A visit to Whangārei Medical Museum

Opened in 2013 by Sir Jerry Mateparae, the museum is part of the Kiwi North Heritage Park complex.

A visit to Whangārei Medical Museum
Photographs framed by John Swinney. Part of the museum's collection, they are currently not on display to the public. Image used with permission.

On a Friday afternoon in September, I arranged to meet Dr John Swinney at the Whangārei Medical Museum. John is a retired anaesthetist and the founder-curator of the museum.

As ever, no matter how much time I allow for a visit, it is never enough. I spent more than two hours at the museum with John. He knows the collection inside out and speaks about every object with depth. He knows not only the history of the objects themselves, but also the history of their use in medicine.

John asked where I wanted to start. When I replied, “At the beginning,” he took me to a display case containing an original letter written by Florence Nightingale. The letter had been presented to the Northland Hospital Board by A.H. Reed, on behalf of the Alfred and Isabel and Marian Reed Trust and is a much-treasured part of the museum’s collection.

Due to John’s profession as an anaesthetist, the museum has a robust collection of related material. From bottles of ether, chloroform, and ethyl chloride from the 1840s, a Schimmerbusch mask from 1889 and a Yankauer mask from 1904, the origins of anaesthetic medicine are well represented.
Image Description
Some of the museum's anaesthetic collection. Image used with permission.

Alongside the anaesthetic collection objects is a commentary on early worldwide anaesthetic practice coinciding with colonisation following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, making tracing its use in Aotearoa difficult. Three Surgical Episodes from the Past (Roland O’Regan, 1966) purports the first anaesthetic procedure in New Zealand was administered in Wellington in September 1847.

The museum’s collection runs the breadth of medicine. From catgut sutures still in their glass containers, to early prosthetics made following the Second World War, to bowls for bleeding into, and for keeping leeches. Inside a display case that included amputation saws were small models of animals. When I asked John what they were, he said he had made them out of a material used during certain surgeries. He told me that by the time the material in his animals had hardened, it meant it had hardened enough for use in the surgery as well.

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The cottage hospital building was moved into the museum for its opening in 2013. Image used with permission.

A highlight of the museum is the incorporation of a cottage set up as a hospital. Inside are rooms for surgery, convalescence, cleaning and sterilising equipment, a nursery, and a dentist. Each are set up to allow visitors to wander through, though you can look through the window into the surgical suite if you prefer. A particular find inside the cottage was a roll of hospital toilet paper – despite being described on the label as hygienic and ‘genuine two process’ (two-ply, hopefully), it looked to be horribly scratchy. I had no idea that hospitals once had branded toilet paper.


There is a lot to see in the museum. But there is even more behind the scenes just waiting for display space to become available, including some amazing photographs. John has learned how to frame photos and there is a growing number on the walls in the offices. There is even more waiting to be framed. Luckily, some space next to the museum has been made available and one of the volunteers has spent time plastering the walls. John has said once it’s ready, it will become another area for display. Fingers crossed all the things I was shown behind the scenes will be available to the public soon.

The museum is open on Wednesdays or by appointment. If you’re an enthusiast, then by appointment is the way to go. I had John with me speaking almost non-stop for more than two hours and I learned so much. If you are at Kiwi North on a Wednesday, head out into the park following the large maps and make your way to the medical museum.