Some of the Armstrong whānau today
His high school careers advisor told him he would be wasting his time if he chose to study medicine and he initially pursued a commerce degree at Victoria University of Wellington. However, after two years there, John Armstrong decided that accounting and economics weren't what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
After leaving his Wellington studies, he went labouring for a while in South Auckland and found that many of his colleagues shared their regrets about “what they could have been”.
Born in Ōtāhuhu, South Auckland to parents who were both doctors, his mother worked as Dr Elizabeth Coats-Earl and received a Member of the Order of the British Empire award (MBE) for her services to General Practice in the eighties.
“We used to get a lot of phone calls at home and it was easier as many folks asked for Dr Armstrong, so we knew that was for dad.” Sadly, his father Dr Benjamin Armstrong died in 1962.
Despite the vote of no confidence from his school advisor, rather than continue labouring, he applied to study medicine at Otago. However, written in red ink at the top of his application form was “not eligible” as it was now more than two years since he had matriculated (begun studying at university).
“I went and saw the then Otago Medical School Dean Robin Irvine and he said that if I got all A's I would get entry into medical school.”
John completed his first year at Otago, he did very well, but he didn't achieve all A's. He was feeling a bit disheartened, especially as he knew several of his classmates who'd been accepted into medical school had poorer grades than he did. He promptly complained to one of his friends who he says gave him a valuable life lesson by saying, “If you want to make a difference contact the dean, I don't want to hear about this anymore”.
So John contacted the University and said he thought it was unfair, and he was rung back directly by Professor Irvine.
“I am forever grateful to that man, he said I had made some good points and I would be up for reconsideration and a short time later I did get accepted into medical school.”
John says he thoroughly enjoyed his time at Otago. “I loved all my lecturers at Otago, but Robin Irvine was the one who listened to me, he heard my story and he was prepared to think outside the box, so if it wasn't for him I wouldn't have become a doctor.”
John was now married to Ata (nee Parkinson, they met after his first year at Otago and married in her hometown of Te Kaha in the early seventies).
They had their first child (Moehewa) while he was still studying in Dunedin. He and Ata found it was much cheaper to get a family loan and buy a house than to rent. So, the family lived not far from the campus at Ravensbourne.
Moehewa Armstrong has since had a career in rugby league and is currently an assistant coach of the Junior Kiwis.
“I enjoyed the University, I knew I had to work hard. If it hadn't been for all my family up here (in the North Island) I could easily have settled down there,” John says.
He moved to Rotorua as a house surgeon, with the intention of staying for a year and then working overseas. However, prominent local GP and fellow Otago alumnus Dr Tony Townsend MNZM (Member New Zealand Order of Merit) offered him a job at which he worked for 44 years. It was through his work (predominantly with local Māori) that John received his own recent award of the Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM).
“Its's a great honour particularly because I know that Te Arawa, the local iwi, had a great deal to do with it,” John says.
He worked closely with fellow Otago alumnus and 2023 MNZM recipient Wallace Bain (LLB, 1978) on making improvements to the management of sudden unexplained deaths, especially amongst Māori in the Bay of Plenty.
“It was culturally insensitive for Māori to be cut up and also for the body to be taken away from their family in the early stages of grieving.
“While I was on the board of Te Kahui Hauora o Te Arawa in the early 2000s there was a complaint about a post-mortem. When a certificate was not forthcoming and the coroner thought that it was a natural causes death, we worked out a system of a probable cause of death certificate, which Wallace would sign (thus reducing the need for post-mortems).
“I have to acknowledge his (Wallace's) very proactive approach to this.”
John says there's still an issue of GP availability to sign off death certificates and thus reduce the need for a post-mortem.
“The majority of doctors felt they couldn't sign off a death certificate, if they didn't know the patient's medical history and most felt there was a timeframe within which they had to see a patient for when they could legally complete this (which is untrue) and they felt that if they put down something that was incorrect, they could be legally challenged, which is not the case.
“So, Wallace started up a system of educating GPs and there was a huge drop off in the number of Māori needing to go for post-mortem and Wallace was also very proactive in hunting down the GPs to ensure that they signed off the death certificate, without the need for a post-mortem.”
It was recognition of the tireless work of both John and Wallace to improve the handling of sudden deaths and the reduction in the stress on families that prompted their award nominations.
John has three children and 10 grandchildren. He doesn't have any other family ties to the University of Otago, but his daughter Tawa Hunter made an even later choice to pursue medicine and went to the University of Auckland to study it in her late thirties. In 2021 she was awarded Aotearoa's Junior Doctor of the Year. His other son is Whangārei based Māori Land Court Judge Mīharo Armstong.
John Armstrong at Medical School in the seventies
His whole family are coming down to Wellington for the MNZM investiture in May.
Finally, in terms of current changes to Māori health management, he says, “I just want to applaud the move towards giving Māori the right to have governance over Māori health. I think it's going to be huge and I just hope that it continues.”