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Settlers and Pioneers

20 — The Country Doctor

page 132

The Country Doctor

There is one class of pioneer whose labours and services to the rural communities have not yet been described in anything like adequate form—and that is the doctor. The medical men in the days of our beginnings were often men of true heroic spirit, who were confronted with difficulties scarcely to be imagined by the doctors of this highly scientific age, with its easy and speedy means of communication, its hospitals and all the apparatus of science. Travel was difficult and often dangerous, delays were many and unavoidable. One has seen the back-country doctor at work, riding his rounds, often over horrible sloughs of mud, miscalled roads, visiting widely separated patients, sometimes splashing through a flooded river, often reduced to the most primitive of makeshifts in the cause of healing. Accidents in the backblocks were more serious than they are now, when even aeroplanes can be called in to the aid of patient and doctor.

Sometimes, as on the wild West Coast of the South page 133Island, injured bushmen or diggers were carried by relays of their mates, over terrible tracks to meet the doctor who had been summoned by a horseman riding as hard as the nature of the trail would allow him, before the coming of that blessing that saved many a life, the telephone.

'He is the flower (such as it is) of our civilisation,' Robert Louis Stevenson wrote gratefully of the physician in his dedication of Underwoods. 'Generosity he has, such as is possible to those who practise an art, never to those who drive a trade; discretion, tested by a hundred secrets; tact, tried in a thousand embarrassments; and what are more important, Heraclean cheerfulness and courage.'

Stevenson had exceptional reason to express gratitude to the doctoring fraternity, in the Old World and the New; but there cannot be many people who have not good cause for like thankfulness to some physician or surgeon. And more especially the country practitioner in a district not yet out of its pioneering stage. The doctor is an altruist in practice as well as theory.

Riding along the up-country roads, we often met on his rounds the doctor of our district. A man he was beloved over all the countryside. No matter what the hour of the day or night, or the state of the weather, he was ready to set off in response to an urgent call. He was a thorough old sport, Dr William Blunden. I see him now in memory's eye, that big, page 134broad, jolly-looking Irishman, generously bearded, jogging along on his bay horse. He often had his double-barrel gun slung over his shoulder, or balanced across the saddle in front of him, and on his way home his saddle-bags held, as often as not, a rabbit or a hare or a pheasant, sometimes a duck from the creeks. Some of his friends joked with him about that gun. They wanted to know whether his treatment was not sufficiently deadly without taking his double-barrel along to finish the patients off. Was he afraid they might get away from him? The reply, delivered with a splendid brogue, was that he believed in killing two birds with one stone, and that, as his patients seldom could pay him, he had to pick up a meal with his gun along the road.

There was little ready money in the Waikato in in those early eighties, and that Trinity College man had often enough to take out his fees in a load of firewood, a few hundredweight of potatoes, or some oats for his horse, now and then half a sheep. Often he rode across the Puniu into the King Country, and, as his Maori patients never had any cash to pay him, he took utu by getting the lads to show him the best pheasant shooting grounds, or a clump of bush where pigeons were fat and plentiful.

The doctor had plenty of shooting in the Waikato, but not much of a living. A professional man needed some hard cash at times. He had to keep abreast of the times with medical books, and his medicine page 135shelves in the little surgery had to be replenished. There was a turn of luck at last, for the family baronetcy unexpectedly fell to the sporting doctor. He returned to his native Kilkenny, and he died there a few years ago, Sir William Blunden. He always spoke with affection, I have heard, of the country in which he had ridden some thousands of miles in his time; he remembered chiefly the good friends and the good sport.

Every bush and back-country region in New Zealand has its memories of such men. There were many excellent Army surgeons who settled in the country. A type of these was a surgeon and physician whose memory is held in high honour in Taranaki, the competent and popular Dr O'Carroll. 'Paddy O'Carroll' is often on the lips of the old residents of the province where he lived and toiled for the greater part of his life. His full name was a solacing charm in itself—Patrick Joseph Felix Valentine O'Neill O'Carroll. He was on active service with the colonial troops from 1863 to 1869, and after that he was Armed Constabulary surgeon and private practitioner. O'Carroll was a favourite with everyone, a hospitable, generous, humorous Irishman, beloved for his kindly and self-sacrificing character. He was in advance of his time in professional skill.

There was Dr Edward Waddington (who died at Masterton in 1903, aged eighty-four years); he was for many years the Government surgeon to the troops page 136in the Waikato. He arrived at Auckland in 1864, and within a week of his arrival he was surgeon in the army. Later he served with the Armed Constabulary and was also native medical officer, his appointment dating from 1873. He was a Military Surgeon before coming to New Zealand, and he saw service in the transport fleet to the Crimea, 1854-56. 'He was always engrossed in his profession,' it was written of him in New Zealand, 'money being no object, so long as he could relieve pain or distress, either European or Maori. He never considered himself, night or day, where there were no roads, or where such tracks as were formed were next to impassable.' Waddington was our first doctor on the old frontier and many a far-back family had reason to be grateful to him for his prompt response to a message for help from the remote farmhouse.