Some history from Palmerston North Hospital: 130 years on

November 2023 marks the 130th anniversary of Palmerston North Hospital.

Some history from Palmerston North Hospital: 130 years on
Palmerston North, Manawatu District, including hospital, 1947 (cropped). Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-06243-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/30644176

The hospital began with the council purchasing a 10-acre block on Ruahine Street in 1890. By 1892 the hospital was built for a cost of £3700, and on 27 November 1893 the hospital opened its doors.

The first matron | Ellen Dougherty was employed at the hospital as its first matron in 1893. Some nine years later in 1902 she became the first registered nurse in Aotearoa New Zealand (and the world) when the Nurses Registration Act came into law. This was recognition for her years of work. Ellen had begun her nursing career in 1885 at Wellington District Hospital and worked her way up to acting matron.

Wellington’s loss was Palmerston North’s gain, for when she was passed over for the permanent position of matron, Ellen made the move north. Palmerston North Hospital was brand new and undersupplied. Ellen’s first actions were to organise working bees with her relatives sewing to provide the hospital with bandages, sheets, and pillowcases.

Assisted by two nurses and two part-time medical officers, the job was incredibly demanding. The nurses worked 12-hour shifts and many times Ellen set broken limbs, dressed wounds, and even amputated limbs. Due to her work in the hospital’s dispensary, Ellen was formally registered as a pharmacist three years before she became a registered nurse!

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Erena Mere Taare Papi (David Warnock Medical Museum)

Nursing firsts | Erena Mere Taare Papi was the first registered Māori nurse at Palmerston North Hospital. She graduated in 1913 along with six other nurses.

The first male nurse graduate, David Carr, started at the hospital in 1947. In an interview with Wendy Maddocks, author of The Right Girls, A History of Palmerston North Hospital School of Nursing 1895-1986, one of his female colleagues remembers he dealt with male patients’ care and was well liked among the staff and patients at the hospital.

It was only in 1939 that the Nurses and Midwives Act was amended to allow for the registration of men as nurses, though they were registered on a separate Male Nurses Register and received different training than female nurses. Not only was their training a year shorter than women, but they also received no education on how to care for women or children – they were ‘male’ nurses in every sense of the word; men who were trained to nurse men.

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Palmerston North racecourse, 1949. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-21181-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22733639

Equipment and facility firsts | The first ambulance to service the hospital was put into operation in 1901, and it was horse drawn! It was not until 1914 that the first motorised ambulance was purchased. As the 50-year anniversary of the hospital fell on 1944, commemorative events did not take place due to the Second World War. However, the first swimming pool was built at the hospital in place of the planned events. Palmerston North Hospital was the first hospital in the North Island to have a cobalt unit established, in 1957. Cobalt machines were used in cancer treatments.


Influenza outbreaks | The end of the First World War saw influenza making its way around the world. Returning soldiers brought the flu back to Aotearoa and Palmerston North Hospital did not have the capacity to accommodate all of those that were ill. One of the local racecourses was set up with 85 beds to help with the overflow of patients.

In 1942, another outbreak of influenza hit the city. Palmerston North Intermediate Normal School had opened the year before in 1941 and almost immediately was set up as a military hospital; the double-hinged doors of the main building allowed easier transport of stretchers. The 500 additional beds Intermediate Normal School had to support the hospital became overflow for those with influenza. Hospital staffing numbers were over 500, with 165 nurses.

Medical Museum | The medical museum opened at Palmerston North Hospital in 1980 by Dr David Warnock. He was a passionate collector of medical memorabilia, and the medical museum was on the hospital grounds until mid-2023. Click here to explore the museum’s collection.

Author Wendy Maddocks is currently working on the second edition of The Right Girls, A History of Palmerston North Hospital School of Nursing 1895-1986, which will be available for print on demand. Contact Wendy via the book's Facebook page.