1975 he was made a companion of the Queen’s Service Order.

James Newman died at Auckland on 17 October 1983, survived by his wife and children. He is recognised as the father of geriatric medicine in New Zealand. In 1982 he had written a brief, unpublished history of Cornwall Hospital and the development of geriatrics in New Zealand. His ideas had profoundly affected medical professionals, the public and the elderly. In summing up his own contribution to the care of the aged, Newman once remarked, with his customary modesty and puckish humour, that he was ‘a bit of a nuisance really, but a necessary one’.

How to cite this page:

Ronald Barker. 'Newman, James Lister', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000, updated February, 2013. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5n7/newman-james-lister (accessed 22 June 2024)